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How much did it cost to send a transatlantic telegram – if the specifics matter, say from New York to Berlin – in 1914? (Early 1914, before the war disrupted communications.) How much per word, and was there a minimum number of words?

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    I have just been googling and kind find nothing specific. We know it was very expensive, even by today's standards without inflation, when the cable was first laid and I wonder if technical improves in the subsequent decades made the price much cheaper. chart here shows a decline in price on domestic rates followed by an increase (no doubt inflation related): eh.net/encyclopedia/… – releseabe Mar 15 at 7:17
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    Expensive, if your name is Arthur Zimmermann. – Brian Drummond Mar 15 at 17:24
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    All these answers makes me wonder why they were so obsessed with words. Surely they still used morse code by then, making each letter more important. – pipe Mar 15 at 22:06
  • @pipe but then the number of symbols (dots and dashes) per letter is less for letters that are more common in words: "eats" is 7 symbols, but "zzyx" is 12, and interletter spaces are equal to 3 dots (1 dash) but interword spaces are 7 dots long. Yes, long words could be used to get your money's worth, but it's actually hard to save many words by using longer ones. – Chris H Mar 16 at 10:43
  • Alternative @pipe but then the number of symbols (dots and dashes) per letter reduces for letters that are commoner in words: "eats" is 7 symbols, but "zzyx" is 12, and interletter spaces equate to 3 dots (1 dash) but interword spaces are 7 dots long. Yes, verbiage could be used to get your money's worth, but it's actually hard to save many words by using sesquipedalia. [this is 5 words/4 characters shorter than the alternative version of this comment, which wasn't phrased like a telegram to start with] – Chris H Mar 16 at 11:25
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The first book google hit for "cablegram price" is The Bolsheviks: Twilight of the Romanov Dynasty by John D. Loscher which contains a discussion of the prices and comparison to today's money. If I understand it correctly, it is one shilling a word and "five letters in conjunction counted as one word". One shilling (1/20 of pound sterling) was $3.11 of "American money" at the time of writing (published 2009). So a fifteen word cablegram from England to America was worth $46.65 in "today's money".

According to this commerce report from 1915 the minimum charge for week-end messages from Australia to USA 12s2d ($2.94) for 19 words. Deferred cablegrams cost 1s2d (28 cents) per word and full-rate messages 2s4d (57 cents) per word. Note that s is a shilling and d is a penny. This citation agree with the rate in the first quote which was for 1914.

A thorough discussion of various pricing options is available in Cable Services by Bill Glover (link by Pieter Geerkens). It will explain what deferred and weekend, as well as other types of telegrams and the associated rates mean. They appeared just before the first world war. For example, the weekend telegram

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.

while the deferred telegram

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.

This link also affirms the rate as 1s0d per word. A reduction to 9d came in 1923 because of competition from wireless.

Further discussion of the evolution of the pricing agreements is available in The cost of a telegram: the evolution of the international regulation of the telegraph regulation of the telegraph by Alan J. Richardson (link also by courtesy of Pieter Geerkens). But I did not find the actual numbers for transatlantic cable messages there.

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    So a basic Twitter post could have cost up to about $100 in today's money... (and you could only send it to one address) – vsz Mar 15 at 16:24
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    History of the Atlantic Cable and Undersea Communications discusses the evolution of various discount rate schemes. Cost of a telegram discusses the evolution of the various treaty agreements between nations and colonies that enabled international telegraph communication. Ping me when you've added these links sensibly, and I will return and upvote. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 15 at 16:27
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    @PieterGeerkens I made some attempt. – Vladimir F Mar 15 at 16:49
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    Do you know where the plain language requirement stems from? I would recon, the telegram companies used their own shorthand, so they could transfer common English words in 2 or 3 letters and could only uphold their prices this way. Or was there some other reason like monitoring of communications ? – Falco Mar 16 at 10:45
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    @Falco if they were successfully compressing longer common words and charging on that basis, coded/pre-compressed text wouldn't compress further – Chris H Mar 16 at 11:28
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Partial answer.

Source for information would be postal agreements of the Universal Postal Union, where rates and conditions were set for international fees.

Telegrams fees were often based on a combination of local, (possible) transit and end country fees, which changed with time.

The rates are given in gold (French) francs (FF)

  • 1.25 FF = 1 Mark (M) = 1 Shilling = 1.17 Kronen (Austria- Hungry)
  • 20 M = 1 £ = 20 Schillings = 25 FF (Standard Gold coins)
  • 4.20 M = 1 US$
  • 1 US$ = 5.25 FF

In Germany the minimum was 10 words (or a base fee plus a word fee).

1 word had a maximum of 15 letters.

So finding a postal agreement valid 1914 should give you the needed information to work out a realistic cost.


Sources:

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Partial answer.

Here are the telegram rates from Austria in 1913, found on page 226 of Józef Czech's Krakow Calendar for 1913 (the rates in the 1914 edition are the same), expressed in Austro–Hungarian hellers (1/100 of a krone) for telegrams 3–30 words long and for each subsequent word. The telegram form cost 2 hellers. According to a table on page 223, 1 US dollar was worth 4.96 Austro–Hungarian kronen.

However, there are no trans-Atlantic rates in the table, whose columns read:

  • local, Principality of Liechtenstein, Austria, Hungary, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Germany
  • England, Ireland, Algeria, Tunisia
  • Denmark, Luxembourg
  • Bulgaria, Monaco, France, Corsica, Italy, Andorra, the Netherlands
  • Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Switzerland
  • Asiatic Turkey, Cyprus
  • Spain, European Turkey via Bosnia
  • Corfu via Trieste, Belgium
  • Malta
  • Norway
  • Portugal, Gibraltar
  • continental Greece, Poros, Euboea, European Russia, Sweden, Caucasus.

[Telegram rates in Austria]

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    This was probably from the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria rather than from Austria itself, though that was part of Austria-Hungary. – jcaron Mar 17 at 11:18
  • @jcaron I have trouble understanding what you wrote. 1) What did Galicia belong to if not the Austrian part of Austria–Hungary? 2) The postal rates were identical throughout the empire. – Marcin Ciura Mar 17 at 13:04

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