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Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph

  • James W. Carey

In one of the most famous paragraphs of our most famous autobiography, Henry Adams located the precise moment when “eighteenth century troglodytic Boston” joined industrial America: “the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard Steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the presidency. This was May, 1844.”

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1. Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918; rpt. New York: Modern Library, 1931), p. 5.

2. Thompson, Robert L., Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832–1866 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947).

3. See Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., The Visible Hand; the Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), esp. Part II.

4. Among the most readable, accessible sources on the patent struggles is Josephson, Matthew, Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959).

5. Noble, David F., American by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).

6. See Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1961), pp. 3844.

7. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 36.

8. Carey, James W., “A Cultural Approach to Communications,” Communication, 2, No. 1 (1976), 122.

9. Carey, James W. and Sims, Norman, “The Telegraph and the News Report,” unpublished paper, Univ. of Illinois, 1976, and Carey, James W. and Quirk, John J., “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” The American Scholar, 39, Nos. 2, 3 (Spring, Summer 1970), 219–41, 395424.

10. Chandler, , p. 9.

11. Marx, Leo, The Machine and the Garden (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 195207.

12. Carey and Quirk.

13. Czitrom, Daniel Joseph, “Media and the American Mind: The Intellectual and Cultural Reception of Modern Communication, 1838–1965,” Diss., Univ. of Wisconsin, 1979, p. 11. Whereas I have commented on the essentially religious metaphors that greeted the telegraph in the essays cited above, Czitrom brings this material together in a systematic way.

14. Ibid., p. 12.

15. Miller, Perry, The Life of the Mind in America (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1965), p. 48.

16. Ibid., p. 52.

17. Ibid., p. 91.

18. Czitrom, , p. 17.

19. The poem, by Martin F. Typper, is reprinted in Prime, Samuel Irnaeus, The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse, LL.D. (New York: D. Appleton, 1875), p. 648.

20. Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, “Railroad Space and Railroad Time,” New German Critique, No. 14 (Spring 1978), p. 40.

21. Briggs, Charles F. and Maverick, Augustus, The Story of the Telegraph and a History of the Great Atlantic Cable (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1858), pp. 2122.

22. Andrews, William P., Memoir on the Euphrates Valley Route to India (London: William Allen, 1857), p. 141.

23. By a vanishing mediator—a concept borrowed from Frederick Jameson—I mean a notion that serves as a bearer of change but that can disappear once that change is ratified in the reality of institutions. See Jameson, Frederic, “The Vanishing Mediator,” Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 5 (Birmingham, U.K.: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1974), pp. 111–49.

24. See Carey and Quirk, and Carey, James W. and Quirk, John J., “The History of the Future,” Gerbner, George et al. , eds., Communications Technology: Impact and Policy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973) pp. 485503.

25. Carey, James W., “The Communications Revolution and the Professional Communicator,” The Sociological Review Monograph No. 13, 01 1969, pp. 2338.

26. Carey, , “A Cultural Approach to Communications.” On changes in styles of journalism, see Sims, Norman, The Chicago Style of Journalism, diss. Univ. of Illinois, 1979.

27. Steffens, Lincoln, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World), 1958, p. 834. For a memoir that discusses the art and adversity of writing for the cable, see Shirer, William L., 20th Century Journey: The Start: 1904–1930 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), pp. 282–84.

28. The quotation is from an as yet unpublished manuscript by Douglas Birkhead of Louisiana State Univ. Birkhead develops these themes in some detail.

29. On urban imperialism, see Schlesinger, Arthur M., The Rise of the City, 1878–1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1933), and Pred, Allan R., Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973).

30. Among the few studies on the telegraph and empire, the most distinguished is Fortner, Robert, Messiahs and Monopolists: A Cultural History of Canadian Communication Systems, 1846–1914, diss. Univ. of Illinois, 1978; see also Field, James A. Jr., “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book,” American Historical Review, 83, No. 3 (06 1978), 644–68.

31. In making these remarks I am much indebted to the work of Fortner and Field.

32. On these matters there are useful suggestions in Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973).

33. Quoted in Wilson, Geoffrey, The Old Telegraphs (London: Phillimore, 1976), p. 122.

34. Ibid., p. 123.

35. Ibid., p. 210.

36. Thompson, , p. 11.

37. Ibid., pp. 205–6.

38. For additional details, see Carey and Sims.

39. Emery, Henry Crosby, “Speculation on the Stock and Produce Exchanges of the United States,” Studies in Economic History and Public Law, 7 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1896), 106.

40. Cole, Arthur H., Wholesale Commodity Prices in the United States, 1700–1861 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1938), pp. 9496, 103.

41. Baer, Julius B. and Woodruff, George P., Commodity Exchanges (New York: Harper & Bros., 1935), pp. 35.

42. Emery, , p. 139.

43. Chandler, , p. 211.

44. Marx, Karl, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 534.

45. Schivelbusch's “Railroad Space and Railroad Time” is the inspiration for some of these remarks. See also his wonderful book The Railway Journey (New York: Urizen, 1979).

46. I am again suggesting a general social process. The invasion of the sabbath and the night time by commerce were also attempts in the late nineteenth century to press against the frontier of time. See Carey, James W., “Culture, Geography and Communications: The Work of Innis in American Context,” in Melody, William H. et al. , eds., Culture, Communication and Dependency: The Tradition of H. A. Innis (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1980).

47. Many of the details on the development of standard time were taken from Corliss, Carlton J., The Day of Two Noons, 6th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Railroads, 1952).

48. Wiebe, Robert, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967).

49. Corliss, , p. 3.

50. Ibid. See also Bartky, Ian R. and Harrison, Elizabeth, “Standard and Daylight Saving Time,” Scientific American, 240, No. 5 (05 1979), 4653.

51. Schivelbusch, , p. 39.

52. Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present, No. 38 (12 1967), p. 70.

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