We often think of spam as a product of the internet age, a modern phenomenon that evolved alongside email. But it turns out that the large-scale distribution of unsolicited advertising and promotional messages predates email. In fact, spamming appears to have originated in the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph machine.
The Telegraph revolutionized advertising, making it possible for companies to send their ads in bulk for the first time. But the wannabe spammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t always understand the intricate new invention. For this reason, in 1928 Nelson E. Ross published How To Write Telegrams Properly, a pamphlet that outlines the proper telegram style and explains how to send thousands of telegrams containing the same message at once.
The manual reads:
If you want to send the same telegram to 20 different people, or 200 or 2000, there is no need to prepare 20, 200 or 2000 separate telegrams with a significant investment of time and money. All you need to do is make a copy of your message and provide an address list. At no additional cost, the telegraph company prepares messages for separate processing, with the same speed and accuracy as filing a single message. Such “books” of telegrams, as they are called, are often sent by business establishments to make customers a special offer, or in the account collections. The largest number of copies ever submitted by a single company at once is said to have been more than 200,000 telegrams. They were sent from New York City. Such a deluge of news would place a significant strain on the world metropolis’ facilities, but fortunately several hours’ notice had been given and operators were being held for emergency service.
Although Ross’ handbook was published in 1928, The Economist reports that the first known case of telegram spam actually dates back to 1864, when a group of British politicians received nightly telegrams advertising a local dental practice run by ” Messrs Gabriel” was operated. One politician was so outraged by the act that he turned to Lothefull text of Ross’ Handbook for more telegram tips and more insight into early 20th century communications technologies.