Ch 7 Telegraph & telephone

Electronic media, beginning with the telegraph, created an enormous shift in communication and, with that shift, a change in personal and social environments. Marshall McLuhan had a few insights into this, with his idea that the “medium is the message.”   One early example of this is the impact of the telegraph on news writing, as seen in this short comparison:   News Before and After the Telegraph. 

While the telegraph and telephone are usually considered one-to-one communications devices,  both also had an important place in the mass media.  The telegraph linked the world’s newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries through “wire services” such as the Associated Press in the US, Reuters in Britain, Havas in France and Wolff’s in Germany. The telephone  system carried radio signals from New York to the rest of the nation in the early decades of the radio age; it was indispensable in establishing a centralized broadcasting system in the US and Europe.   In both cases, many people who wanted  a more  decentralized, responsive and democratic information system were disappointed with the monopolistic way the networks developed.

In the US, the telegraph became a monopoly when Western Union absorbed all of the 500 companies that were established between 1844 and the 1860s. The Western Union – Associated Press monopoly was such a thorn in the side of American reformers in the late 19th century that they financed research into Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone — an important example of a technological circumvention around  a communication bottleneck.

Discussion questions

  1. The invention:  How did Samuel Morse hope that the telegraph would  be developed? What other inventor influenced that idea? (Hint:  it involved photography). How did  the business of telegraphy diverge in the US and in Europe later in the 19th century?
  2. The code: How did printing influence the development of Morse code? How did Morse Code influence other technologies?
  3. The medium and the message:How would Marshall McLuhan have seen the differences in writing styles between Russell and Villard?  Is the medium really the message?
  4. The monopoly: How did political opponents of the Associated Press – Western Union monopoly see the problem? What did they think government should do? What was the role of the telephone in this?

People & events

Claude Chappe, Samuel Morse, Charles Wheatstone, Gardiner Hubbard, Alexander Graham Bell, E.W. Scripps,  Charles Louis Havas, Paul Reuter, Bernard Wolff,

Western Union, Associated Press, United Press, International News Service, Havas, Wolff’s, Reuters, AT&T, Bell Labs,

public domain Books: telegraph and telephone

Interesting links

  1. Email in the 19th century (about the origins and extent of the optical telegraph).
  2. Danger Signals, a memoir about telegraphy and train safety, by John A. Hill and Jasper Brady, 1898.
  3. News before and after the telegraph (This site)
  4. BBC Witness program on the Charge of the Light Brigade.
  5. History theory and practice of the electronic telegraph, by George Prescott, AP, 1860
  6. Morse Code or Vail Code?
  7. Samuel Morse papers
  8. The Fading Glory of the Television and Telephone – Pew Research Center
  9. The cables that link the world — Wall Street Journal,   May 27, 2012.
  10. 10 gadgets forseen by science fiction writer Ray Brabury, Washington Post, June 11, 2012
  11. History of Agence France Presse (AFP) wire service
  12. The Trans-Atlantic telegraph,  Nigel Linge, University of Salford. Part of the university’s History of Telecommunications project.
  13. Treasure trove of US Civil War telegrams being decoded at the Huntington Library.  LA Times, Aug. 24, 2016.

Films about the Telegraph and telephone

  1. A dispatch from Reuters, 1941 melodrama that portrays Reuters as a  secret courier service.
  2. The Great Transatlantic Cable,  2005 American Experience documentary.  Some portions available as YouTube video.
  3. “Long Distance”  industry documentary by Western Electric telephone company, 1941.

Section Overview – Chapters 7, 8 and 9

The significance of the electronic revolution

Rapid communication over long distances has often been associated with divine forces, for example, in Greek and Roman mythology, with Nike, Hermes and Mercury carrying messages for the gods.

For ordinary mortals, however, communication has historically been very difficult, as it was confined to the speed of a running horse or fast ship. History and literature are full of references to the role of messengers bringing the long-delayed news of victory or defeat. The runner from Marathon, the messenger in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the signal flags of Trafalgar are among many examples of the place communications held in pre-industrial history and culture.

The classic example of news failing to arrive in time involves the needless loss of life at the Battle of New Orleans. When the United States and Britain fought the battle on January 8, 1815, the armies in the field could not have known that  a peace treaty had been signed before Christmas of 1814. It took seven weeks for the fastest sailboat to carry the message from London to Louisiana.

Yet in about 50 years, the same message might have taken less than an hour to be relayed by electronic telegraph using Morse code. The unique combination of hardware (electric wires) and software (a simple arrangement of dots and dashes) changed the world, brought down the barriers of time and distance, and opened the door to the electronic and digital mass media revolutions. No other development since printing had so many impacts in so many different walks of life.

The telegraph and telephone as mass media

Historians usually see one-to-one personal media (telegrams, telephones,) as entirely separate from mass media (newspapers, radio, TV) until the late twentieth century, when the two basic types of media were brought together by digital networks (giving us cell phone video, for instance).
Yet media can’t be so easily separated. For instance, even though letters sent through the post office are one-to-one communications, the US Postal Service served as the infrastructure for printed mass media. The service carried newspapers and magazines at very low postal rates that were specifically meant to subsidize the US publishing industry. In contrast, higher postal rates in Europe held back the development of printed media, as we saw in Chapter 2.

Similarly, the telegraph carried private, one-to-one communications in the form of telegrams, but it also carried political and economic news across the world through the mass media. Between the 1850s and the 1980s, the telegraph was the essential infrastructure of a two-stage mass communications system. News generated in one location flowed up the chain and was then distributed to local newspapers by wire services like Reuters, Havas and The Associated Press.

The telephone system, used mostly for private one-to-one communications, also served as the infrastructure of the national radio networks when they emerged in the 1920s. News, drama, comedy and other programs originating in one place would usually be carried to the rest of the country by static-free telephone lines and then broadcast  by regional radio stations. Like the telegraph, the telephone was indispensable to the two-stage mass communications system until satellites arrived in the 1980s.

The business models for the telegraph and telephone also had an impact on the overall shape and diversity of the mass media. In the United States, a joint Western Union–Associated Press monopoly shaped the economics of publishing, creating barriers to entry and making it difficult for newspapers to compete. The very device that expanded the spatial and temporal reach of communication seemed to weaken its depth and flexibility. Younger journalists complained that the newspapers spoke in the voice of an older generation, as we have seen in Chapter 3.

Meanwhile in Europe, the competitive economics of publishing took different forms since government owned telegraph and telephone systems did not favor any one particular group of members, and this contributed to a greater diversity of expression.

While the electronic revolution began with the telegraph and telephone, neither of these prototype electronic technologies can be historically isolated from radio, television and satellite broadcasting. Their scientific origins and business models were intertwined. Industrial print and early radio and television grew up in an interdependent network, around the telegraph and telephone, from the beginning. To a large degree, the concept of media “convergence” is not just an artifact of the computer age, but rather, a constant condition in mass media history.

Cycles of open and closed technologies

Innovation in communication technology often follows a cycle that can be described in three stages: open, closed and alternative. The first stage of the cycle involves open experimentation, competition and development of a new media. It may be followed by a second stage in which stakeholders close the technologies around profitgenerating activities protected by patents. If the stakeholders are successful, they may be able to dominate the market. In a third stage, successful monopolies become stagnant, charging more and more money for fewer and fewer services. The downward spiral often encourages the search for technological alternatives to circumvent the old monopoly. Once a promising new avenue is found, the open competition starts again.

Although the cycle of open-closed-alternative technologies is a useful generalization, it doesn’t fit every media technology exactly. As we’ve seen in Section II, photography was born as an open source technology, with its exact secrets revealed from the outset. In contrast, the earliest cinema companies attempted to control the industry through patents and industry associations. Although direct industry control failed, indirect content control through the Motion Picture Production Code become the norm.

As we will see in Chapter 7, telegraphy also went through a period of open experimentation,  and Samuel Morse, at least, wanted it to stay that way. Like Daguerre, he also hoped that the government would own the hardware. But in the US, as over 500 telegraph companies emerged, fought, and then merged by 1866, telegraphy became a national monopoly under the Western Union company. Operating without regulation, Western Union and its sole partner in the Associated Press exerted an enormous amount of control over which ideas and people would compete in the information system of the nineteenth century.

One response was a US campaign for legislation to transfer the telegraph to the Post Office, which was already taking place in Britain. When that failed, the same campaigners who fought the telegraphic monopoly helped create the telephone system in the 1870s. Through its control of patents and market manipulation, the Bell telephone system also became a monopoly around the turn of the twentieth century.

Anxious to avoid problems that had surfaced with Western Union, the US Justice Department forced AT&T to take a neutral “common carrier” position with respect to content and charges for services. As we will see in Chapters 8 and 9, broadcasting also began with a cycle of open innovation among scientists like Heinrich Hertz and James Clerk Maxwell.

Entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi attempted to control the emerging radio telegraph system, and was initially successful, but the US and UK governments curbed the monopolies in the pre-World War I period. American Marconi eventually became the Radio Corporation of America, which in turn created the National Broadcasting Company. Meanwhile, inventors like Lee Deforest and Reginald Fessenden turned to radio telephony, and some of their key patents were purchased by AT&T. By the 1920s, radio technology had more or less closed, and television technology was opening. By the 1950s, television technology was closed, and the search for circumventing technologies would lead to satellite and cable systems by the 1980s.

Social responsibility

With the power of amplified sound and moving images, radio and television created new opportunities to both abuse people and to elevate the human condition, and history provides examples of both. The tragedies of the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and countless others, would not have been possible without a mass media to incite hatred.

Like the printing press, however, the new electronic media also provided many opportunities for expanding tolerance, diversity and freedom. Radio rallied the public and was a key ingredient in elevating nationalistic sentiment in the 1930s and 40s. Televised news also helped crystallize public opinion around civil rights issues in the 1950s and the Vietnam war in the 1960s.

To a society accustomed to a slower pace of life, it seemed, suddenly, as if the world were laid out at the viewer’s feet, that every activity could be known, that every culture could be understood. But the distortions of the mass media proved difficult to counteract, as the imbalance in media power from developed to developing nations in the 1970s created what was termed “Hollywood hegemony.” The apparent threat of Western modernity to traditional cultures created a violent reactions at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

Today, with instant, global, full spectrum communication possible through dozens of media, we are indeed a global village, but we are not a peaceful one. We are not yet reconciled to each other’s differences, aware of each others strengths, or tolerant of each other’s weaknesses.

As Henry David Thoreau once observed, communication technology can be nothing more than an improved means to an unimproved end. And yet, many people had a larger and more positive vision for the role of mass media technology—a role that has yet to be fully cast for a vision that is still being articulated.