No. —.
Mr. Schuyler to Mr. Fish.

No. 140.]

Sir: Referring to your dispatch No. 138, instructing me to attend the international telegraphic conference held at St. Petersburg, and to my dispatches Nos. 119 and 134, I have the honor to inclose to you herewith my report on the conference, together with various documents relating thereto.

I have, &c.,

[Inclosure 1 in No. 140.]

Report of Mr. Schuyler on the international telegraphic conference.

Sir: The great success of the Austro-Germanic telegraphic union, and the need which existed, for the remaining states of Europe to come to some agreement about the regulations concerning international telegraphic communication and the fixation of tariffs, led to a conference in Paris in 1865, which resulted in the conclusion of a telegraphic convention, signed by the diplomatic representatives of twenty European states. * * * Subsequent conferences, held in Vienna in 1868 and in Rome in 1871, modified in many respects the text of this convention, and drew up in series of rules and regulations on the basis therein expressed. At the conference at Rome the necessity was acknowledged of completely changing the convention and of rendering it more simple, so that the subsequent alterations in the regulations which might be required by the necessities of the time, and the rapid improvements in telegraphy, could be made without affecting the text of the international act. This, then, was set down as the main business of the conference appointed to be held at St. Petersburg in June, 1875.

Before proceeding to examine the work of the conference of St. Petersburg, I may state that, by the adhesion of Luxembourg, which was not represented in the conference [Page 1071] at Rome, all the European states have become members of the union. Several of the great telegraphic cable companies have also joined it.

Among the acts of the conference at Rome was a resolution expressing a wish that the different governments should endeavor to put into execution means favorable to a semaphoric system, so that messages might be sent from ships at sea. The Italian minister of foreign affairs immediately communicated this desire of the conference to the Italian representatives abroad, charging them to ascertain the opinions of the different governments as to whether a rule could not be made ordering all commercial vessels to have on board a copy of the commercial code of signals and a complete collection of flags and other necessary signals for semaphoric correspondence. Such a regulation had been enforced on the Italian ships. Since that time replies have been received from seven governments. One of these states that it is opposed to the proposition the other six are favorable, under certain reservations.

At the conference at Rome propositions were also made by Mr. Cyrus W. Field * for the protection, during both war and peace, of telegraphic cables as well as of land wires. There was some objection made by the delegates to declaring their opinions on this subject, on the ground that the conference, having charge only of the regulations for the transmission of messages, could not consider a subject at all to do with international law. Finally, however, an agreement was come to by which the conference expressed an opinion that “the propositions of Mr. Field merited the attention of governments.” The Italian government thereupon issued a circular to its diplomatic representatives, communicating to them this resolution of the conference. As this was a question to which the Government of the United States had shortly before invited the attention of the different cabinets, the Italian minister of foreign affairs, in his circular of the 31st July, 1872, merely instructed the Italian representative to bring the resolution of the conference to the knowledge of the governments to which they were accredited, without accompanying it with any proposition. At first this communication was taken into consideration only by the government of Austria-Hungary, and on the 19th of January, 1874, the Vienna minister of foreign affairs sent to the Italian government a note, in which the propositions of Mr. Field were examined in their details, with a request to acquaint the other governments with the views of the Austro-Hungarian cabinet. The Italian government immediately communicated the Austro-Hungarian note to the governments interested. Eight of them have replied to this communication; some in general, accepting the ideas of the Austro-Hungarian cabinet, others referring to the observations they had made at the time of the action of the Government of the United States. One government has reserved its communications, and another has declared that for the present it does not wish to begin a discussion on the subject. The Italian government now considers that its duty has been done in the matter, although the replies of some great maritime powers are still lacking. As until the next conference the diplomatic direction of the common affairs of the telegraphic union now devolves upon the Russian government, the Italian cabinet is ready to communicate to it, at any time, all the documents relating to this question.

Neither the proposition relating to semaphores, nor that with regard to the protection of telegraphic lines, was considered by the St. Petersburg conference. The delegates seemed to think that for the better fulfillment of their duties it was necessary for them entirely to abstain from any discussion which had relation to international law. This view was in a measure a correct one. At the same time, the discussion of improvements in telegraphy falls rather upon the conference than upon any other body, or upon any single government; and if proposals like these, or for the freedom of telegraphic communications from government inspection, or for the universal permission for cipher-messages, are ever to be considered and passed, this will be accomplished much more quickly if the conferences in their sessions declare their positive opinions on the subject, and recommend to the respective governments the adoption of such measures.

In accordance with the invitation, the conference met at St. Petersburg on the 1st of June, in the house of the minister of the interior. It was composed of delegates from Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, and the United States, and also of the representatives of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, the Brazilian Submarine Company, the Black Sea Telegraph Company, the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, the Great Northern Telegraph Company, and the Vereinigte Deutsche Telegraphen Gesellschoft. The American telegraph companies all refused to be represented. There were also present, as adjoint members, Mr. Engelhardt, delegate from the Russian minister of foreign affairs, and the director and secretary of the international bureau of telegraphic administrations situated at Berne. The conference was opened by General Timascheff, the minister of the interior, who soon yielded the place to Mr. De Lüders, the director-general of the Rusian telegraph department and the regular president of the conference. The conference held twenty sessions, during which it elaborated the new draught of the international [Page 1072] telegraphic convention, which was subsequently signed by the diplomatic representatives of the various powers at St. Petersburg, and the regulations for the international service. * * * *

Finally, on the 19th of July, the conference adjourned to meet at London in 1878.

In addition to the general sessions of the conference, there were constant meetings of the committees, at which everything brought before the conference was fully discussed. Whatever intervals of leisure the members had, were taken up with visiting the various public buildings and objects of interest in. St. Petersburg, for the Russian government exercised the hospitality which it knows so well how to show on occasions of this kind. The members of the conference were presented at the opening to the hereditary Grand Duke Césarevitch, with whom they had the honor of dining, and at the close they were presented to His Majesty the Emperor. Besides this, the palace and grounds of the Duke and Duchess of Mecklenburg were thrown open to them on two evenings in a week, and the members were taken on various excursions, including a short one to the falls of Imatra, and another one of several day’s duration to Moscow.

I inclose to you herewith, in a printed form, the official reports of the discussions of the conference, marked 4; and, in briefly reviewing its labors, I would add that it seemed to me as though—from the fact of the delegates being nearly all officials in the telegraphic administrations—fiscal motives unduly predominated in the discussions, and that there was even too great a tendency toward conservatism. The interests of the public who use the telegraph seemed to be entirely subordinated to the interests of the state and to the convenience of the administrations; that is, to a fear lest any improvement might produce less revenue than is got at present, and lest it might throw more work on the telegraphic bureau.

The convention has been drawn up in such a form as to avoid the necessity of future revisions, and the regulations have received a simpler, clearer, and more practical character. The chief improvements in detail are a provision against an abuse which had arisen in some languages by limiting the length of the single word; the introduction of urgent and of registered dispatches; the experimental introduction of telegraphic notices; the tariff by single word for the extra European service, and the adoption of two uniform rates, according to route, for the correspondence of Europe with India. Among the improvements which were not adopted by the conference, although strongly supported, were those of putting the receipts of international messages into a common treasury, and then distributing them in proper proportions to the different states, which would avoid a complicated system of terminal and transit rates, the calculation of transit rates according to the distance over which the message is actually sent, and the reduction of the number of words in a message. Under the previous system of counting words, it was much cheaper to telegraph in certain languages, such as the German, than in others, owing to the extreme license given to the formation of compound words. By this means a paragraph could at times be condensed into a sentence. All tongues have now been placed nearly on a footing of equality by section XXI of the regulations, which allows only fifteen letters to be counted as a single word in Europe, and only ten letters in the extra-European correspondence. Some objections were made to this rule, On the ground that it was much easier to count by syllables than by letters, but as the cases where a word would contain fifteen letters would be very rare, it was thought that this arrangement would give very little trouble either to .the sender or to the telegraph operator. As to numbers written in figures, or words written in cipher, every five characters constitute one word.

The conference made no effort to obtain permission for the use of cipher in private dispatches, but it was apparent from the debates that the first paragraph of section VI of the regulations was intended to allow the use of conventional language, or of words taken from any or all of the languages used in the countries signing the convention. Thus it would be admissible to have one word of a telegram in German, a second in Hungarian, a third in Finnish, a fourth in Russian, and so on.

By section VIII, the address can be written in a conventional or in an abridged form, as is now common at London and Paris, and at some other stations, and the signature can be written in the same form, or entirely omitted.

In order to provide greater safety in the delivery of telegrams in exceptional cases, a system of registered or recommended messages, similar to that of registered letters; was introduced by section LI of the regulations, although it was not rendered obligatory on all administrations. The sender of a registered telegram has the right to have it repeated and compared, and can also claim a notice of its receipt. In case of mistakes or of its non-delivery, the cost of the telegram and fifty francs in addition will be refunded. The price of such a telegram is triple that of ordinary ones. In the same way the system of urgent telegrams was adopted, also optional for the various administrations by paying triple the tax. A telegram marked urgent will be sent before any other telegrams not so marked. Much objection was made to this proposal by various members of the conference, on the ground that all sections of the public should fare alike. It was shown, however, that in Belgium, where the system of urgent telegrams has been in use for some years, it was found that their proportion [Page 1073] was hardly one per cent.; so that no great inconvenience would arise to the public from their introduction. At the same time, the telegraph is so much now used by persons who desire either to gain a little on the time taken by the post, or to spare themselves the trouble of writing a letter, that it is of the greatest value to be able to send a message more quickly than by the ordinary method, and in some cases it is a matter of prime necessity. As the power of sending such a telegram is given to the whole public on payment of the price demanded, it is seen that this is no special privilege for the benefit of a select few. This reasoning had weight with the conference, but it was very probable that even then the system of urgent telegrams would not have been accepted had there not been combined with it the registered telegrams and system of telegraphic notices as provided in section XLIII, which may be well compared to the system of postal cards now in vogue. In this way a message may be sent without the formalities by which ordinary telegrams are surrounded, and can be given open to the receiver. The administrations are not bound to give receipts or to preserve in the archives the document relative to such telegraphic notices. At present, they are to be admitted only in European relations. A telegram of this sort is limited to ten words, and it cannot be expressed either in cipher or in conventional language. The price is at present put at three-fifths of that of an ordinary telegram of twenty words. Considering the extent to which the telegraph is now used for messages of very slight importance, it is possible that the system of telegraphic notices has a great future before it. It will also go in some measure to repair the omission of the convenience of reducing the number of words in an ordinary message.

A great effort was made to change the Ordinary message from twenty to ten words, and a proposition was made by Germany, which was supported by all the private companies, to calculate the tariff for telegraphic messages per single word. Both of these propositions, however, were voted down, and, apparently through a misunderstanding of the delegates, the minimum message of twenty words was retained. The calculation of messages by the single word was, however, admitted for the extra-European service on the urgent demand of the companies and of the Indian government. Another refusal of the conference to alter the existing regulations, although about a minor matter, was with regard to answers paid. According to the present new regulations, section XLV, the sender, in case of prepaying the answer, must place before the address the words “answer paid,” or the sign “R. P.” As the money for the answer is paid to the administration, which is, therefore, in a certain sense, responsible for it, it would seem that the indication “answer paid” might well be one of the gratuitous notices given to the receiver in the same way as that of the time at which the message was sent.

In order to facilitate the keeping of accounts, the delegation of Austria-Hungary proposed the system of a common treasury, which should receive all the money paid for international telegrams, and repay to each government the proportion due to them for the messages sent and received. Of course, most of the transactions would be merely on paper, to be settled at the expiration of certain specified periods. The Central International Bureau at Berne was to be charged with the system of accounting. This is a system that has worked very well in the Austro-German postal union j but objections were made to it, partly on the ground that it might not be well to bring about too close a union of the states, and partly because the proposition had not yet been sufficiently studied by the various delegates. It will probably be revived at the London meeting, and in the mean time the Central Bureau will carry on fictitious accounts on the basis of the actual receipts for telegrams in order to show the effect of the system in practice.

The estimation of the rates to be charged for a telegram which passes through several countries, is always a matter of great difficulty, and an agreement is only obtained by means of numerous concessions. At every meeting of the conference new rivalries and pretensions arise, as there has been as yet no settled basis on which the rates are calculated. To remove all these difficulties, the German delegation proposed a system by which the price of a telegram going through more than two countries should be divided into two parts, the terminal taxes and those of transit. For the terminal taxes, small countries were to receive the minimum of five centimes a word, or a franc per message of twenty words, and larger countries double that sum, while Russia, from its exceptional position, might demand even more. The transit taxes were to be calculated according to the distance, as estimated by the nearest route, at the rate of from twenty to thirty centimes per message for each hundred kilometers. Should there be several lines of an approximately equal length, messages were to be sent over those lines in equal proportions, and if the country of origin should choose to send a message by a roundabout way, it should have the privilege of doing so on deducting the additional cost from the terminal taxes coming to that country. This proposition originated with Mr. Stephan, the minister of posts and telegraphs for the German Empire, and would seem to contain the only logical basis for the calculation of telegraph-taxes. Great opposition, however, was made to the measure, both in committee and in the general meetings of the conference, on the ground that it was [Page 1074] too great a revolution of the present system to be undertaken without more extended study. It was naturally opposed by several of the cable companies, which, as, for instance, the one owning the cable between England, Denmark, and St. Petersburg, would be cut off from a great source of revenue by the lowering of the tariff on the direct lines, and might ultimately be ruined. At the same time among the governmental delegates there was the feeling, though not openly expressed in the conference in so many words, that it would be unsafe to make this change, as for many reasons it was undesirable to have all messages from the east and the west, or the north and the south, of Europe sent through Germany, and exposed to the inspection and possible indiscretion of German officials. Both Russia and France were desirous of retaining some way of communication which did not pass through Berlin.

In accordance with your instructions, I took no other part in the conference than simply to attend its meetings; and, in reporting to you its results, I have nothing to add except the hope that at the next session the American companies may be willing to take part, for it is for the convenience of the public that messages everywhere should be subject to the same regulations and be sent at fixed rates. The experience of Europe, too, might be of advantage in enabling them to give additional facilities and safeguards to the public.

I was many times asked in conversation whether it was probable that the Government of the United States would take into its own hands the administration of the telegraphs. To this I could only reply that the subject had been several times brought to the attention of Congress, and had been there considered, but that it was impossible for me to predict the result of any bills which might be in future brought into Congress. I could not help adding that, at the same time, under our present system, the public was provided with many safeguards, such as the general or partial right of being re-imbursed for damages consequent upon the failure to deliver telegrams in a correct state, or on their non-delivery, which it would be both to lose, as it would do by being placed under rules similar to those now in force in European administrations; and that the system of government inspection of private telegrams is one which would be exceedingly odious to the American people.

I have the honor to be, sir, with great respect, your most obedient servant.


Hon. Hamilton Fish,
Secretary of State.