History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
When the 1866 Atlantic and the recovered 1865 cable were opened for business, rates between London and New York were set at a minimum charge of £20 for a message of up to 20 words, with each word being an average of five letters. Additional words were charged at £1. Within three years this had been reduced to £3 7s 6d for a 10 word message, with a similar reduction for additional words. In 1872 a flat word rate was brought in and this was gradually reduced until 1884 when it was 1s 8d per word.
This was to be the pattern throughout the cable networks as they spread worldwide. Where competition existed, prices were low, but without competition rates remained high. The only other services offered at this time were urgent telegrams at double the full rate, and press telegrams.
In 1884 the Commercial Cable Company, set up by John W. Mackay and Gordon Bennett in 1883, had the first of six cables laid across the Atlantic to compete with the Anglo American Telegraph Company. This resulted in the rate being reduced to 1s 0d and then a price war brought it down to 6d. Shortly after it went back up to 1s 0d. The final reduction, to 9d, came in 1923 because of competition from wireless.
A similar situation to that across the Atlantic existed within the network serving the British Empire. In 1890 rates from the United Kingdom were: to Australia 9s 6d, New Zealand 10s 6d, South Africa 8s 11d, Gold Coast 8s 0d, British Guiana 14s 1d and the West Indies 11s 11d. Calls were made for the cable companies to be nationalised to help bring down costs. In the end the various Dominion governments set up a committee to come up with ideas on what to do.
For examples of 20th century message rates, see this page on service from Australia to the rest of the world, 1913-1947.DEFERRED TELEGRAM
The first suggestion was for a Deferred Telegram which would be at half full rates. It took almost ten years to get the agreement of the various cable companies and the members of the International Telegraph Union, but during 1911-12 the service was gradually introduced. The conditions laid down for this type of telegram were: A minimum of five words must be paid for, they must be in plain language and in the language of the country of origin or destination or of a language specified by the relevant telegraph company. Deferred telegrams can be identified by the prefix, = LC = at the start of the message.
Variations on the prefix were:-
= LCO = Deferred Telegram in Plain English
Soon after the deferred telegram had been introduced the cable companies added a second reduced rate service, the Letter Telegram. This was charged at between one quarter and one third ordinary rates with the following conditions. A minimum of 20 or 25 words must be paid for and in plain language. The 25 word minimum only applied to Canada and USA. The prefix for these messages was = LT = or sometimes = DLT = or = NLT = indicating a day or night letter telegram.
A variation on the Letter Telegram was the Empire Social Telegram for use within the then British Empire and identified by the prefix = GLT =. This was a flat rate 12 words for 5s-0d service introduced on 1 May 1939. Messages could be sent free of charge on the first day.
See this 1951 GPO poster promoting the special rate: "Say It By Cable".
EUROPEAN LETTER TELEGRAM
Another variation was the European Letter Telegram which was limited to the continent of Europe including the United Kingdom, the prefix being = ELT =.
WEEKEND LETTER TELEGRAM
The third reduced rate service was the Weekend Letter Telegram at rates slightly below those of the Letter Telegram also with a minimum of 20 or 25 words paid for and in plain language. This telegram would only be delivered (posted) on the Monday following the day it was handed in. Prefix for this was = WLT =.
The Greetings Telegram was aimed at the Christmas and New Year period and provided a system of standard messages or a plain language message of a minimum of 10 words at varying rates depending on the destination. Special telegram and message forms were provided. The prefix for this service was = XLT =.
One other special rate service was the Expeditionary Force Message (EFM) for the use of members of the Armed Forces and civilians serving overseas, during wartime, as well as their families in both world wars. In the first world war, it was introduced in 1914, the rate was one quarter of the ordinary rate and in the second world war 2s-6d for a minimum of 12 words, with the service starting early in 1940. A list of messages with code numbers was provided and the sender could select three appropriate messages with just the code numbers being transmitted. The prefix for this service was = EFM =.
These reduced rate services were a great success and brought a considerable amount of new business to the cable companies. On many routes the number of messages exceeded the normal traffic. None of these special rate services would be transmitted until all ordinary messages had been cleared and they were normally posted on to the addressee
The Expeditionary Force Message service was also offered by Western Union and the Postal Telegraph Company in the United States during World War II. The Western Union message form below notes that the service was available:
A comparison of this form with the Cable & Wireless EFM form above shows that most (but not all) of the fixed texts are available on both forms, and the same text numbers are used.
As Western Union leased most of the transatlantic cables, many of the company’s EFM messages would have been sent over these cables in both directions, as would messages to and from British forces stationed in Canada. Messages from the USA to other parts of the world would also have passed through British cables along the way on many routes, so having the same text numbers as the British services would avoid any possible confusion in transmission.
The Western Union form has a pre-printed year in the date field: “194_”. According to a 1945 newspaper report, EFM service in the USA was introduced in June 1942, and by June 1945 over 10.5 million messages had been transmitted. The service was also available through the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, as reported in this news item from the Toledo Blade issue of December 19th 1942:
The Postal Telegraph form had a similar design to the others, but a somewhat different arrangement of the coded messages:
One of the reasons for introducing the Expeditionary Force Message service, along with the airgraph, was the amount of cargo space saved on aircraft by reducing the volume of paper messages sent around the world. A maximum nine-digit telegram (three text numbers) could convey almost as much information as a normal letter.
The Western Union EFM service was available at least through 1951, according to a newspaper report in December of that year.
Site visitor Abby Larsen has provided this image of an interesting Expeditionary Force Message form, which rather unusually has no company name. The reverse cannot be viewed in detail as the form is pasted into a scrapbook, but the wording that shows through the paper is headed "STANDARD EFM TEXTS" followed by the usual list of numbered messages in various categories.
As noted earlier in this section, EFM service in the USA was introduced in June 1942, and by the rules of Postal Telegraph and Western Union, the two cable companies providing the service: “Overseas servicemen have the same privilege of sending messages to their families at home.”
This undated message form has the address of a recipient in Portland, Oregon. The sender failed to follow the instructions to select “any one, two, or three of the numbered texts listed on reverse side of this blank”, instead writing in “M. XMAS” in the first text box.
The cost of the message, according to the form, was 60¢ + 9¢ tax.
Last revised: 23 August, 2023