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Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization

Author(s):Wenzlhuemer, Roland
Reviewer(s):Lew, Byron

Published by EH.Net (November 2013)

Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xvi + 339 pp. $110 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-02528-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Byron Lew, Department of Economics, Trent University.

Roland Wenzlhuemer of Heidelberg University has provided a compilation of data on the structure of the nineteenth century telegraph network with the addition of a theoretical wrapper to tie together the material. To be very clear, this book is not directed at economists, though those studying globalization in the long-nineteenth century will certainly find some useful bits.

The study is an exploration of more than just the strict economic factors that affected adoption and diffusion of the technology. Wenzlhuemer shows that potential users of the technology faced a discontinuity – the dematerialization of communications – and were unsure how best to adopt the telegraph, and more importantly how best to adapt to the possibilities it opened and to the constraints it imposed. While most are aware that the initial diffusion of the telegraph took place along rail right-of-ways, Wenzlhuemer explains that the railways were initially reluctant to adopt, not being aware of the potential. And more detail is provided on the latter observation that the telegraph altered the way users communicated.

The first two chapters provide the theoretical underpinnings of the study. Wenzlhuemer offers a summary of some sociological theory of communications, and reviews the ways in which the telegraph contributed to nineteenth-century globalization. Theory is then used to contextualize the feedback between adoption and adaptation. I found these two chapters unhelpful and confusing, though these chapters are clearly not written for a narrow-minded economist.

Chapters 3 and 4 review some detail on the telegraph’s bumpy path to adoption highlighting adaptation to its novelty. These chapters are mostly a theoretically-informed literature review. While much of it will sound familiar – the usage of telegraphy for various commercial purposes – Wenzlhuemer does highlight the swift adoption of the telegraph for a variety of time-sensitive purposes: including asset and commodity markets, but also for reporting racing results.

The value of the study is contained in the detailing of the world’s telegraphic networks and their use patterns in chapters 5 through 8. Here Wenzlhuemer discusses and illustrates the evolution of the world’s submarine cable network. Of particular novelty, he analyzes the connectivity and communication-densities of nodes in three contexts: the British domestic network (for which he has the most detailed data), the international network, and the British-Indian network. Here he drops much of the theoretical background of the earlier chapters and addresses a more basic question of the geography of communication density.

In Chapter 5, Wenzlhuemer tracks the progress of globalization not just through connectivity, but also through the reduction in telegraph communication time. Telegraphic connectivity did not necessarily imply rapid communications. He shows that times declined at different rates for different parts of the world and infers from these lags the status of nodes in the globalizing economy. For example, he shows that the trans-Atlantic route and the London to India route had rapid improvements in messaging time relatively early. Other nodes on the international telegraph network remained remote in terms of message transmission times through the late nineteenth century, with messages taking more than a day in some cases. By 1900, communication times converged and no longer reflected geography, presumably suggesting that globalization was entering a new phase.

Noting that these measures of the convergence of communication times are all with London, in Chapter 6 Wenzlhuemer uses social network analysis to analyze the structure of the global network thereby eliminating the London-centered perspective.  Using several measures of network connectivity, Wenzlhuemer shows that London was a major international communications node, as were Paris and Berlin. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly so too were Vienna and Budapest. But counting connections may not be fully revealing, as Cape Canso in Canada ranks fifth in both 1892 and in 1902. That does indicate that network analysis is not necessarily a useful indicator to identify the points in the network of informational supply and demand.

Where data on messages sent and received by node are available, deeper analysis is possible, and in Chapter 7 Wenzlhuemer uses British data for 1868 to analyze the British domestic network. By network structure London was a principal node, but so too were the major industrial centers of Northern England and Scotland. Going beyond structure, the data on usage patterns show just how central London was in the British domestic system, as well as the international system. The pattern of usage by node seems best described by Zipf’s law. The average number of messages handled in London was greater than the sum of messages handled by the next nine largest nodes – all of which were principal nodes by the network analysis – with London accounting for almost one-third of messages handled in the UK. In comparison, the second largest node, Manchester, ranking almost as high as London in terms of its network centrality, accounted for ten percent of messaging.

The analysis of the structure and usage of the British-Indian network in Chapter 8, while interesting, could have delved more deeply into the contrast with the British network. The British-Indian telegraph was built for the colonial office and therefore linked only major colonial centers in India; and the bulk of the traffic was generated in and destined for a very few nodes. But Wenzlhumer also indicates most of the usage was for private, commercial purposes. Does this mean that the demand for communication reflected the centers of economic activity? Were colonial centers established in commercial centers, or vice versa? Or, was the supply-side, the network structure, determined completely independently of commercial demand so that important commercial communications relied on alternative services outside of telegraph nodes?

The study provides much interesting and newly compiled research on the extent and usage of the nineteenth century telegraph networks. The study includes substantial data on network structure and usage which is interesting but to my mind underutilized. The book has very useful analysis, though the grafting of a theoretical framework seems incomplete, and the link among network structure and usage is not deeply explored.

Byron Lew is an Associate Professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. His current research focuses on Canadian labor mobility, both internally and to the U.S., in the early twentieth century.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century