The Telegram, 1844-2006.

I noticed in my local newspaper the other day that Abraham Lincoln's email system had just been shut down after 150 (or so) years of service. No kidding, the telegraph system is now defunct. I'm not exactly put out by the termination of Western Union's telegraph service, but I do think it's worthy of a bit of consideration in today's Internet context.

Invented in 1844 and built on top of Samuel Morse's eponymous coding system, the telegraph system was used by generations of people to send short messages to friends, family, and colleagues for all sorts of purposes. My father, for example, sent a telegram -- which I still have -- from a Royal Air Force base in England to my grandparents in Pretoria announcing my birth many years ago.

Transmitted messages were converted into a series of dashes and dots before being sent by the system's operators. Workers at the receiving station then converted the dashes and dots back into alphabetical characters and delivered the message themselves to its rightful recipient. It was, without a doubt, a form of electronic mail. As such, it's interesting to compare this long-lived system with our current email system, which many claim is facing imminent extinction due to spam, phishing, and the like.

Just what qualities did the telegraph system have that enabled it to live for so long? More to the point, what security ramifications should we consider? Surely there is value in considering the security of an email system that survived for so long.

Before we do, though, it is worth pointing out that the telegram's passing appears to be due entirely to it losing the popularity war vs. today's email and fax systems, and not because of any underlying technical flaw per se. At its peak in 1929, Western Union's telegraph system saw more than 20 million telegrams pass through it, whereas in 2005 only some 20,000 telegrams were sent.

Now let's consider those security ramifications...

When telegrams were sent and received, it was typically (at least in its first 100 or so years) done via the local Western Union office. That is to say there was always some level of trust in the station where the message was sent from and to. That's certainly not the case with our email systems today. Even though many ISPs require end users to send outgoing mail through the ISP's own email (SMTP) servers, many don't. Additionally, let's not discount all of the webmail services that bypass this mechanism entirely. Likewise for receiving email, ISPs provide mailbox services via POP3 and IMAP, etc., but many users (myself included) prefer to use our own domains for incoming email.

So email services in the Internet context are far more distributed than those for the telegram services were. But was there really much security to be gained from having the sender identify and authenticate himself at the Western Union office? Perhaps some, but probably not all that much, truth be told.

However, another fundamental difference between the two systems is that the sending party paid for the message to be sent. To my knowledge, the telegraph system had no equivalent of a flat-rate account that allowed people or companies to send an unlimited amount of messages for one set fee. Before I go any further here, I should point out I am not advocating email fees per message sent. But I will say we'd likely have a lot less spam and other unwanted trash in our inboxes if the sender had to pay to get those messages there.

And then there's probably the biggest issue -- active content.

I doubt anyone ever sent an executable file, Trojan horse, key logger, or even a jpeg image to another person via telegram. I even doubt any form of ''ASCII Art'' was practiced over telegrams, but would concede that point if pushed. I suppose one could have sent a telegram to another person with deliberately misleading information (e.g., ''BE SURE TO BUY A MILLION SHARES OF {INSERT NAME OF NOW DEFUNCT COMPANY} WITHOUT DELAY STOP''), but that could hardly pass for one of the automatically executed vermin that roam the Internet today.

It is here the telegraph system enjoyed what is no doubt its principal security advantage over our modern day email. Active content in our email today probably accounts for a massive percentage of the virus, worm, and Trojan horse infections in the world. But who among us would be content with email systems that prevented us from being able to send and receive active content to our friends, customers, and colleagues? No, I'm afraid the whipped cream is quite thoroughly out of that can.

Realistically, I think the best we can hope for in this regard is to find a safer way of running, playing, or viewing the email content people send us.

Save for the nostalgic among us, I seriously doubt many people will miss the telegraph. Despite all of its faults, Internet email is still the cheapest and quickest form of written electronic communications available to most people today. The ability to type one's own message, press the send button, and have it appear on the desktop of its recipient -- perhaps halfway around the world -- in a second or so has given us an unprecedented level of communications I, for one, find exhilarating.

But what hath we wrought?