Week 6- The Lasting Effects of the Telegraph

In chapters 5, 6, and 9 Standage explains the transformation of the telegraph from the initial construction of the wire to the implementation and effects on society. From Standage’s explanation of the telegraph’s initial debut in 1858, there are many similarities about the public’s reaction to this invention and the reaction to today’s “telegraph”—e-mail.

In chapter 5 Standage addresses the initial doubt about building a telegraph in the first place explaining “nobody who knew anything about telegraphy would be foolish enough to risk building a transatlantic telegraph; besides it would cost a fortune” (page 75). After many failed attempts the telegraph was completed, or so they thought. The public reacted to this in a celebratory manor claiming it was “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by a conqueror on the field of battle” (page 81). This bold statement reflects the sense of achievement that was felt amongst society about this groundbreaking technology. Despite the fact that the transatlantic cable had to be reconstructed there was a sense of hope that swept the globe. They believed that “nothing is impossible to man” (page 82) and some believed that there would be “peace” between “all nations and individuals in the world” (page 90) because there would be a way to communicate more efficiently. One thing that was interesting was the actual details of the construction of the telegraph. The fact that there were physical aspects to it such as the “much larger conducting core” and “more buoyant” (page 87) made me consider what the physical construction of the Internet and e-mail is. Although I understand the basics in regards to servers, I think that upon the construction of the telegraph people were more attentive to physical components versus society today, where some believe that it takes place wirelessly in the clouds.

In chapter 6, Standage further explains the reactions to the telegraph. There were often complaints about the speed of the telegraph wanting “a cheap, efficient way to be found to transfer large numbers of messages over those branches of network that were prone to sudden surges in traffic” (page 94). This could arguably foreshadow the advances in technology displaying people’s desire for more information and faster. Initially, the telegraph was only used for “time-sensitive” (page 94) information. This allowed the Stock Exchange to take precedent over personal messages. It took a bunch of attempts to perfect the pneumatic tube but “blockages were a constant problem for all pneumatic tube networks” (page 97). It is interesting to see how a community was created around telegraph wires, filled with pneumatic tubes, and staffed by hundreds of people whose sole purpose was to receive messages and dispatch. This displays a lot of characteristics that were in effect during the development of the Internet and computers. The Paris tube network even further represented today’s e-mail messages because they were sent along paths, similarly to e-mails on the Internet today. The telegraph system was becoming more efficient and improving as time passed. Despite the usages for more business matters than personal, many still believed it was an “instrument for world peace” (page 103) despite the fact that hindsight we now know it didn’t lead to a better understanding of countries and peoples through communication to prevent conflict.

In chapter 9, Standage explained the shift from a world where time wasn’t regarded to a world where “timeliness” (page 146) of news was crucial. Standage explained that today, journalists do anything to get their stories in on time yet in the early 19th century, newspapers would wait two or three days to broadcast a foreign story. Despite Bennett’s belief that newspapers would go out of business, the beginnings of the Associated Press and quick communication via telegraph increased the newspaper’s duties to release news from anywhere in the world quickly. Reuters also emerged as an effective resource because of its ability to translate news and redistribute. The fact that the “readers just couldn’t get enough foreign news—the more foreign, the better” (page 152) set the path for the mindset that readers have today. Internet news sites are constantly updating their stories, minute by minute, regardless of where it is taking place in the country. News and information quickly became more public as the telegraph’s use became imperative in war time efforts. Still today, with the Internet and the job of journalists to serve objective news to the people, there is always a fear that no information is private anymore due to e-mail. Furthermore, the telegraph began to make the world a smaller, more connected place.

The question that I pose is do you think that because of the telegraph our world is a smaller more connected place? Do you think that the foundation of the telegraph allowed information to not only be spread quickly, but also publicize our lives? What are some of the effects you find in the beginnings of the telegraph that still influence our lives today in terms of social media?


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1 Response to Week 6- The Lasting Effects of the Telegraph

  1. amandakoons says:

    I like your question, because when I was reading the Standage piece, I couldn’t help but thinking to myself, had the inventors of the telegraph given up when the cables kept breaking in the water, what implications would that have had on technology as we know it today. So yes, I do think the telegraph connected people in a way very similar to the Internet and as a result, the world, in essence, became smaller because what was going on in Europe was able to be transmitted now quickly to the U.S and so on.

    It is interesting to consider some of the effects of the telegraph that still influence our lives in terms of social media. While Standage did not discuss this, the concept of the lead and syndication both came about because of the telegraph. Journalists starting using the “lead” when writing their stories, or putting the most important information in the first sentence of an article in case the lines were intercepted, the important news got through. We still use this technique today to attract the readers attention right off the bat. The concept of syndication also came about because of the telegraph. Journalists realized that since information was easier to access, they could start selling the same stories to numerous outlets. Finally, while this may be a stretch, I think the concept of Twitter is oddly similar to the idea of the telegraph; 140 characters, and no more, to say exactly what you want, short and sweet. The reality is, as much as we like to be informed and in the know, there is too much information in the world, and we feel like we only need a sentence or 2 to get the main ideas, so the technology has in essence, come full circle.

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