I've seen/read numerous old telegraph messages. They contain a lot of spelled-out punctuation. Why didn't they simply have the most basic few characters as part of the code, or at least turn a "STOP" into "." and "QUOTE" into a '"' on the other end?

This might make it harder to read. The reason seems unlikely to be technical, because if they can transmit 26 letters as Morse code, they can also transmit more characters OR use special "code tags" formed by the existing ones. For example, the word "TCC1" could be short for "Telegraph Character Code 1", meaning a period, which is never displayed as a "STOP" in the final message.

Even if the reason was that they couldn't agree on a standard, it would still seem better to get the actual code "TCC1" printed out rather than:


As opposed to:


Or (for telegraph printers supporting my theoretical standard):


Why did they not adopt such a scheme?

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    The Morse code (which is what you are complaining about) was invented about half a century before "machines that could remotely transmit messages across the world and print them out on the other end" were invented. – kimchi lover Feb 13 at 2:11
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    @DenisdeBernardy: That is incorrect Did you not even perform a search for "punctuation" on that Wiki page? – Pieter Geerkens Feb 13 at 2:48
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    To clarify for the misguided downvoters: Morse code has included codes for punctuation marks since its early days in the mid-1800s. The original code for a period was six shorts. This was changed to three groups of two shorts each around 1900 and to the modern iambic trimeter in the 1930s. See [here][1], referencing Dots and Dashes, vol. 35 nbr 3 (Summer 2009). While this isn't strictly an answer to the question, it addresses a related point about which a commenter and many of his upvoters seem ignorant, and doesn't fit in a comment. – C Monsour Feb 13 at 2:54
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    @DenisdeBernardy See the reference in my answer below, which gives plenty of detail. Morse code has included such characters pretty much from the start. – C Monsour Feb 13 at 3:00
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    Since the moderator who moved my answer to a comment didn't know how to copy the link to the reference, here it is: morsetelegraphclub.org/wirechief – C Monsour Feb 13 at 12:12

A 1928 booklet on HOW TO WRITE TELEGRAMS PROPERLY has this to say concerning the use of STOP (emphasis mine):

If it seems impossible to convey your meaning clearly without the use of punctuation, use may be made of the celebrated word "stop," which is known the world over as the official telegraphic or cable word for "period."

This word "stop" may have perplexed you the first time you encountered it in a message. Use of this word in telegraphic communications was greatly increased during the World War, when the Government employed it widely as a precaution against having messages garbled or misunderstood, as a result of the misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period.

Officials felt that the vital orders of the Government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word "stop," to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out "comma," "colon," and "semi-colon." The word "query" often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, "stop" has come into most widespread use, and vaudeville artists and columnists have employed it with humorous effect, certain that the public would understand the allusion in connection with telegrams. It is interesting to note, too, that although the word is obviously English it has come into general use In all languages that are used in telegraphing or cabling.

"Stop" is of course never necessary at the end of a message.

So the goal was clarity of the message.

Since there seems to still be some question about why the actual word STOP is being used, we can look at the Wikipedia article on Full Stop for more information:

The word period was used as a name for what printers often called the "full point" or the punctuation mark that was a dot on the baseline and used in several situations. The phrase full stop was only used to refer to the punctuation mark when it was used to terminate a sentence.

Again, clarity. A period had several uses, but the Full Stop is the proper term for the item terminating a sentence. No errors or misunderstandings, STOP meant the end of the sentence.

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    That explains why there had to be a delimiter, but not why the delimiter had to be a common English word. – Sneftel Feb 13 at 11:01
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    @WillihamTotland I'll try to explain again. The quote explains why it was useful to adopt an artificial convention in which a full stop was rendered as a sequence of characters rather than as a ".". But that sequence of characters could have been anything. Why choose a word which (among its many other uses) literally describes the replaced punctuation, rather than an invented sequence which would unambiguously describe it? – Sneftel Feb 13 at 11:14
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    ""Stop" is of course never necessary at the end of a message." -- ohh, that just sound like an invitation for truncated messages. Unless they had some surrounding framing to detect that, of course. – ilkkachu Feb 13 at 12:48
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    @Sneftel Well, it's a lot easier to garble "TCC1" into "TCC2" than it is to garble STOP into COMMA, so that's a plausible argument (but realistically, they probably didn't think of machine codes as a thing at that point). – user3067860 Feb 13 at 14:33
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    @Sneftel one advantage STOP enjoyed over your suggestions is that it didn't need parties to agree what the code would be. Properly crafted, a telegram containing STOP would be understood by a recipient who had been party to no such arrangement, simply because the full stop it represented would be the most straightforward interpretation of the English word employed at that point in the text. – Will Feb 13 at 18:38

Because telegraph was a manually routed transmission. Like the original Ethernet of the 1980's, one had long cable runs with stations tapping the cable along its length. Transmission to another station on the same cable run was single hop, but to a station on another cable run would be multi-hop.

Unlike Ethernet however, with it's automatic repeaters, telegraph had manual repeaters who would receive a message on one cable and retransmit it on another. For a Trans-Atlantic transmision this might involve several hops on each side of the trans-Atlantic cable:

  • Evanston to Chicago

  • Chicago to New York

  • New York to Belfast

  • Belfast to London

  • London to Paris

  • Paris to Rheims

  • Rheims to Verdun

In all these retransmits, there was a very real danger that single punctuation marks might get missed, thus garbling the message. By introducing distinct words such as STOP, COMMA, SEMICOLON for the punctuation marks a degree of redundancy - essentially error-checking - was introduced that made such errors vastly less likely.

That it was the military that first made this practice standard is not surprising. When giving orders, competent commanders go to great lengths to ensure that the orders are direct and unambiguous. An example of the consequences of even a simple failure, two orders arriving out of sequence, is well known from the first days of the 1809 campaign in Bavaria.

Napoleon sent a first message to Berthier from Paris by semaphore, which was delayed for more than a day by cloudy conditions near Strasbourg. Then he sent a second, more detailed, message by courier which arrived to Berthier first. As a consequence of the orders arriving out of order (but not being recognized as such), Berthier took the more general instructions as an amendment of the detail rather than the other way around - resulting in Davout's corps remaining at Regensburg two days longer than intended by Napoleon.

The ensuing correspondence between Berther and Davout is well described in Volume 1 of John H Gill's Thunder on the Danube, as the two marshals attempt to sort out, long distance, the true intent of Napoleon's orders.

Why only puncutation you might ask? Because normal language already contains a great deal of redundancy, both in spelling and grammar, as evidenced here:

It deosn't mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a word are, the iprmoatnt tihng is that the fisrt and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. And I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt

Finally - why were English words used instead of special code? Because the sender was charged for the message by the "word" - and every character of a "special code" was it's own word. And why was that you ask - because words can be processed faster and more accurately than special codes. Words, as noted above, contain error-checking redundancy that special codes cannot. The difficulty is not at the sending end so much as at the receiving end, where the receiver cannot utilize any obvious redundancy to ensure accuracy.

The consequential combination of both lower cost and improved accuracy (the whole point of replacing single character punctuation after all) meant it was never going to be useful, in the large, to use special codes rather than words.

Further examples of telegraphese and commercial (telegraph) code aimed at both decreasing cost and improving clarity and accuracy of telegraphed messages..

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Feb 13 at 15:23
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    This answer seems to fall prey to the same issue encountered with the other answer written by justCal-- it explains why a character sequence instead of a literal '.' was needed, but it does not explain why they used an English word 'STOP' instead of a codephrase for increased readability, such as 'TCC1'. – Onyz Feb 13 at 19:21
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    @Onyz: Addressed. I forget that many are not old enough to understand how telegraph worked - this point seemed so obvious to me as to hardly even be worth mentioning. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 13 at 20:21
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    That jumbling hing is not true anyway. The condition for first+last letters reduces the jumbling considerably due to the short words. And all used examples are only moderately jumbled anyway. Order the letters alphabetically and/or change syllable structure (e.g. by moving the vowels together), and longer words became very hard. ipmorantt is much easier to read than iaotmnprt. The point the answer is still correct, an error in a telegram will most likely only affect neighboring characters. And special codes require more mental work to recognize. – Chieron Feb 14 at 7:49
  • Either I remember it wrong or I was told once that people were charged per sentence for telegraphs, so they made one long sentence by leaving out all punctuation marks. But of course, now that I think about it again, that trick wouldn't have worked for long enough to still be a meme a century later. – Fabian Röling Feb 15 at 1:21

Telegrams were charged per word, and the "stop" and other punctuation marks were counted as a word. Spelling them out was a way to communicate that this was important enough to be charged for. It prevented arguments and inaccuracies of how much a telegram cost, and also prevented people from cheating their system by developing a code whereby combinations of punctuation marks would convey a meaning.

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    "and also prevented people from cheating their system by developing a code whereby combinations of punctuation marks would convey a meaning" - Not really, you can just as easily "cheat" by using a code where combinations of normal letters convey a meaning (aside from their normal meaning). Like "ADD SEVEN" could mean "Attack at Dawn, Seven days from now", if both you and your recipient have agreed to that code. – aroth Feb 14 at 1:18
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    All special characters, including the original punctuation marks, were a word and charged as such. There was no cost change by substituting "STOP" for ".". – Pieter Geerkens Feb 14 at 14:48
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    At least in the world of jokes, you could also sign your name to a telegram for free. "Oh, no message," says the college freshman; "just sign it 'Hellopop Pleasesendmoney.'" – Quuxplusone Feb 14 at 17:03

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