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Jan 01, 2020 | Other

From bicycles to satellites – the story of Western Union

Nowadays there are very few remarkable stories about start-ups. Companies may have been started by studious types while they were at college, or by young graduates with business loans, but there are not many that can claim to have changed history and influenced major events.

In 1851, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was created. It was in the business of communications, and initially offered a message relaying service, employing a team of bicycle messengers who delivered letters. However, it soon saw that the future was in telegrams - the cutting-edge technology of the time.  

Telegraph companies sprang up all over the United States, but they were all local and small scale. None could offer a long-range service across the country. As a result, customers had to pay for multiple services for one message to make its way across the country 

So, in 1856, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company changed its name to the Western Union Telegraph Company, declaring that its stated aim was to send telegraphs directly from the east coast to the west coast.  

Civil War brings new challenges, and opportunities 

In 1861 the need for swift communication became more urgent, with the outbreak of the American Civil War. At the time, the only rapid communication service was provided by the Pony Express, which took ten days to carry telegrams and mail across the country. 

Although Western Union was busy acquiring competitor services, this was not enough to enable it to span the country. A 2,000-mile line across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains was needed to complete the network. No other telegraph company would take on the challenge, as the geography and the threat of sabotage meant the odds of a successful completion were stacked against them.  

The first transcontinental telegraph line was completed at Salt Lake City on 24th October 1861, only 112 days after the project was begun. Two days later, the US government stopped using the Pony Express service and turned to Western Union to speed messages across the continent. 

Success, Growth and Diversification 

Gradually, Western Union absorbed more than 500 telegraph companies across the nation, and in 1884 it was one of the first eleven stocks to be listed on the Dow-Jones Transportation Average. As the company grew, it diversified into new services. Many of these fell under the description of communications, such as the first inter-city facsimile, the first pre-paid phone card and becoming the first company to have five satellites in orbit, but Western Union also took the opportunity to move into another fast-growing area - financial services. 

Western Union now can provide services in over 200 countries and territories around the world. The best known of these is its Money Transfer service. Individuals and businesses can send money in almost any currency to almost any destination. For businesses involved in import and export, being able to pay for goods or receive funds quickly is essential as cashflow is the lifeblood of any business venture. But what really makes the difference for these importers and exporters is being able to remove the risk factor of dealing in a foreign currency, when exchange rates are constantly moving.  

Western Union – supporting businesses with a global network 

Today, Western Union Business Services provides international payments in over 130 currencies, with competitive spot rates, optimal routing and cost effective transfers as well as a globally leading online platform which not only facilitates online payments and bulk upload, but which also gives real time access to positions and mark to market valuations. 

With a highly qualified team of currency experts and a service tailored specifically to the needs of SMEs, they specialise in protecting the profits of international businesses from currency fluctuations, with a range of hedging tools and strategies. With their wide range of Foreign Exchange services, actionable analysis and decision support tools, they give SMEs more transparency and control over their foreign exchange and international payments.  

Western Union is a company with an extraordinary history and, as technology continues to change, a fast-moving, exciting future. It’s a long way from bicycle messengers and singing telegrams, but Western Union is still trading successfully and helping to keep things moving across borders, languages and cultures.