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Imperialism has existed in the world since the beginning of government all together, but this practice took a dramatic turn in the latter half of the nineteenth century. New inventions, modern thinking, and stronger governments all made imperialism easier. Now thousands of miles could be conquered in a matter of months; an empire could have a stronger hold on a colony than ever before. The result was that by the end of the century, at least one European nation had a claim to nearly every piece of land on the Earth.
In the early nineteenth century, it would take a message 5-8 months to travel from England to India. Steamships cut that time to six weeks each way, but furthermore electrical telecommunications made that time, for all practical purposes, instantaneous. This new form of communication gave imperialists the ability to maintain their empire, being able to govern a colony thousands of miles away. The web of cables that was so eagerly constructed around the world gave the European empires an advantage that earlier nations never could have imagined.
The following pages will cover the history and effects of electrical telecommunications from its beginning through the first world war. They will describe the basic technology and inventors behind the telegraph; following this the implication of this technology, mainly by Britain and France, into everyday practice will be discussed along with its effects. And finally, the effects on politics and economics leading up to the First World War will be discussed.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse (Fig. 1), a North American painter and inventor, got the idea for the telegraph while traveling from Italy to America. He began work and patented the first successful telegraph in 1838, along with a system of dashes and dots of electric pulses to represent letters (Stall sec. 1). The first message on a commercial telegraph cable was sent on May 24, 1844, from Washington DC to Baltimore. Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” himself to his partner Albert Lewis Vail at the Baltimore & Ohio railway station. Plans to expand the network to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston began immediately (2).
Meanwhile in England, two gentlemen William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone (Fig. 2) had been working on the needle telegraph (Fig. 3). After years of experiments and patents, they finally built a one-needle telegraph that was so efficient and so simple that it was used in England for nearly eighty years to come (8).
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The next phase in telegraphy was building submarine cables. Cable technology of the 1850’s was too primitive for under water, but the British decided to build one across the Red Sea anyway. The cable failed after one message was sent; it was too tight, not durable, and snapped under pressure. This project cost the British 800,000 pounds (Headrick 100). The use of a new kind of rubber called Gutta Percha, which was discovered in 1843 in India, as an insulator made submarine telegraphy a reality (99). Cables were soon laid across the Mississippi river, the Ohio river, and the English channel. Cyrus Field was the first to attempt a Transatlantic cable. After three failures, a cable in 1858 finally worked but only for four weeks. In 1865 the Great Eastern (Fig. 4) laid a cable that was a near success, and a year later laid the first successful cable from England to the United States (Stall 9). Soon more cables were laid with better transmitting technology from Britain to India and France to Algeria (Headrick 101).
The world telegraph network was expanding, but it was not any cheaper. Demand and competition among the telegraph companies resulted in new techniques and inventions. Inventions such as curb transmission, siphon recorder, and duplexing increased efficiency. In 1870, 9-13 words could be sent per minute, but by 1920 that figure rose to 400-500 and a message would take 3 minutes to travel from New York to London, all on the original cable (Headrick 104). In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell (Fig. 5) patented his telephone (Fig. 6) to transmit the human voice, but this invention was only used locally and was not installed for imperial purposes (Stall 10).
The British empire was lucky to see the potential of the telegraph early. They realized how it could act as a political reinforcement and give them an advantage in politics and trade over foreign nations. In 1887, J. Henniker Heaton stated to the Royal Colonial Institute:
Now it is often gloomily predicted by purblind students of history that this tremendous agglomeration must inevitably break up and dissolve, like its predecessors. “Where,” they ask, “are the Greek, the Roman, the Spanish, the Napoleonic empires? What is there in the British Empire to preserve it from the fate of these?” I venture to reply, that in the postal and telegraphic services the empire of our Queen possesses a cohesive force which was utterly lacking in former cases. Stronger than the death dealing war-ships, stronger than the might of devoted legions, stronger than wealth and genius of administration, stronger even than the unswerving justice of Queen Victoria’s rule, are the scraps of paper borne in myriads over the seas, and the two or three slender wires that connect the scattered parts of her realm. (172)
This selection shows how helpful and how advantageous the telecommunications network was to the British Empire. Britain began work in the early 1850’s to complete a connection to India. The 1857 rebellion in India increased interest in a connection and encouraged the British government; so in 1858 they began work on a cable line. The first step was a land line from Constantinople to Baghdad. Then in 1862 Colonel Patrick Stewart of the European Telegraph Department laid a land line from Karachi to Gwadur. In 1864 a submarine cable was laid through the Persian Gulf from Gwadur to Fao. This cable weighed 2.5 tons per Km, four times that of the ill fated Red Sea cable. This cable met the Turkish land line at Fao and the British to India connection was complete. This line was slow and expensive, but sufficient for the time being.
Fear of more imperial troubles motivated the British Parliament to subsidize private companies to build more cables. The Zulu War of 1879 made a Trans-African cable a necessity to the British, so they paid for a cable from Durban to Zanzibar. The British invasion of Egypt required a cable from Suez to Suakin in 1882, the British protectorate claim over Nigeria required a cable to the Gold Coast in 1885, and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 required a cable from Shanghai to Weihaiwei (Russel 236).
Now the British began another mission. They did not like the fact that they had to depend upon foreign nations, some of which unfriendly, for communications. Their paranoia began the project for an “all-red” (red referring to the color used to represent the British empire on maps at the time) cable network. An article entitled “Our Telegraphic Isolation” written by Percy Hurd for the Contemporary Review in 1896 was one of the more influential pieces to call for “a system of telegraphic communication completely under British control (69).” Work began in 1889 and after millions of dollars in government subsidies, an entirely British controlled cable network was present in 1902 when Britain to Canada cable was completed (Headrick 110).
At the turn of the century, the British had a near monopoly on submarine cables and a majority of control over land lines. The French became upset by their dependence upon the British cable network and decided, being fearful of a possible Franco-British war, to begin work on their own network. French journalists were becoming outraged by the British abuse of power. The British would receive reports on commodity prices, ship arrival and departures, and world conditions days before the French (114).
At the International Cable Convention, France and the United States proposed that all cable systems be considered neutral in wartime. Not only did Britain categorically refuse this, they proposed and got the right to cut cables during war. The British, owning 24 of 30 cable ships had an unfair advantage at cable cutting (115). The fear of a Franco-British war was now more reasonable than ever. During a near confrontation between French and British forces at the Nile river, the signal from France to Senegal went dead. The British claimed it was a mechanical failure, but now the French realized exactly how necessary a cable network was (116). Another such incident was the extensive censorship of messages during the Boer War. The British forbid all secret code messages south of Aden and re-routed all other messages through the London Central Telegraph Office to approve each one (114).
Now the French were willing to collaborate with other foreign nations, mostly the United States and the Netherlands. The anti-British feeling was so deep they even worked with the Germans on some cables. Between 1898 and 1914, the French built or acquired 8 major telegraph cables along with the construction of hundreds of local cables (118). But even with all that progress, when the war broke out in 1914, all but the connection to North Africa were under British control at some point. The British used their cable cutting advantage immediately. When the war broke out, within hours they had already cut the German cable from Emden to New York and had seized the German controlled posts in Cornwall and Nova Scotia (117).
An important form of communication that was not widely used until the beginning of the war was electromagnetic radiowaves. Guglielmo Marconi (Fig. 7) first began experimenting with wireless in 1895. He was soon able to transmit across the Atlantic, but the technology was expensive and insecure. New improvements, however, made the technology very practical for military use. Ships could now keep in direct contact, the early aircraft could communicate with each other and the base, and each military unit could organize themselves strategically with direct communication (Stall 13). The British and French both had plans to create major radio networks, but these were stopped when the war broke out (Headrick 129).
Telecommunication changed the world, giving imperialist nations opportunities never seen before. The ability to have instantaneous communication with every part of an empire had a sensational effect on world politics and economy. The so called “Spinal cord of the British Empire” reassured them as an economical and commercial center and reinforced political control.
This new technology, however, did fail in one aspect. Ferdinand de Lesseps wrote “[This technology will] bring peoples closer together and thereby to bring about an era in which men, by knowing one another, will finally stop fighting.” Despite the great benefits of telecommunications, it incited international paranoia and jealousy, and thus it could not bring peace to the world.
Benson, Ian, and John Lloyd. New Technology and Industrial Change. Kogan Page Limited: London, 1983.
Headrick, Daniel R. The Tentacles of Progress. Oxford University Press: New York, 1988.
Haeton, J. Henniker. “The Postal and Telegraphic Communications of the Empire,” Proceedings of the Royal Colonial Institute. 1888: 172
“History of Telecommunication.” http://www-stall.rz.fht- esslingen.de/telehistory/1870-.html. Online. Internet. 22 May 1999
Hurd, Percy A. “Our Telegraphic Isolation,” Contemporary Review. 1893: 899
Russel, Colin. Science and Social Change in Britain and Europe 1700-1900. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1983