Wiring the World:. The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks

Müller, Simone M.
Columbia Studies in International and Global History
€ 55,99
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Jean-Michel Johnston, Somerville College, University of Oxford

The development and impact of telegraphy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have recently become the subject of renewed interest among historians. Whilst previous narratives emphasized the technology’s function primarily as a political and economic tool of national integration or imperial ambitions, its role in the contested process of globalization has now increasingly come into focus.[1] At the same time, greater consideration is being given to the sociocultural implications of telegraphic communication, questioning its portrayal as a straightforward “media revolution”, or a “Victorian internet”.[2] Simone Müller’s Wiring the World is a rich contribution to these efforts, which highlights the multifarious effects of a new, global communications technology, and of the transformations with which it is associated.

Müller focuses on the entrepreneurs, engineers, journalists, and administrators involved in laying, managing, and using submarine telegraph cables between 1866 and 1914. The “actor networks” she explores revolve around a number of key figures who sought to establish a system of global communication in the maritime spaces at the very interstices of national and imperial power structures. Navigating between those entities, these “prime movers behind the globalization processes so characteristic of the nineteenth century” (pp. 8–9) also necessarily engaged with the broader historical forces around them. Müller’s account describes a global project that was intertwined with contemporary ideological, political, and sociocultural currents.

At the heart of Wiring the World lies the group of actors that Müller terms the “Class of 1866”, comprising around 40 British and American individuals who were directly involved the most in laying the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. In the first two chapters, Müller describes the social background and pre-existing networks that enabled these entrepreneurs, financiers, and engineers to gather the knowledge and capital necessary for the monumental undertaking of 1866. They constituted an alliance of northern British industrialism, characterized by the cotton merchant John Pender, and members of the new American elite, including the wealthy New York businessman Cyrus W. Field, and Samuel Morse. Drawn from different backgrounds, together these men represented the new “Euro-American” middle class that was to dominate further submarine cable projects across the globe, for decades to come.

Throughout the narrative, the lens narrows or widens to focus either on the “Class of 1866”, on the broader network of a few hundred known people involved, or even on the many more “faceless” employees who managed the technology (p. 15). In a particularly fascinating section, Müller draws attention to a list of shareholders in one transatlantic cable company to illustrate wider levels of involvement in the project. From the 1880s onwards, investment in the technology, which had initially centred upon large contributors in financial capitals, became increasingly nationalized. Shareholders were more evenly spread throughout the British countryside and crucially came to include large numbers of women. This phenomenon, Müller argues, reflected trends in public engagement with the technology at a national level as well as the changing status of women in Britain, who were newly empowered to have control of their property. It would be interesting to compare this observation with an analysis of other cables, including in other countries, though presumably the source material imposes its limits in this regard.

Despite being united in a common endeavour, and sharing a belief in the technology’s potential to create universal harmony, Müller demonstrates that these actors derived their views from different backgrounds and ideological commitments. Whilst Manchester Liberalism and the creation of interdependent markets was at the forefront of many British entrepreneurs’ minds, for example Richard Cobden had supported the project. It was also the vision of a Societas Christiana, belief in a global Christian union, which motivated Americans such as Field and Morse. From the 1870s onwards, moreover, internationalism was increasingly proffered as the best means of coordinating global flows of knowledge and information.

Not only the vision, but also the reality of Weltcommunication, was variegated, both socially and geographically. Connecting far-flung lands also meant excluding others, whilst the failure to break the cable companies’ monopoly maintained tariffs at a level that prohibited mass usage of any other kind well into the twentieth century. Increasingly “global” communication was experienced differently based on one’s access to the technology, such that “while the boundaries of time and distance were challenged, other boundaries, such as class, were reinforced” (p. 154). Both the imagination and the experience of global communication, Müller argues, were thus tied to the sociocultural contexts in which the actors were operating.

The two penultimate chapters address the interplay of globalization and nationalization at the end of the nineteenth century. Cosmopolitan visions of scientific communication, enshrined in the Society of Telegraph Engineers established in 1871, increasingly gave way from the 1880s onwards to multiple national engineering and telegraph organizations. London saw its centrality challenged as its period of “industrial decline” set in, while Germany and the USA emerged as leading beacons in the field of electrical engineering. On the other hand, an “archive of global telegraphic knowledge” (p. 165) was being created by the many agents and researchers sent by cable companies to their outposts throughout the world, all participating in the elaboration of a Eurocentric scientific discourse. Meanwhile, low-level administrators and company directors became involved in both local politics on the ground and international negotiations. Indeed, these interesting ramifications of Müller’s argument suggest that this book is about more than the “social and cultural creation of global telegraph networks”, which the subtitle indicates. Originally able to conduct a form of “cable diplomacy” as managers of the neutral maritime space between states, in the latter decades of the nineteenth century the leaders of submarine telegraphy were confronted with the nationalization of political and economic discourse. Consequently, these global agents strategically played national interests off and against one another in order to conduct their business.

Müller thus vividly illustrates the “entanglement” of these actors and the global transformation they spearheaded with the local, national, and imperial developments of the time. The range of topics addressed is impressive and thought-provoking, though it perhaps inevitably leads to some surprisingly terse remarks on large issues, which seem to call for more elaboration – for instance, Britain’s “industrial decline” (p. 69), Anglo-American relations (p. 90), or the “massive attempt to measure, map and categorize the world” since the European Renaissance (p. 170). Müller occasionally concludes her chapters with somewhat convoluted summaries of the vast array of subjects that her panoply of actors have evoked, though these result from the otherwise admirable ambition of the book. Most importantly, it is a valuable and illuminating analysis, both in terms of its content and of the ideas and connections that it stimulates.

[1] Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World. The Telegraph and Globalization, Cambridge 2012
[2] See Amelia Bonea, The News of Empire. Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c. 1830–1900, Oxford 2016; Michaela Hampf/Simone Müller-Pohl (eds.), Global Communication Electric. Business, News and Politics in the World of Telegraphy, Frankfurt am Main 2013; term used by Ian Standage, in “The Victorian Internet. The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers” (London 1998).

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