Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-42xl8 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-03T11:22:01.844Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

The dematerialization of telecommunication: communication centres and peripheries in Europe and the world, 1850–1920

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2007

Roland Wenzlhuemer
Centre for British Studies, Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin, Germany E-mail:


Interregional communication has been a key constituent of the process of globalization since its very origins. For most of its history, information has moved between world regions and along the routes according to the rationales established by interregional trade and migration. The dematerialization of telecommunication in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century eventually detached long-distance information transmission from transport and transformed the global communication structure. New communication centres (and new peripheries) emerged. Some regions moved closer to the global data stream than others. It is still unclear how such different degrees of global connectivity impacted on local development. This essay contributes to the identification and valuation of global communication centres and peripheries in order to provide suitable candidates for future case studies. To this end, statistical data on the development of domestic telegraph networks in selected countries has been analysed and interpreted. In a second step, Social Network Analysis methods have been employed to measure the centrality of almost three hundred cities and towns in the European telecommunication network of the early twentieth century.

‘You cannot not communicate.’

Paul Watzlawick

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See, for instance, the bibliography in McKeown, Adam, ‘Global migration, 1846–1940’, Journal of World History, 15, 2, 2004, pp. 155–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 E.g. Pomeranz, Kenneth and Topik, Steven, eds., The world that trade created: culture, society and the world economy, 1400 to the present, London: M. E. Sharpe, 1999Google Scholar; Pomeranz, Kenneth, The great divergence: China, Europe and the making of the modern world economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000Google Scholar; Frank, Andre Gunder, ReOrient: global economy in the Asian age, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.Google Scholar

3 Some notable exceptions: Headrick, Daniel, The invisible weapon: telecommunications and international politics, 1851–1945, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991Google Scholar; Hugill, Peter, Global communications since 1844, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999Google Scholar; Hills, Jill, The struggle for control of global communication: the formative century, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002Google Scholar; McMahon, Peter, Global control: information technology and globalization since 1845, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 E.g. Curtin, Philip, Cross-cultural trade in world history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mokyr, Joel, The gifts of Athena: historical origins of the knowledge economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.Google Scholar

5 See, for instance, LaBianca, Oystein S. and Scham, Sandra A., eds., Connectivity in antiquity: globalization as a long-term historical process, London: Equinox, 2006.Google Scholar

6 Kaukiainen, Yrjö, ‘Shrinking the world: improvements in the speed of information transmission, c. 1820–1870’, European Review of Economic History, 5, 1, 2001, pp. 128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 Lew, Byron and Cater, Bruce, ‘The telegraph, co-ordination of tramp shipping, and growth in world trade, 1870–1910’, European Review of Economic History, 10, 2, 2006, p. 147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Birgitte Holten, ‘Telegraphy and business methods in the late 19th century’, unpublished paper for ‘Cross-Connexions’ conference, London, 11–13 November 2005.

9 Lew and Cater, ‘Co-ordination of tramp shipping’, p. 161.

10 Marshall McLuhan’s influential thoughts on how the medium can indeed become the message in mass communication probably do not apply in this particular case. McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin, The medium is the massage: an inventory of effects, New York: Bantam Books, 1967.Google Scholar

11 I owe this valuable insight to David Christian who has pointed out to me that human communication first had to go through materialization before it could eventually be dematerialized again.

12 Although prone to changes in content and meaning, oral tradition might constitute an exception in information transmission over time.

13 Wenzlhuemer, Roland, ‘The development of telegraphy, 1870–1900: a European perspective on a world history challenge’, History Compass, 5, 2007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Headrick, Daniel, The tools of empire: technology and European imperialism in the nineteenth century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.Google Scholar

15 Holten, ‘Telegraphy and business methods’.

16 The term has been coined by Joel Mokyr and refers to the built-in stability of technological systems and their resistance to technological change. Mokyr, Joel, ‘Technological inertia in economic history’, Journal of Economic History, 52, 2, 1992, pp. 325–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Guide to the London and Birmingham Railway 1840, cited in Kieve, Jeffrey, The electric telegraph: a social and economic history, Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973, p. 28.Google Scholar

18 Huurdeman, Anton A., The worldwide history of telecommunications, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003, p. 67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Kieve, Electric telegraph, p. 32.

20 Huurdeman, History of telecommunications, p. 70.

21 On 1 January 1845, John Tawell killed his mistress in Slough and two days later fled to London by train. As witnesses had seen him board the train to London, instructions were telegraphed to the police in Paddington and Tawell was arrested upon his arrival. Before the installation of the telegraph, it would have been impossible to inform London prior to the train’s arrival. See the aptly named chapter ‘The cords that hung Tawell’, in Kieve, Electric telegraph, pp. 29–45.

22 Huurdeman, History of telecommunications, pp. 58–61.

23 Huurdeman, History of telecommunications, p. 63.

24 Castells, Manuel, The rise of the network society, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996Google Scholar; Castells, Manuel, The power of identity, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997Google Scholar; Castells, Manuel, End of millennium, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.Google Scholar

25 Castells, Manuel, ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: a theoretical blueprint’, in Castells, Manuel, ed., The network society: a cross-cultural perspective, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004, p. 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 It was this flexibility and invulnerability of the network structure that first got the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) interested in computer networks in the 1960s. Even in the case of a nuclear attack, such a communication network would reconfigure itself, bypass all annihilated nodes and still function. From the modest beginnings of such research in the ARPAnet eventually developed today’s internet.

27 Until the nationalization of telegraphy in 1870, the Electric and International Telegraph Company (the ‘Electric’) and the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company (the ‘Magnetic’) were the two biggest telegraph companies in the UK.

28 Anchordoguy, Marie, ‘Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Company (NTT) and the building of a telecommunications industry in Japan’, Business History Review, 75, 3, 2001, p. 509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 Lew and Cater, ‘Co-ordination of tramp shipping’, p. 163.

30 The exact method and the composition of the selected European average have been explained in some detail in Wenzlhuemer, ‘The development of telegraphy’.

31 Hochfelder, David, ‘A comparison of the postal telegraph movement in Great Britain and the United States, 1866–1900’, Enterprise & Society, 1, 2000, p. 746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Norway, Luxembourg and Victoria also featured high rates, but this can be explained by the extremely small populations of these countries.

33 David Edgerton has repeatedly and convincingly made the case for the study of technologies-in-use rather than inventions, if we want to assess the socioeconomic significance of a particular technology. See Edgerton, David, The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007Google Scholar; Edgerton, David, ‘From innovation to use: ten eclectic theses on the historiography of technology’, History and Technology, 16, 1999, pp. 126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Holzer, Boris, Netzwerke, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2006, p. 34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Borgatti, Stephen P., Everett, Martin G. and Freeman, Linton C., Ucinet for Windows: software for social network analysis, Harvard, MA: Analytic Technologies, 2002.Google Scholar

36 All other tables only list 29 network nodes, i.e. 10% of the total. Table 5, however, lists 37 nodes because nodes 27 to 37 all show the same Freeman degree.

37 Valued data represents the different strengths of relations between network nodes. In our case, a connection comprising of several telegraph circuits has been weighted higher in the original data matrix than one made of only a single line. Some SNA methods do recognize such valued data, others convert it to binary data.

38 Freeman, Linton C., ‘Centrality in networks: 1. Conceptual clarification’, Social Networks, 1, 1979, pp. 215–39Google Scholar; Freeman, Linton C., ‘The gatekeeper, pair-dependency, and structural centrality’, Quality and Quantity, 14, 1980, pp. 585–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

39 Technically, farness (and, thus, closeness) cannot be calculated for the entire network in our example as certain parts are not connected to the main body and farness would have an infinite value. Therefore, the figures here only represent the main body of the network.

40 Bonacich, Phillip, ‘Factoring and weighting approaches to status scores and clique identification’, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 2, 1972, pp. 113–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Wenzlhuemer, ‘The development of telegraphy’.