display | more...

Previous Chapter
Next Section

§ 6. The Global Reach

On February 7th, 1859, Napoleon III made an address to French Legislative Assembly, a matter of some international significance, but an ex-carrier pigeon servicer from Prussia who had recently immigrated to London had other ideas. Mr. Reuter had been doing a fair business in trading the opening and closing prices of London and Paris stocks among his business clients and in 1958 had even established enough credibility to begin supplying the Daily Telegraph and the Morning Star papers with political news from abroad. However, that February afternoon Reuter engineered a coup, by paying for an entire consecutive hour of the Paris-London telegraph and having the entirety of the French Emperor's speech wired to him from a verbatim transcription. He did the translation himself in his downtown office, sent for typeset page by page as he progressed, and when the special editions hit the London streets within an hour of Napoleon III's closing remarks, Reuter became perhaps the world's first international information broker.

At the same time, as the Atlantic telegraph Co. management was dealing with the ire of shareholders and government officials, the spread of the global telegraph network proceeded unabated by the setback. By 1861, there was an estimated 18,000 kilometres of cable criss-crossing the earth's nations, of which approximately 5000 kilometres worked more or less reliably. 33 In 1874, a staggering 650,000 miles of wire had been strung, 30,000 miles of submarine cable, and 20,000 cities, towns and villages had gone 'on-line'. 34 By 1880, there was close to 100,000 miles of undersea telegraph cable in place. The use of telegraphy between financial centres, marketplaces, shipping points and railway junctions in American was particularly extensive and a whole new set of professionals, with vocational schools and codes of conduct, were now set in place throughout the United States and Canada. These professional groups even began to associate on-line, for example the American Telegraph Co. would hold frequent group sessions on the open wire from Boston to Bangor after hours, with hundreds of operators in dozens of offices along the line all tapping out their thoughts in turn. Britain was also developing an extensive internal telegraph network architecture for information, under the central authority of the Post Office. By 1889 the Office had assigned 35,000 specialized 'telegraphic addresses', whereby companies or individuals could register single words which corresponded only to them, with catalogues of the addresses & corresponding person or group then distributed to all offices. This vastly simplified sending messages to those users, as all the sender needed was to know their word 'address'. 35

The American Civil War had for a time setback the development of infrastructure in North America, but New York financiers and Chicago railway tycoons had embraced the technology heartily by the Reconstruction period of the late 1860s. 36 Meanwhile, extensive cabling was had begun by English engineers on the Red Sea, just as the Turkish government began a Constantinople-Baghdad-Persian Gulf route (1858-1865) and the Indian authorities began a landline from Karachi to Gwadur on the Gulf. By 1865, Great Britain was linked (somewhat circuitously) with India. In 1867, Siemens und Halske Co. of Prussian followed suit by beginning a double cable line from London to Tehran, specifically devoted to Anglo-Indian communiqués, completed in 1873. The average transmission time from Bombay to London at that point, through all stations en route, was three hours. Some 23,000 messages were sent to and fro between Britain and India in the first nine months, even at the price of £5 per 20 words. Even this charge was relatively economical in comparison to the 10 francs per word charged between China and Europe in 1887, as Western businessmen were by far the largest users of the Imperial telegraph, a wholly-government owned utility. By 1892, the Russian system was linked with China in Manchuria.

Meanwhile, back in the Atlantic, there were some political scuffles arising from the network privileges of competing nations. Vereinigte Deutsche Telegraphengesellschaft IG had landed its own cable in 1882 from Germany direct to Valentia, Ireland, in order to link with the British network and the Americas directly. By 1891, however, the line was so crowded with transmissions the Germans moved to develop their own line to the Americas through the Azores Islands. This act of circumvention amused Britain not at all, and in 1894 they blocked the cable laying company the Germans had subcontracted from proceeding with any plans. English companies, through their expertise, access to gutta percha and specialized ships and equipment had by this point become the primary provider of submarine cable. 37 More importantly, British controlled wires represented an information bottleneck (via an international communications monopoly) which serviced most of Europe's industrial and military powers. From an intelligence gathering standpoint, this enviroment suited the English just fine, especially as the colonial conflicts and international stage grew more competitive. Questions of privacy and security also began to spread, as the editorial board of the Quarterly Review in Britain opined in 1853:
Means should be taken to obviate one great objection- at present felt respect to sending private communications by telegraph- the violation of secrecy. For in any case half a dozen people must be cognisant of every word addressed by one person to another. The clerks of the telegraph companies are sworn to secrecy, but we often write things that it would be intolerable to see strangers read before our eyes. This is a grievous fault in the telegraph, and it must be remedied. 38
Questions of personal security were quickly eclipsed by even greater concerns, those of national security, as the flow of information across Europe and Asia increased. The thought of diplomatic messages moving through the posts and wires of a dozen other countries on their way to the intended destination clearly chilled the colonial and military administration of the British Empire to the bone. However, the telegraph was vital to a realm on which 'the sun never set', spread as it was across the four corners of the globe and it could not simply be cast aside on suspicions of surveillance. As one British MP in 1887 announced, "Stronger than death-dealing warships, stronger than the might of devoted legions, stronger than the wealth and genius of administration...are the two or three slender wires that connect the scattered parts of Victoria's realm." 39

Just as the Indian Uprising 40 in Ceylon had revealed, the telegraph had begun as simply a means of communication, but over time was transformed into a tool for maintaining political and logistical control. Of the later rebellions against the British in Alexandria (1882) and Peking 41 (1900), both centred on maintaining a hold on those 'slender wires' and commercial information routes. In the case of Egypt, on July 12th, 1882, the staff of the Eastern telegraph Co. wired to London from their cable-laying ship Chiltern in the harbour a blow-by-blow account of Alexandria being shelled by the British Navy in retaliation to Khedive Ismail Pasha's attempted insurgency. British forces followed swiftly from the telegraph intelligence, invading Aug. 18th and secured the entire region in which they were concerned (namely the Suez) within the span of a month. However, as the reign of Victoria ended, other technologies were to emerge around the world and overtake the telegraph in many respects, namely the telephone and wireless radio which were now beginning to receive the full attention of governmental & commercial interests, and by the turn of the century, there were over two million telephones in use world-wide, leaving the position of the telegraph eclipsed as a world more familiar arose.
33 Lazlo Solymar, Getting the Message : A History of Telecommunications (NY: Oxford, 1999), 71.

34 Some more numbers, to hopefully put the costs of information service and access in perspective. By the 1850s, a type-written page of information could be wired from Chicago to New York for about $7.50 US. By 1890, the spending on capital equipment in the US telegraph industry had risen to $147 million, compared to the railroad plant investment, which was $8 billion. In 1890, the telegraph industry employed roughly 50,000 persons in the US, many of them women. From Ronnie J. Phllips, "Digital Technology and Institutional Change from the Gilded Age to Modern Times: The Impact of the Telegraph and the Internet," Journal of Economic Issues 34/2 (June 2000): 270, and Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (NY: Walker & Co., 1998), 102.

35 Ibid., 172. There was, needless to say, an annual charge to the 'address' holder for the convenience afforded by this system- and so neatly parallels the current system of domain name registration. Unfortunately, instead of a central administrative authority overseeing the process, we now have dozens of commercial registrars in all different countries, the resulting legal chaos of which we revisit in a later chapter.

36 Both Thomas Edison & Andrew Carnegie began their careers as telegraph operators; Edison was apparently so fast, even when still new to the profession, in receiving Morse code (transcribing 35 words a minute) he would taunt more experienced operators, attempting to intimidate him with streams of messages, by tapping down the line, "Why don't you use your other foot?"

37 "Providing an efficient insulator to stop a signal from leaking away proved even more difficult in the early days of telegraphy and it is hard to see how the industry could ever have developed it gutta percha had not turned up at the exact moment when it was needed...the gum of a tree found in the jungles of Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra, introduced into Europe in 1843." See Arthur C. Clarke, How the World was One : Beyond the Global Village (NY : Bantam, 1992), 104. Not until polyethylene was developed in the 1930s was the substance replaced as a cable insulator.

38 Interestingly enough, this objection is only now beginning to be taken seriously by the public in regards to the use of e-mail or Web browsing software, which people largely took to be anonymous and secure, indulging in a sense of security which developments in the last three years have revealed to be completely misplaced (to be discussed in later chapters) - in the case of both the telegraph & the Internet, encryption has been the natural response.

39 Iain A. Boal. "A Flow of Monsters : Luddism & Virtual Technologies." from Resisting the Virtual Life: the Culture and Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), 5.

40 The Suez Canal was now fully operational and the thought of losing any colonial territory would have seemed appalling to the English at this point, with the importance of gutta percha, sugar, fabrics and of course, tea! Between 1693-1793, British imports of tea had risen 40,000 percent. The surge in popularity was unprecedented, and partly on account of the availability of an economical sweetener (also from the West Indies), but also because in the new urbanized workplace now shaping up in England, "a shot of caffeine and sugar became an important part of work routines." However, as vital a commodity tea had become, the price of the Chinese was still too high for British merchants. In 1854, in an effort to boost tea production in more tightly controlled colonies, the Assam Tea Clearance Act gave any European planter who promised to cultivate tea for export up to 3,000 acres in the region of north-east India - and after the area had been cleared of natives through violence or taxation- this area would produce expansive crops of the blend called Darjeeling. See Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and World Economy, 1400-the Present (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 85.

41 Britain, France and Germany by the 1870s were all locked in a commerical arms race to secure access to the Chinese market, at that time a third of the human race - they competed to lend her money, establish ports, and to build an infrastructure of railways, telegraphs, banks and mines. Russia soon presided in Port Arthur, Germany took Kiaochow, Britain settled in Kowloon, France occupied Kwangchowwan. The foreign influence was not welcomed, especially beyond the tight circle of local elite who prospered, and when famine in the North led to an influx of migrants into the port cities, the frustration erupted into the Boxer Rebellion in Peking, when an underground peasant society (whom the British called Boxers) attacked foreign embassies, kidnapped diplomats and siezed communications offices throughout the city. The reaction was immediate and ferocious, as all four colonial powers in the rare solidarity borne of self-interest, ordered all their vessels in the area to Peking Harbour. The city was pulverized with shelling (one of the first casualties, the ancient Peking library, was obliterated).

Previous Chapter
Next Section

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.