Before email and texting, there was teletype—Cargill’s ahead-of-its-time wire system that sped up communication between offices and optimized business.
In 1923, Cargill acquired Taylor & Bournique Co., a grain concern and major competitor, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After struggling with the effects of a postwar depression and a series of bad business decisions, T&B had liquidated the year prior and was looking for a way out. Knowing that its assets were attractive to Cargill, the firm’s vice president approached Cargill’s president, John MacMillan, Sr., with a big offering at a small price: along with its crop operations in Milwaukee, New York City and Buffalo, T&B would sell its state-of-the-art Clement-Curtis teletype system, granting the company a new level of sophistication.
The private wire system used channels to transmit messages almost instantly to Cargill’s new offices in the eastern United States. Impressed with the technology, John Sr. arranged for its extension to the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was the answer to their unique communication needs—speed, accuracy, confidentiality and low cost—and would serve as the main transmission system for the next 70 years.
By 1935, the Minneapolis office’s telegraph room housed six operators, fielding incoming and outgoing messages with contacts in Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Omaha, Winnipeg and many cities in between. In another room, a pneumatic tube message system relayed relevant message printouts directly to the trading floor. The capability for immediate communication between offices and key regions had become one of the company’s strongest competitive advantages.
“The wire system is a wonderful thing. It keeps us posted in a way that we never have been posted in the past.”— John MacMillan, Sr., President of Cargill
Over time, these fast and fluid exchanges inspired an internal shorthand, known as the Cargill Private Wire Code. The company produced instructional booklets for employees who used teletype, which included a glossary of standard contractions, such as: LSM (linseed meal), CXLN (cancellation), and perhaps most popular, TREAD (answer quick by wire, please).
Sixty years after its installation, the teletype’s slow dismantling began. By 1983, many of Cargill’s merchants had announced they were equipped with “electronic mail video terminals”—early versions of email. A decade later, personal computers were more commonplace, but Cargill opted to continue using its wire system because the company had invested in refining the technology. With its high performance and reliability, teletype delayed Cargill’s full adoption of email—it was simply that good.
In 1996, the company’s last wire was sent before the machine was taken offline. And yet, even today, remnants of the original teletype system are still present. Employees who worked at Cargill before email still speak of “wiring” emails to each other, and code abbreviations stubbornly persist as a part of the Cargill vocabulary.
Decades before today’s popular text messaging via mobile phones, Cargill had already been communicating with shortcuts and acronyms, making speedier decisions and efficiently communicating with employees across the globe, all to better serve its trading partners and customers.