Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 528
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The telegraph and the telephone were the first electrical communications networks to become hallmarks of modernity. Yet they were not initially expected to achieve universal accessibility. In this pioneering history of their evolution, Richard R. John demonstrates how access to these networks was determined not only by technological imperatives and economic incentives but also by political decision making at the federal, state, and municipal levels. In the decades between the Civil War and the First World War, Western Union and the Bell System emerged as the dominant providers for the telegraph and telephone. Both operated networks that were products not only of technology and economics but also of a distinctive political economy. Western Union arose in an antimonopolistic political economy that glorified equal rights and vilified special privilege. The Bell System flourished in a progressive political economy that idealized public utility and disparaged unnecessary waste. The popularization of the telegraph and the telephone was opposed by business lobbies that were intent on perpetuating specialty services. In fact, it wasn’t until 1900 that the civic ideal of mass access trumped the elitist ideal of exclusivity in shaping the commercialization of the telephone. The telegraph did not become widely accessible until 1910, sixty-five years after the first fee-for-service telegraph line opened in 1845. Network Nation places the history of telecommunications within the broader context of American politics, business, and discourse. This engrossing and provocative book persuades us of the critical role of political economy in the development of new technologies and their implementation.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05652-7
    Subjects: History, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-4)

    This book is a history of the formative era of the first electrical communications media in the United States. It considers how they worked and why they mattered. Its theme is the influence on these media of the structuring presence of the state, or what nineteenth-century contemporaries called the political economy. The first electrical communications media—the telegraph and the telephone—were products not only of technological imperatives and economic incentives, but also of governmental institutions and civic ideals.

    The telegraph and the telephone are often associated with eponymous inventors: the telegraph with Samuel F. B. Morse, the telephone with...

    (pp. 5-23)

    Three events, reflected the 78-year-old historian Henry Adams in 1906, had thrown into an “ash-heap” the “old universe” into which he had been born. These events were the arrival of the first regularly scheduled transatlantic steamship in Boston harbor in 1840; the opening of the first interregional rail link between Boston and Albany in 1841; and the first telegraphic news dispatch in 1844.¹

    Adams’s reminiscence highlights the enormous significance one thoughtful American gave to a communications revolution that he experienced as a youth. Adams’s memory was selective. Oddly absent from his catalogue of famous firsts was any allusion to the...

    (pp. 24-64)

    In February 1837, Treasury secretary Levi Woodbury requested information from the “most intelligent sources” to help him prepare a report to Congress on the propriety of establishing a “system of telegraphs” for the United States. Of the eighteen responses that Woodbury received, seventeen assumed that the telegraph would be optical and that its motive power would be human. This had been Woodbury’s assumption and also the assumption of Samuel C. Reid, the optical telegrapher whose petition to Congress had set in motion the chain of events that led to Woodbury’s request. The only respondent to envision a different motive power...

    (pp. 65-113)

    “Of one kind of monopoly I am in favor,” editorialized Amos Kendall in September 1847, and that was a monopoly of “a man’s own property.” The property rights Kendall had in mind were the rights that the Patent Office had granted Samuel F. B. Morse for his telegraph. Morse had hired Kendall to manage his patent rights, and Kendall was determined to make the best case he could for his client. “Patent rights are as much private property as printing presses,” Kendall explained, making an analogy that he hoped would strike a chord with readers troubled by special privilege and...

    (pp. 114-155)

    In January 1871, Western Union president William Orton sent a gloomy letter to Anson Stager, the head of the company’s Chicago office. The time was not distant, Orton warned, when Congress would buy out Western Union and operate the telegraph network as a government monopoly. Orton deplored this eventuality. He was familiar with the civil service, having served as a high-level administrator in the Treasury Department during the Civil War, and had no desire to relinquish the greater operational autonomy and higher salary that he had come to enjoy as the president of a large and powerful corporation. Should Congress...

    (pp. 156-199)

    The Western Union building was a soaring monument to the dogged determination of Western Union’s president, William Orton, to transform the corporation into an enduring institution. Unfortunately for Orton, it offered a highly visible temptation to Western Union’s would-be rivals. None of these rivals proved more persistent, or more successful, than the financier Jay Gould.

    Gould challenged Western Union twice, first in 1875 and again in 1879. His first raid targeted Western Union’s patent portfolio; his second, its exclusive railroad right-of-way contracts. Gould’s first raid ended in August 1877 when Orton bought Gould out. Gould’s second raid ended in January...

    (pp. 200-237)

    No “literary genius” has immortalized the telephone, lamented the English telephone engineer J. E. Kingsbury in 1915. Nor had a statistical enthusiast quantified the economic effects of the “electrical extension of human converse.”¹ A few writers like Mark Twain found the telephone sufficiently intriguing to explore its literary possibilities.² But Twain was unusual. The telephone inspired less commentary than the telegraph, and its social consequences were often overlooked. With the exception of trade journals and chronicles of notable inventions, the telephone rarely received more than a passing mention in the press. Characteristic was the journalistic silence that greeted the exhibition...

    (pp. 238-268)

    The hostility of telephone subscribers toward telephone operating companies in the 1880s was pervasive. Telephone subscribers boycotted telephone service in several cities, lawmakers introduced bills to institute telephone rate caps in many states, and journalists derided telephone corporations as unprincipled monopolists in every part of the country in which operating companies had been established. The “wave” of popular hostility toward Bell and its operating companies had become a “telephomania,” complained Chicago Telephone Company general manager Charles N. Fay in 1886.¹ Part of the problem, in Fay’s view, originated with lawmakers and journalists. Yet the main culprit was the telephone subscriber....

    (pp. 269-310)

    “What strikes and frightens the backward European almost as much as anything in the United States,” remarked English visitor Arnold Bennett in 1912, was the “fearful universality” of the telephone. Vast numbers of telephones had been installed in big cities like Chicago not only in businesses and residences, but even in hotels. The millions of “live filaments” that big-city telephone companies had threaded under streets, over roofs, and between the floors, ceilings, and walls of buildings, had transformed the “privacies” of the city’s inhabitants into “one immense publicity.” Nowhere in Europe were hotel guests confronted, as Bennet had been in...

    (pp. 311-339)

    One of the “greatest obstacles” Bell’s independent rivals confronted, reflected public relations expert Ivy L. Lee in 1906, was their inability to secure a beachhead in New York City or Chicago: “So long as the Bell company stands safely fortified within these two great citadels, with New England still in the hands of the Bell army, there will be many people who feel that independent telephone securities, especially of long distance lines, are not the most attractive investments.”¹

    Lee’s assessment casts a spotlight on the single most difficult challenge that the independents faced in their attempt to supplant Bell. By...

    (pp. 340-369)

    The time was coming, predicted Bell president Theodore N. Vail in his annual shareholders’ report for 1910, when the telephone and the telegraph would be linked in a “universal wire system” for the “electrical transmission of intelligence” that was as extensive as the “highway system” that reached from “every man’s door” to “every other man’s door.”¹ Vail had recently purchased for Bell a large financial stake in Western Union and had grand plans for consolidating its telegraph network with Bell’s telephone network. If the Republicans had won the 1912 presidential election, Vail might have translated his forecast into reality. The...

    (pp. 370-406)

    It was an “embarrassing fact,” observed the editor of a Texas telephone trade journal in March 1914, that the American people supported government ownership of the telephone to “quite a large extent.” It was even more unfortunate that this sentiment had been “fostered and developed” by the policies of Bell president Theodore N. Vail and other “men of his kind.” The editor deplored government ownership, yet he was convinced that the “only practicable method” of rebutting its supporters was to “offer something in its place.” By this “something” the editor did not mean the regulation of telephone operating companies by...

    (pp. 407-414)

    The Bell System that Theodore N. Vail envisioned in 1910 was a curious mix. Technically progressive yet financially orthodox, it was the organizational response to a progressive political economy that rejected antimonopoly, but that remained uneasy with regulation. The antimonopoly political economy promised equal access to the fruits of invention for network providers; the progressive political economy guaranteed equal access to the fruits of invention for network users. Bell’s financial orthodoxy shielded it from the moral opprobrium that had haunted Western Union following its takeover in 1881 by the financier Jay Gould. Its technological progressiveness would be institutionalized with the...

    (pp. 415-424)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 425-500)
    (pp. 501-504)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 505-520)