Telegram Procedure.

I have a question about movies and telegrams. Every time someone in a movie sends a telegram, between every sentence or thought, they say “STOP”. Did this really happen, or was it just a movie device?

I called Western Union, the person I talked to said people didn’t do it anymore. She didn’t know why they used to do it. She guessed that it was to act as a period. Which would pretty much be my guess. But, I was wondering if that was true, and why stop was chosen.

Thanks for your help.


Don’t the british use “full stop” and “half stop” or some such words to signify a period and a comma? Perhaps that’s where the telegram STOP comes from.

I vote with Athena. I always understood it was because there was not “official” dot-dash pattern for a period, or, in British usage, a full stop. My Boy Scout memories of Morse code include letters and numbers but not punctuation marks. However, I’m sure current Morse code users (and you still have to pass a test for a ham radio license, yes?) have all the punctuation, etc. I’ll check it out and get back unless someone who already knows wants to jump in.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

Boy, this goes back a few years, but as I recall, ditdahditdahditdah (aaa) was used by us as a period and dahditditditdahditdah (bk) was sometimes used - probably wrongly - as a text break.
Us being the military and hams handling traffic.

I found a few Morse code websites and they all list codes for punctuation and imply that they always have had same. Several described something called Philips code, which was a sort of shorthand – a list of standard abbreviations that experienced telegraph operators would use. Given that the trend was to use abbreviations wherever possible, and that actual symbols for punctuation were available, I’m growing dubious that any telegraph operator would actually send the word “STOP” when a simple period would do.

Maybe it is an artifact of the reconstruction of the message – the message would have a period but the transcriber would write out “STOP”. Maybe it was to avoid confusion when the message was read aloud, but if so it must be a late addition – why would you send a telegram to be delivered over a telephone? I guess there was a time when telephony was a local service and telegraphy was the long-distance service. In that context it makes a little sense.

So my guess is that the STOPs were added to ensure correct reception of the message when it was read aloud. This would only have been a sensible thing to do for a short number of years, but my guess is that it is so suited to the dramatic setting of a movie that Hollywood picked up on it and perpetuated it far beyond its actual use.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

Remember, though, when Hollywood was portraying telegraphic messages, it was something that the audience was familiar with. It doesn’t seem likely they’d do something that no one had ever heard of.

Further, any written source from about the time (pre-WWII) indicates the word STOP was used to end sentences. Cartoons joked about it, too.

Telegraphs were probably read aloud even before the use of telephone service (and were read aloud after the phone was invented, since most homes didn’t have one). Western Union used messenger boys to deliver and read the messages.

Real answer – by the 1920’s, Morse Code was no longer being used for telegrams. 5-bit Baudot code (an ancestor of ASCII) was. That’s why those same old telegrams are physically composed of paper strips pasted to the form.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

As recently as 1979 I worked as a graveyard shift desk clerk in a hotel in Austin that was the after hours Western Union station (thankfully, because that was the only source of amusement). I had to learn to use and abuse the WU telex and it was drilled into me that we used STOP at every break between sentences. It was also drilled into me that whenever a transmission failed you kicked the machine onto its back on the floor before trying again. Oh well. At that point in time the STOP was obviously an artifact of previous protocols, it really made no difference. BUT, it was definitely part of the telegram experience.

I haven’t received, or for that matter, even seen, a telegram in years, but they were still in common use in the late 70’s. Most people associated them with the transfer of money or the arrival of bad news. The latter perception explains why I discovered a telegram is a poor why to ask a woman out.

I have a telegram that my mother received in 1945 and it uses the word STOP. I don’t know if that is what is sent or what was transcribed. The telegram also uses an actual , as well so…

Clarance Day recalled a time without telephones in “Life With Father.” His stockbroker Dad had a magnito crank near his bedroom. Give the crank a twirl and a Western Union Boy would appear to take your message.

I remember an old WU office in my hometown of years ago. IIRC there was no puncuation and the messages went out all caps.