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Aust & NZ


section heading icon     the telegraph

This page considers the telegraph for perspectives on the 'internet revolution'.

It covers -

This site features a more detailed profile on the history and shape of Australian and New Zealand telecommunications industry. 

section marker     introduction

In 1866, amid hyperbole that telegraphy allowed a gentleman's library for the first time to enjoy "instantaneous communication with all the capitals of Europe, Malta, Alexandria and the East", the US Southern Review commented that the new Atlantic telegraph was "simply a postal arrangement", one about as transcendental as a sewing machine.

The Review said that

The utmost that can be effected by it, is the transformation of intelligence between Europe and America eight or nine days earlier than before. This is a matter of importance. It facilitates commerce and the capture of absconding criminals, it serves travellers and will be of great comfort to many an anxious heart. We can also imagine instances in which great national interests might be secured, which the interposition of some days might put at peril. These are advantages to rejoice in and be thankful for ... but let the praise be discriminating, and then it will be at once more sincere and more valuable.

That was more realistic that the 1840s claim, anticipating hype regarding the net, that

The influence of this invention on the political, social and commercial relations of the people of this widely extended country will of itself amount to a revolution unsurpassed in world range by any discover that has been made in the arts and sciences. Space will be, to all practical purposes of information, annihilated between the states of the Union and also between the individual citizens thereof.

John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press 2000) claim that the 'Information Age' began in 1844, when the invention of the telegraph separated the speed of information transfer from the speed of human travel. Yrjö Kaukainen in 'Shrinking the World: Improvements in the speed of information transmission, c.1820-1870' in 5(1) European Review of Economic History (2001) 1-28 offered a more nuanced analysis, highlighting changes over the preceding 50 years. He comments that

Between 1820 and 1860, global dispatch times diminished remarkably, on average to about a third of what they had been around 1820. This implies that on most routes the improvement during these three decades amounted to more saved days than was achieved after the introduction of the electric telegraph.

section marker     distance, politics, business and the telegraph

Gillian Cookson's suave The Cable: The Wire That Changed The World (Stroud: Tempus 2006) notes that the Atlantic cable paid for itself through early news about the Indian Mutiny, averting plans to transfer British troops from Canada to another part of the empire. Todd Diacon's Stringing Together a Nation: Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil, 1906–1930 (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2004) highlights the role of thje telegraph in Latin American nation building.

Historical perspectives are provided in Global Communications Since 1844: Geopolitics & Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1999) by Peter Hughill, Vaclav Smil's Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 & Their Lasting Impact (New York: Oxford Uni Press 2005), The Struggle for Control of Global Communication: The Formative Century (Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press 2002) by Jill Hills, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1977) by Alfred Chandler, 'The Magnetic Telegraph, Price and Quantity Data, and the New Management of Capital' by Field in 2 The Journal of Economic History (1992) 401-413, 'Business Demand and the Development of the Telegraph in the United States, 1844-1860' by Du Boff in 4 Business History Review (1980) 459-479, The Carrier Wave: New Information Technology & the Geography of Innovation, 1846-2003 (London: Unwin Hyman 1988) by Peter Hall & Paschal Preston, Lester Lindley's The Impact of the Telegraph on Contract Law (New York: Garland 1990), Yongming Zhou's Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China (Stanford: Stanford Uni Press 2005) and Brian Winston's Media Technology & Society: A History from the Telegraph to the Internet (London: Routledge 1999). 

Frances Cairncross' The Death of Distance (London: Orion 1997), Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860–1930 (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2007) by Dwayne Winseck & Robert Pike and Ithiel de Sola Pool - in Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge: Belknap 1987) and Technologies Without Boundaries (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1990) - place the 'internet revolution' in context and tease out some implications. 

The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications & International Politics 1851-1945
(Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1991) is a thought-provoking study by Daniel Headrick, complemented by Under the Wire: How The Telegraph Changed Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2003) by David Nickles,The Creation of the Media: The Political Origins of Mass Communications (New York: Basic Books 2004) by Paul Starr and Jorma Ahvenainen's The European Cable Companies in South America before the First World War (Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science & Letters 2004), Far Eastern Telegraphs (Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science & Letters 1981) and The History of the Caribbean Telegraphs before the First World War (Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science & Letters 1996).

As a point of entry into the extensive literature on markets and regulation see the 1998 An Overview of Telecommunications Market Evolution: Telegraphy & Telephony 1837-1934 (txt) by Gary Madden & Scott Savage and The Electric Telegraph: A Social & Economic History (Newton Abbott: David & Charles) by Jeffrey Kieve.

section marker     visions, progenitors and impacts

Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph & the 19th Century's On-line Pioneers (New York: Walker 1998), John Steele Gordon's A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (New York: Walker 2002) and Chester Hearn's Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable (Westport: Praeger 2004).

We recommend instead Carolyn Marvin's exemplary When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communications in the Late 19th Century (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1990) and William Dutton's Information & Communication Technologies: Visions & Realities (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1996), complemented by A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy (San Francisco: San Francisco Press 1979) edited by Vary Coates and 'Telegraphs, trade and policy: the role of international telegraphs in the years 1870-1914' by Jorma Ahvenainen in The Emergence of a World Economy, 1500-1914 (II: 1850-1914) (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag 1986) edited by Fischer, McInnis & Schneider.

For Morse see in particular Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F B Morse (New York: Knopf 2003) by Kenneth Silverman, superseding Carleton Mabee's The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York: Knopf 1944), and Lewis Coe's The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States (Jefferson: McFarland 1993). Morse's art is explored in William Kloss's Samuel F B Morse (New York: Abrams 1988) and Paul Staiti's Samuel F B Morse (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1989). His correspondence is available in Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters & Journals (New York: Da Capo 1973) edited by Edward Lind Morse.

The American Telegrapher: A Social History 1860-1900 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 1988) by Edwin Gabler is outstanding. We haven't sighted Annteresa Lubrano's The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change (New York: Garland 1997). Other works include Paul Israel's From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory: Telegraphers & the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830-1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1992), My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950 (Athens: Ohio Uni Press 2000) by Thomas Jepsen and Gregory Downey's Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor Technology & Geography, 1850-1950 (New York: Routledge 2002).

section marker     national studies

For the US we recommend Menahem Blondheim's News Over The Wires: The Telegraph & the Flow of Public Information in America 1844-97 (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1994). 

For Australia consult Ann Moyal's exemplary Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications (Melbourne: Nelson 1984). Edgar Harcourt's Taming The Tyrant: The First 100 Years of Australia's International Telecommunications Service (Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1987) and Kevin Livingstone's The Wired Nation Continent: The Communication Revolution & Federating Australia (Melbourne: Oxford Uni Press 1996) are drier. A detailed profile about Australian and New Zealand telecommunications is here.

For New Zealand Alex Wilson's Wire & Wireless: A History of Telecommunications in New Zealand 1860-1987 (Palmerston: Dunmore Press 1994) is serviceable. In contrast, Robert Babe's Telecommunications in Canada: Technology, Industry & Government (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1990) is an incisive analysis of past rhetoric - with public funding to match - about communications networks as the basis of national identity.

For telecommunications in nation building see The Invisible Empire: A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 1846-1956 (Toronto: McGill-Queens Uni Press 2001) by Jean-Guy Rens and Dwayne Winseck's paper A Social History of Canadian Telecommunications. A counterpoint is provided by Erik Baark's Lightning Wires: The Telegraph and China's Technological Modernization 1860-1890 (Westport: Greenwood Press 1997).

section marker    
wire fever and other discontents?

Elsewhere in this site and in Analysphere we've questioned hype about unprecedented physical or psychological attributes of the using the net, for example claims that it is closely associated with (or causes) depression and alienation or that it is particularly addictive.

Similar claims were made about the telegraph and the telephone (and other new media highlighted in later pages of this profile). They included charges that -

  • electronic communication per se had deleterious physical affects, including baldness, reduced potency, increased blood pressure, anaemia, sterility, piles and the catch-all neurasthenia
  • risked exposure to magnetic rays, electrocution and manifestations from the spirit world
  • eroded society (instant and unmediated communication rather than face to face discourse, the deliberation involved in writing a letter and the discrimination provided by publishers)
  • promoted slang, "lazy thinking" and poor grammar because people talked rather than wrote
  • weakened the nation's moral fibre because communications were anonymous (on the telegraph no-one knows whether you're a Grand Duke or merely a dog) and could be misused for gambling or criminal activity
  • were psychologically addictive, demonstrated by the telegram/phone's popularity among deskworkers, teenagers and those who lived in cities
  • enabled virtual crimes such as erotic chat lines

Accounts of 'wire fever' are provided in Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: Uni of Nebraska Press 1991), Jeffrey Sconce's Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2000), John Durham Peters' Speaking Into the Air (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2000) and Tom Lutz' American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1991).

More recent perspectives are provided in Patricia Wallace's The Psychology of the Internet (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999), in Psychology & the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal & Transpersonal Implications (San Diego: Academic Press 1999) edited by Jayne Gackenbach and No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1986) by Joshua Meyrowitz.

section marker     corporate histories

For the UK there is unfortunately no comprehensive recent scholarly overview of the national telecommunication system's development. Insights are offered by CR Perry's The Victorian Post Office (The Growth of a Bureaucracy) (London: The Royal Historical Society 1992), Douglas Pitt's The Telecommunications Function in the British Post Office - A Case Study of Bureaucratic Adaption (London: Saxon House 1980) and H Robinson's Britain's Post Office: A History of Development from the Beginnings to the Present Day (London: Oxford Uni Press 1953).

section marker    telecommunications law

[under development]  

section marker     telegraph as a paradigm?

[under development]

An indication of telegraph network traffic in the US is provided by figures from the US Census Bureau Historical Statistics featured here.

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version of May 2007
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