The telegraph was undeniably a revolutionary movement during the Victorian era but fast forward over a century later and I invite you to play a game of spot-the-difference, or more appropriately spot-the-similarities between the telegraph and it’s successor, digital media. Now I won’t waste your time with semantics. The very fact that you’re here means you’re fully aware of what the internet is and it’s potential. It’s very ability to store and provide us with large masses of information in a matter of seconds, illustrates an intense technological advancement that has allowed society to develop and grow throughout time. However, let me educate you on the history of the telegraph.
The 1830’s saw Samuel Morse introduce the world to the very first telegraph instrument. An idea stimulated after it took 4 days for him to be notified of his wife’s death involving a repetitive electrical sequence of code over a transmitting wire (Evans, 2016). As a result, this allowed instant communication over vast distances without the need for physical exchange, which soon became the most heavily depended on telecommunication system in the 20th century (Freeman, 2012, p.17).
Apart from the fact that they are both critical technological advancements that have allowed society to develop and grow, the telegraph and the internet parallel in more ways then one.
INSTANT COMMUNICATION AND ACCESSING INFORMATION
The first transatlantic cable allowed people to communicate instantaneously across large distances and annihilated the space between countries. The Crimean War (1853-56) saw french and Britain governments communicating directly with commanders on the battlefield. More controversially, reporter William Howard Russell alerted the public of the unethical actions on the battlefield in real time, such as lack of medical support and inadequately equipped front-line soldiers (Standage, 1998). Similarly, instant communication can be experienced within the internet through Facebook, Skype, Twitter etc. in order to relay and exchange information to individuals or groups from across rooms, cities and the world.
While both cases experienced alot of hype and excitement, they also triggered skepticism throughout the public with concerns that the telegraph would hinder social interaction and personal relations (Standage, 1998). They feared participants would be too occupied with their devices that they would disregard physical interaction. Sound familiar? This mirrors today’s society as people fear that the internet is absorbing our lives and damaging our relationships, which sparks the question, if relationships weren’t destroyed by the telegraph, then why would the internet?
The telegraph was responsible for creating one of the first great monopolies in U.S history the Western Union. After establishing a transcontinental system, the Western union suppressed their competition through tactics of ‘buying up bankrupt lines, absorbing competitors with new issues of stock and contracting with the railroads’ (Phillips, 2000, p.276). Consider today’s monopolies of the internet. Google dominates the market over Bing and Yahoo in regards to the most popular internet search engine, aiming to create the most efficient experience possible when searching for information.
The telegraph experienced an array of privacy issues as messages were sent and received via telegraph operators who acted as third parties in personal conversations. Furthermore, ‘scam artists found crooked ways to make money by manipulating the transmission of stock prices and the results of horse races using the telegraph’ (Standage, 2015). Similarly, today the internet has to manage the threats of hackers and identity thieves who target credit card details to scam people of their money. As resolutions, codes were applied through telegraphs and passwords (a similar form of code) are implemented through the internet.
On a light-hearted note, romance is also a common factor between the telegraph and the internet. Women occupied the majority in the occupation of telegraph operators (Jepsen, 2000). With this they had the advantage of talking to men of all distances and meeting new people everyday. The use of the telegraph also initiated the first online marriage over the wires. (Evans, 2016). This occurred long before today’s romance methods of online chat-rooms, applications such as Tinder and social media that often replace physical communication.
Evans, N 2016, ‘Week 2: Global Village, Global Empire’, BCM232, Lecture Notes, The University of Wollongong, Australia
Freeman, E 2012, ‘The Telegraph and Personal Privacy: A Historical and Legal Perspective’, EDPACS: The EDP Audit, Control and Security Newsletter, Taylor & Francis Online, Vol. 46, Issue 6, <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07366981.2012.750531>
Jepsen, T 2000, ‘Women in the Telegraph Industry’, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950, Ohio University Press, viewed 16th March 2016, <https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=bcBUk9LPR0sC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=women+and+the+telegraph+morse&ots=2tXQvAxwWl&sig=wh1K12nrfM4f65ki5878W298I5Y#v=onepage&q&f=false>
Phillips, R. J 2000, ‘Digital Technology and Institutional Change from the Gilded Age to Modern Times: The Impact of the Telegraph and the Internet’, Journal of Economic Issues, Routledge Group, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 267-289, tandfonline, <http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=27c44e33-04e3-47df-a1d6-84d74c63859f%40sessionmgr4001&vid=1&hid=4202>
Standage, T 2015, ‘The Victorian Internet’, southeastern.edu, viewed 15th March 2016, <http://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/scraig/standage.html>
Standage, T 1998, ‘War and Peace In the Global Village’, The Victorian Internet, Bloomsbury, USA, pp. 136-153