Latvian telegraph still going strong after 158 years | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 23.11.2010
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Latvian telegraph still going strong after 158 years

While many countries around the world have given up the telegraph, it's still in use in the Baltics. Ordinary residents can send them via Latvian Post, while Latvian Railway continues to use them to post speed limits.

Latvijas Pasts (Latvia Post) is where Latvians go to send telegrams

Latvijas Pasts (Latvia Post) is where Latvians go to send telegrams

Despite the wide prevalence of e-mail and mobile phones, and the demise of the telegraph in most parts of Europe, some Latvians, including the state railway, still use the telegraph as a primary means of communication.

This month, Latvia celebrates the 158th anniversary of the arrival of the electric telegraph in their country.

The telegraph service is operated by the national company Latvijas Pasts (Latvia Post).

The first Latvian telegraph was sent on Nov. 1, 1852

The first Latvian telegraph was sent on Nov. 1, 1852

Karīna Jankovska, manager of production development at Latvia Post said that around 200 telegrams continue to be sent within the Baltic country every month, or almost seven per day. In addition, there are approximately 140 telegraphic messages being sent to foreign countries and about 300 international telegrams are being received in Latvia on a monthly basis.

The authorities say that the service is still important for those Latvians who want to stay in touch with their friends or relatives abroad. They mostly send telegrams to the former Soviet republics like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The telegraph also allows sending and receiving of official documents, like visa declarations.

Alternative to e-mail

Telegrams, which cost just 0.80 Latvian lats (1.15 euros) for a domestic message, can be sent from every post office across the country. One just has to ask the postman for a telegram form and fill in the required information: the name and surname of the sender, the address of the recipient and the message.

However, Latvia Post admits that the small number of messages that are sent tend to be sent almost exclusively by older Latvians who do not use e-mails nor mobile phones, and by those who prefer it for nostalgic reasons.

Latvian Railways continues to use the telegraph for everyday operations

Latvian Railways continues to use the telegraph for everyday operations

"For example, one can easily send a wedding invitation," Jankovska added. "The sender simply has to write the text and pay extra seven cents for each written word. I think that most of the people use telegrams nowadays because it is interesting."

Forget about Morse code

The first public electromagnetic telegraph line in the territory of Latvia was opened on November 1, 1852. The line connected the capital city of Riga with Bolderāja, a nearby residential town. It was the longest civilian telegraph line in the Northern Europe at the time and the first telegram was sent in German.

But the telegraph technology has changed greatly during the years. Latvia Post doesn’t employ any vintage telegraph equipment used in the old days in order to provide the telegram service.

All the telegrams are now being sent by computer over the Internet using a special e-mail system between the post offices. The message is printed out with a printer and then delivered to the addressee by the postman the following day.

Meanwhile, the telegraphic messages are being used in business as well.

The telegraph remains a bit of an anachronism in modern-day Riga

The telegraph remains a bit of an anachronism in modern-day Riga

The Latvian Railway still uses teletype to communicate between the stations, freight senders and the ports. For instance, the company utilizes the old-fashioned technology in situations when any speed limitations have to be imposed on the railway network.

"We don’t have yet [this] so-called e-signature," said Antra Birzule, a Latvian Railway spokesperson. By contrast, Latvia's northern neighbor, Estonia, has had digital signatures and publicly-provided encrypted e-mail for almost a decade.

"Those documents sent by teletype are documented as an official document. If it’s just an e-mail it doesn’t work yet in Latvia at such a high level because in the railway, the key issue is safety. So, we still rely on the teletype."

Special place in Latvian history

Many Latvians are either unaware of, or have forgotten the telegraph's key role in Latvia’s fight for restoration of its independence back in January 1991. The Soviet political and military forces tried to overthrow the Latvian authorities by occupying important governmental institutions.

"When the telephone lines were shut down by the KGB, the so called Telex Central was still operating," explained Ļevs Datelis, a Latvian telecommunications engineer and expert on Latvian telegraph history.

"The Soviet secret police didn’t pay much attention to it and the Latvian politicians used it for communication. It also enabled them to communicate with foreign countries."

However, despite this history, Karīna Jankovska of Latvia Post added that even though the telegram service doesn't lose money, the company plans on shutting down the telegram service by 2015.

Author: Ģederts Ģelzis, Riga
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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