"The reductionism inherent in analytical techniques come to be seen as the
answer for the problem of too much information, that 'horrible mass of books
which keeps on growing', grumbled Leibniz...the onslaught of new information
begun in the 16th & 17th centuries continued unabated...the only possible
way to master it, many came to believe, was reducing it to some analytical
order...a new and different hierarchy of knowledge...derived from mathematical
§ 1. Keeping Pace
We take up the telegraph's development again, in 1936, as Morse, Cooke and Wheatstone were all manoeuvring, on both sides of the Atlantic, to establish themselves and their inventions as vital instruments of governance & commerce, but it would take almost a decade to firm up this investment and produce a viable industrial application for the telegraph supported by the proper network of administration, infrastructure and technical knowledge. Cooke's father had been a good friend of Francis Ronald, and so had already been well-versed in the frustrations of seeking government assistance for technical projects. Instead, in 1837, he approached the London & Birmingham Railway, and soon he and Wheatstone were carrying out groundbreaking experiments on the line between the Euston and Camden Town stations. 2
Yet before diving back into these affairs, let us survey the horizon as the telegraph's influence unfolded, coinciding with a decade of dramatic developments around the globe in the tumultuous 1830s and 40s. The railroad was already beginning to transform the rural landscapes of Britain and America (the steam-driven coal locomotive had begun operation in 1932). We have already discussed the work done with calculating machines (1820s-30s) to some extent, but over the course of a few years, as the telegraph was felt to 'collapse time & space', which in turn liberated human intelligence from distance, so also would there emerge new wonders and curiosities linked to commerce and the machines which drove them.
One intriguing mechanical wonder which had amazed the likes of Napoleon's learned court and others across Europe in the late 1700s, but was now touring America with its new owner Johann Maelzel (supporter of Beethoven, court mechanic of the Hapsburgs & inventor of the metronome), was the Chess Playing Turk. Originally constructed in Vienna ca. 1770 by Wolfgang van Kempelen for the amusement of Empress Maria-Therese, the Turk was a life-sized, moustachioed & turbaned clockwork automaton, a wind-up driven by gears & pulleys which happened to play an excellent game of chess. Mazelzel had purchased the robot after the death of its designer, and was touring down the Eastern seaboard of US, for the first time exposing an American audience to this European technical wonder in 1836. Morse, according to all biographical accounts never made the show in NY (too busy tinkering with his own machines) but a magazine editor just new to his position stopped by to see the clockwork man (seemingly straight out of Hoffman) when its tour stopped in Richmond, VA. The device was a wonderful bit of puppetry, wrote Edgar Allan Poe in the Southern Literary Review immediately afterwards, but it was hardly the revolutionary bit of machine intelligence that had so stunned audiences. 3 Poe's expose went on to describe how the movements of the Turk, slowly pushing the chess pieces about the board, were directed not by some steam-power brain but by a midget concealed in the base of the machine (one who clearly had a talent for the game). This scepticism of so-called 'machine intelligence' was present in the withrawl of public funds for Babbage's engine a few years later, as rivals and politicans accused his mechanical computer of similar flim-flammery.
By 1837, Cooke and Wheatstone were granted a patent for the 'needle telegraph' by the British government, and immediately began to experiment on linked railway stations. So encouraged were they by their progress, by 1840 they proposed the feasibility of developing a telegraphic link to Europe. In '36, meanwhile, Morse was hard at work on his single-wire telegraph & dot-dash code, however political support was less enthusiastic than hoped and he waist until 1842 to receive any public funds from Congress. As a result. despite early successes, the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line is not strung and functioning until '44. However, as an illustration of how quickly the new technology was embraced, by 1848 the Chicago Commodities Exchange (the principle futures market for the US 4 ) had opened its operation to the telegraph device and by 1850 telegraph wires have begun to spread throughout Europe and North America. By 1852, in the six years following its commercial release to the market, the US alone had sprouted some 23,000 miles of telegraph cable.
Besides technical developments, lurking around history's corner, there were major political & economic transformations occurring across the globe, especially in Europe, which would lead to considerable turmoil by mid-century. So far our story has focused primarily on the drama surrounding scientists, engineers and commercial interests, to the neglect of some vitally important military, political and social history. These become crucial to understanding the push for communications competency & control in the last half of the 1800s, particularly from the Imperical perspecctive of the British, as seen in the Crimean War (1854), the India Rebellion (1857) and then the dramatic events of the American Civil War (1860), the Boer War (1890) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900).
Each of these conflicts in some way reflect the traumas of adjustment felt as nation states went from imperialism to industrialization to colonialism in efforts to ensure their commercial & political sovereignty. As the political geographer Peter Hugill outlines, with Napoleon's rise in the early 1800s, a new paradigm emerged in global statehood, one so powerful it moved others to comply or face severe competition: "even Britain, the most successful of the trading states was forced to embrace the new imperialism...such extension of direct imperial control depended upon a vastly increased bureaucracy, rapid movement of people and, increasingly, information." 5 Or, as another scholar put it, perhaps more clearly,
one should not seek the origins of the 'Information Society' in the computer
chip but in the steam engine. The computer represents only the latest,
albeit crucial, version of the long line of 'control technologies' that have
emerged to satisfy an industrial society's need to control its increasingly fast
and vast activities. 6
§ 2. The Progress of Empire
Just as the brash Napoleon was rising to political power in France and not long before the British Navy (under Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's command) was to face the French and Spanish Armada's at Trafalgar (a battle which secured England's naval dominance well into the 19th ca., cementing her colonial security), in 1798 a previously unknown economist made a startling mathematical discovery, one which profoundly impacted British foreign policy. Thomas Robert Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population found that while the agricultural resources of a nation seemed to improve along an arithmetical line, with linear progress made in methods of cultivation, the population on the other hand could be seen to grow along a geometric, or exponential upward curve (the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and subsequent rebellions would seem to illustrate this resource crisis rather dramatically).
For a populous and increasingly urbanized and industrial (i.e. non-agrarian) power such as Great Britain, this was an unwelcome but extremely influential bit of research and it sounded like a cannon through the halls of government. In the coming years, as first Napoleon pushed his armies throughout Europe and Russia (under Czar Nicholas) began to throw its military weight around the region, most of the nations of Europe found themselves locked in a 'Great Game' to secure & maintain access to the colonial resources upon which each depended to further power the process of modernization. 7 Britain had fought two colonial battles (in Ireland & the American States), losing one hugely resource-rich territory just 20 years previous in the 1770s, and soon after the showdown with France at Trafalgar, the English Navy would have to fight the US again to ensure continued access to other vital territory in Canada (the War of 1812), then Napoleon again at Waterloo (1815). Soon after, seeing the troubles abroad, the new American States also reacted in kind with a new 'territorial imperative' (almost as if by reaction to Malthus) through its consolidation doctrine of Manifest Destiny (Florida Purchase, 1819 & annexation of Texas, 1845).
With Britain (the nation most relevant for the moment to our discussion), one need only examine the line of political reform at home (in combination with the policies pursued abroad) to note how the government aimed to mediate the growing unease: namely, the Catholic Emancipation (1829), the Reform Act and School Act (1832), the Poor Law and Factory Act (1834) and, most dramatically the abolition of slavery throughout the Empire (1833). All this internal re-structuring set the stage for further reformist policies of Queen Victoria when she took the throne in 1837 and ruled until 1901. Beyond the British Isles however, the nation's interests seemed increasingly hemmed in by the sway of the United States in the Americas, Germany in Europe and Africa, and Russia in the Middle East & India. Britain's isolationism, in other words, was found untenable, and by the late 1840s, the British Admiralty & East India Company was shifting to a regime of subtle intervention overseas (which would ultimately culminate in the 'Rule Britannia' imperialism of the early 1900s). 8 The English military, political and commercial leadership was watching very closely the experiments of two industrious young engineers on the railways leading in and out of London, perhaps seeing an answer to their increasingly complex strategic landscape.
§ 3. Wires Over & Under Seas
It must not be supposed however that because we can send letter to each
other every day or talk to the end of the world in a few seconds by means of
the telegraph wire...that we have for these reasons alone become any better
or much wiser than our forefathers. What a man says or thinks will not be
wiser or better because he sends it over a wire. The man himself will not
himself lead a better life, or even be a much wiser man. 9
It was the underwater cable experiments of Werner von Siemens in Germany (the Rhine, 1849), the Brett Brothers in England (English Channel, 1850) and Morse (NY Harbour, 1852) in America which transformed the telegraph from a technology of industry into a viable military & political mechanism. Subsequently, this is also where national interests begin to truly manifest themselves in the push for more sophisticated networks. Nowhere can this urgency be more profoundly traced than in the global drama which unfolded in the story of the Transatlantic Cable, which begins with two doctors in the jungles of British Malaysia in the 1840s, takes a detour into the Crimean War which raged through the Balkans in the 1850s, and finally ends in a quiet inlet named Heart's Content on the island of Newfoundland in 1866. The endeavour captured the imagination of the world and involved many of the leading engineers and inventors of the era, finally culminating in what just decades before had seemed unimaginable, the instantaneous relay of information across 4000 kilometres of water, as if by magic.
-Hugh Oakley Arnold-Foster, 1897.
In the year 1850, the first major submarine cable project had been undertaken by two enterprising brothers in England, who had received after much wrangling a charter from French and British authorities to attempt the laying of an insulated wire across the English Channel. At this point, a military engineer named Werner von Siemens (founder of the Siemens technology conglomerate) had been the only person successful in such a project, and then only across the Rhine. The Brett brothers suddenly found themselves wrestling with some unanticipated technical questions, the most troublesome of which included the strength of current required, the gauge of wire, proper insulating material and the difficulty encountered in keeping a wire of such length from snapping under its own weight as it was dragged along. 10 Morse, at this point, had not even yet begun his New York Harbour experiments and the Cooke & Wheatstone team were still very much occupied with the application of the telegraph to railways, so the Bretts were operating in wholly uncharted territory as they undertook their attempts to lay a Dover-Calais cable that summer. Yet to the jubilation of many (not least the brothers themselves), after several false-starts they were successful in the fall of 1851, while also exposing through their early failures with the Channel cable a major technical bottleneck for submarine telegraphy.
The problem arose in the insulating material required, which needed to be simultaneously strong in its coating of the copper conducting wire, while not becoming brittle and liable to snap under the stress of its own weight as it was laid, especially in the chilly temperatures of deep ocean water. Siemens had used a tar & hemp mixture in his wire, the Bretts opted for India rubber; neither they concluded would be feasible for a cable of length any longer than the Channel. Obviously these events began to unfold in a period long before the era of industrial plastics and polymers now in use, yet ingenuity and luck would have it that a few years previous a new substance had been 'discovered' by a pair of medical doctors stationed in the plantations of British Malaysia. The sap of tropical tree indigenous to this region (and this region only, which becomes significant) was found to harden to rubber-like consistency at room temperature while maintaining a flexible 'give' as it was shaped. 11 In other words, a substance perfectly suited to the future purposes of a wealthy American printer, Cyrus West Field, at that time still on expedition in the Andes Mountains with his friend Frederick Church. 12
When Field returned to America in 1953, he met an English engineer in New York named Frederic N. Gisborne who was attempting to raise badly needed investment for his attempt to run a telegraph line over the island of Newfoundland, then across to Sydney, NS, which would eventually link with other land lines to connect it to New York. 13 The final aim was to bring transatlantic news to America several days sooner as ships arrived from England, a period for which many commercial and media interests would have paid handsomely. However, Gisborne had found the expenses of the task had far outweighed his initial expectations, but Field was immediately struck with the idea and went one better. Why not run a wire the whole way, he asked, and by 1853, as Gibbon's company fell into ruin, Field established the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Co. and immediately sought out the opinion of Matthew Fountaine Maury, oceanic geographer and author of The Physical Geography of the Sea, in hopes of confirming his premise. At the same time, overseas, the Gutta Percha Co. of London was now doing a booming business as its newly found substance moved into all manner of markets- from underseas cables to children's toys to moulded horn hearing aids.
1 Michael Hobart, Information Ages : Literacy, Numeracy & the Computer Revolution (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 148.
2Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (NY: Walker & Co., 1998), 43.
3Neil Gershenfield, When Things Start to Think (NY: Henry Hole, 1999), 124 and Edgar Allan Poe The Fall of the House of Usher & Other Writings (Toronto: Penguin, 1986), 31.
4 As further demonstration of how quickly money markets picked up on these developments, there are accounts as early as 1846 of the Baltimore-Washington line being used to speculate on stocks and that price quotations from London were being published in New York financial papers 96 hours after transatlantic cable first began to operate. By the 1860s, Thomas Edison (early in life a telegraph clerk) had adapted duplex telegraphy and patented the stock ticker, so that by 1880, over a thousand were in use in New York City alone. See Gabade & Silber, "Technology, Communications and the Performance of Financial Markets." Journal of Finance 23, no.3, June 1978 : 819-832.
5 Peter J. Hugill, Global Communications Since 1844 : Geopolitics & Technology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1999), 12. Also prefaced by the remark : the "idea of the nation state emphasised the need to politically control territory as well as trade. As this notion became increasingly accepted in Europe, the linkage of control over territory with needed raw materials & foodstuffs for increasingly urban, industrial populations became clear...territorial states were not set up in this fashion and their radical expansion...produced the new imperialism of the 1800s...the grab for Africa, the America's take-over of the declining Spanish Empire, the first glimmerings of Japan's Greater East Asia."
6 J. D. Peters, "The Control of Information," Critical Review 1 (Fall 1987): 6.
7 Compare the imperialist argument, which while morally realist, clearly led to the brinkmanship of W.W.I against the rhetoric now frequently adopted about vital access to overseas markets & threats of survival at the hands of global competition, made in the name of economic globalization. There is a troubling echo.
8 In 1948-49 alone there were revolutions in France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and even in London, in April of '48, the Duke of Wellington enlisted an elite force of constables to quell Chartist demonstrations, as workers petitioned for suffrage, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts and the banishment of property ownership as a requirement to political office.
9from A History of England, cited by Hugh Barty-King, Girdle Round The Earth: the story of Cable & Wireless Telegraphy (London: Heineman, 1979), 8.
10 John Watkins Brett was a retired antique dealer and his engineer brother Jacob in 1850 formed the General Oceanic and Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Co., with a 10-year contract with the French government to lay cross-channel cable. The Bretts loaded the 25 miles of cable onto a Dover steam-driven tugboat, the Goliath, and lay their first cable to Cape Gris-Nez on Aug. 28, 1950. The first cable was successful, but was found snapped a day after it was set in place. The next year they used an armoured cable. See Arthur C. Clarke How the World Was One (NY: Bantam, 1992)
11 "Rubber and tar were used to insulate the first primitive cables of the 1850s (under the English Channel)- these were quickly replace by gutta-percha, which was found to hold up much better. Rubber & gutta percha were isomers...same molecular formula but the atoms are arranged differently...both are natural latexes from tropical tress, but because the molecules of gutta percha have a 'trans' (opposite side) structure, it is far less elastic than rubber...retaining is plasticity over time as well as the extreme pressure and low temperatures that characterize the seafloor...British control of this trade, through the port of Singapore, was marked and it was crucial to British dominance of submarine cable manufacturing." Peter J. Hugill, Global Communications Since 1844 (John Hopkins University: Baltimore, 1999), 29-30.
12 Church was a renowned landscape painter.
13 Hardly a simple task really, "stringing a cable across some of the coldest, most inhospitable terrain on earth...even with the use of four guides- of which two ran away and one died- he was forced to abandon his first attempt after only a few miles of the cable had been laid," from Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (NY: Walker & Co., 1998), 76.