Sherlock Peoria

Telegrams

And Now,
A Short Message From
Sherlock Holmes

Technically, Sherlock Holmes was a big fan of e-mail.

“But wait a minute,” one might ask, “they didn’t have e-mail in the Victorian era, did they?”

Well, actually, they did. Sort of.

E-mail. Electronic mail. Mail sent via cables.

Sure, there wasn’t a computer at the end of the cable in Sherlock Holmes’s time. Instead of a machine decoding signals and passing it to a screen, a human being decoded signals and passed it to a delivery messenger. Both the screen and the delivery messenger then relay the message to the reader. One may be in binary code and the other in Morse code, but the old-fashioned telegram was, strictly speaking, electronic mail.

And Sherlock Holmes loved it.

“He has never been known to write where a telegram would serve,” Watson wrote of him. And why not? In the 1880s, when Holmes’s career as a consulting detective began, the telegram was the standard for swift, efficient communication. Lines connecting to America and Australia were in place, and it would be a long, long time before telephones would even start to put a dent in that industry’s dominance.

So whom did Sherlock Holmes send telegrams to? Watson, of course. And various members of various police forces, including Jacob W. Schmitt, the superintendent of police who served Cleveland, Ohio from 1871 to 1893. Did Schmitt know Sherlock Holmes? Did he think he was replying to the telegram of someone in London’s official police force? Since Holmes sent “reply paid” telegrams, it wasn’t costing Jacob Schmitt anything to answer, but one has to wonder if he answered all such requests for information via telegraph. (One also has to wonder if Schmitt ever realized the part he played in the case that would become famous as A Study in Scarlet.)

Of course, the Victorian version of e-mail was slightly more expensive than the modern version. When Holmes paid for “a five shilling reply,” he was paying close to twenty-five bucks in modern American cash. That, of course, added the a certain luxury cache to something both efficient and cool Holmes was doing anyway.

The next time you hear a Sherlock Holmes fan using Holmes’s Victorian existence to justify some Amish-leaning choice to avoid technology, remind them that Holmes always kept on the leading edge of current techno – including that time’s version of e-mail.

 

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