A Look at the Western Union History

western union history

Western Union has a long history of innovative development, starting with the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, which enabled coast-to-coast communication during four bloody years of Civil War. The company displayed flashes of technological brilliance in subsequent decades, as it replaced telegraph operators with automated machines, deployed early data systems for the U.S. military, and built a network of intercity teleprinters. It also launched the world’s first consumer instant money transfer service between the United States and Russia in 1992, and created a new service called Dinero en Minutos (Money in Minutes) in 1993 that enabled travelers to pick up cash in Mexican pesos from more than 300 locations around the country.

Despite these accomplishments, Western Union’s fortunes began to slide in the late 1980s as it lost its position as a leader in the telecommunications industry. During this time, the company diversified itself by developing a range of services to move money worldwide, including its infamous Candygram. The company even tried its hand at producing television commercials starring a rotund Don Wilson.

In an effort to consolidate its business, Western Union purchased a major competitor in the American telegraph sector, Postal Telegraph, Inc., in 1945, giving it a near-monopoly of the industry. However, total telegraph messages dropped by half after 1945. In 1958, Western Union introduced its direct international telex service with a network of teleprinters. The company also established a store and forward message switching system known as Plan 55-A, which later became the Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN) for the Defense Department in the 1960s.

As the business of sending money abroad grew, the company continued to purchase competitors and expand its international agent locations. In 1994, Western Union had a large number of customers and locations that were outside of the United States. By the end of the decade, Western Union was in financial trouble and needed to find a buyer for its assets.

Two companies showed interest in purchasing the company, and eventually Western Union merged with First Data Corporation in August of that year. After the merger, the new company kept the Western Union name and shifted its focus toward global money transfers.

The company also invested in its brand, expanding its mobile apps and improving its online presence. The company also partnered with mobile operators in other countries to develop prepaid cards for its customers.

In 2015, the massive refugee crisis in Syria sent thousands of migrants from the country streaming to Europe, and Western Union set up counters along the migrant routes. At the Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, workers hung their yellow-and-black logo on a tollbooth-size shed balanced on pallets. At other sites, such as the Idomeni camp in Macedonia, Ersek persuaded his compliance committee to accept United Nations-issued refugee cards as proof of identity and temporarily waived fees for people who had them. The strategy paid off: As the world focused on refugees huddled in tent cities, the number of transactions through Western Union rose sharply.

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