Today viral jokes spread by email, Twitter, or blogs. But in 1910, jokes went viral by telegraph, and not how you might think:
[The reporter asks] “Do you mean to say that there are people so anxious to spring a new joke that they will go to the expense of telegraphing it to their friends?”
[The telegraph operator responds] “No; no one goes to the expense — that’s on the telegraph company. You see, it’s this way: The operators at all the big telegraph centres over the country have a speaking acquaintance with each other. They call each other by first names, though the chances are that they haven’t the slightest idea of each other’s appearance. During the night the wires are often quiet. Now, suppose a message has just been sent from New York to Buffalo; for the time being there is nothing more to be dispatched, and no other operator is trying to get the wire. In this case the telegraph instrument in Buffalo is very apt to click off, ‘Say, Jim, I just heard a new story. It’s a good one,’ and the story follows.
“When Jim at Buffalo gets Jack at Chicago or Pete at St. Louis on an idle wire, the new story is passed along. And so in a single night a cracking good story may be passed from New York to San Francisco.”
PASSING A GOOD JOKE ALONG THE WIRE (PDF)
From June 12, 1910