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‘The telegraph and the bank’: on the interdependence of global communications and capitalism, 1866–1914*

  • Simone M. Müller (a1) and Heidi J.S. Tworek (a2)

This article uses the example of submarine telegraphy to trace the interdependence between global communications and modern capitalism. It uncovers how cable entrepreneurs created the global telegraph network based upon particular understandings of cross-border trade, while economists such as John Maynard Keynes and John Hobson saw global communications as the foundation for capitalist exchange. Global telegraphic networks were constructed to support extant capitalist systems until the 1890s, when states and corporations began to lay telegraph cables to open up new markets, particularly in Asia and Latin America, as well as for strategic and military reasons. The article examines how the interaction between telegraphy and capitalism created particular geographical spaces and social orders despite opposition from myriad Western and non-Western groups. It argues that scholars need to account for the role of infrastructure in creating asymmetrical information and access to trade that have continued to the present day.

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We would like to thank the editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

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33 The cartel included Associated Press from 1893 to 1933/34. See Nalbach, Alexander, ‘“Poisoned at the source”? Telegraphic news services and big business in the nineteenth century’, Business History Review, 77, 4, 2003, pp. 577–610; Rantanen, Terhi, ‘Foreign dependence and domestic monopoly: the European news cartel and US associated presses, 1861–1932’, Media History, 12, 1, 2006, pp. 19–35; Tworek, Heidi, ‘The creation of European news: news agency cooperation in interwar Europe’, Journalism Studies, 14, 5, 2013, pp. 730–742.

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43 Engel, ‘Buying time’.

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77 John, , Network nation, p. 182.

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79 Bright, , Submarine telegraphs, pp. 143144.

80 BT Archives, Anglo-American Telegraph Company Ltd., ‘Tariff Book, 1866–1871’, p. 9.

81 H. Thurn, Die Seekabel unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der deutschen Seekabeltelegraphie, Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1909, p. 193.

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83 American Seed Trade Association, Telegraph code: for vegetable, clover, grass, tree, field and miscellaneous seeds markets, stocks, shipping, etc., New York, 1895, p. i.

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102 Tworek, Heidi, ‘Magic connections: German news agencies and global news networks, 1905–1945’, Enterprise & Society, 15, 4, 2014, pp. 672–687.

103 Michael Friedewald, ‘Telefunken vs. Marconi, or the race for wireless telegraphy at sea, 1896–1914’, Working paper, 2012, (consulted 18 August 2014).

104 Winseck and Pike, Communication and empire, ch. 4.

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111 Akami, Tomoko, Japan's news propaganda and Reuters’ news empire in Northeast Asia, 1870–1934, Dordrecht: Republic of Letters, 2012.

112 Green, Nile, ‘Shared infrastructures, informational asymmetries: Persians and Indians in Japan, c. 1890–1930’, Journal of Global History, 8, 3, 2013, pp. 414–435.

113 Yang, Daqing, Technology of empire: telecommunications and Japanese expansion in Asia, 1883–1945, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010.

114 Starr, , Creation of the media, p. 6; Zakharova, Larissa, ‘Téléphones et télégraphes au pays des Soviets: vecteurs et procédés de circulation des techniques de communication en URSS (1918–1939)’, Histoire, Economie, Sociétés, 31, 4, 2012, pp. 75–90.

115 Williams, Francis, Transmitting world news: a study of telecommunications and the press, Paris: Unesco, 1953. See also James R. Brennan, ‘The Cold War battle over global news in East Africa: decolonization, the free flow of information, and the media business, 1960–1980’, in this issue, pp. 333–56.

116 Roscher, ‘Über das Wesen’, pp. 57–8.

117 Lee Mwiti, ‘East Africa: sea cable ushers in new Internet era’, 23 July 2009, (consulted 3 August 2009); Diane McCarthy, ‘Cable makes big promises for African Internet’, 23 July 2009, (consulted 11 June 2011).

* We would like to thank the editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

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