The Growth of the Telegraph

Imperial Connections

The second half of the nineteenth century saw an expanding system of imperial communications made possible by the electric telegraph. Invented by Samuel Morse in 1837, the telegraph enabled the rapid transmission of information, as well as ensuring secrecy and code protection. The business community was first to make use of this new technology. The speed and reliability of telegraphy were seen to offer opportunities for profit and international expansion (Headrick, 1991).
The rapid development of the telegraph was a crucial feature in the unification of the British Empire. With the first commercial telegraph link set up in Britain in 1838, by 1851 a public telegraph service, including a telegraphic money order system, had been introduced. By the end of the century, as a result of the cable connections, the telegraph allowed the Colonial Office and the India Office to communicate directly with the Empire within minutes when, previously, it had taken months for post to come via sea. By providing spot prices for commodities like cotton, the telegraph enabled British merchants, exporting cotton from India or Egypt to England, to easily beat their competitors (Read, 1992).
The new technology also had significant military implications. The overhead telegraph, installed in Algeria in 1842, proved a decisive aid to the French during the occupation and colonization of Algeria (Mattelart, 1994). During the Crimean War (1854-56), the rival imperial powers, Britain and France, trying to prevent Russian westward expansion that threatened overland routes to their colonial territories in Asia, exchanged military intelligence through an underwater cable in the Black Sea laid by the British during the conflict. (The Crimean conflict was notable for the pioneer war reports of Irishman William Howard Russell in The Times of London, who was to become the first ‘big name’ in international journalism.)
Similarly, during the Civil War in the US (1861-65) over 24000 kilometres of cable was laid to send more than 6.5 million telegrams. The American Civil War was not only one of the earliest conflicts to be extensively reported, but also the first example both of co-operative news gathering among the American and European journalists, and of the use of photo-journalism.


The first underwater telegraphic cable which linked Britain and France became operational in 1851 and the first transatlantic cable, connecting Britain and the USA, in 1866. Between 1851 and 1868, underwater networks were laid down across the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. During the 1860s and 1870s, London was linked up by cable to the key areas of the Empire (see map, p. 15). The first line between Europe and India via Turkey was opened in 1865. Two other cables to India – one overland across Russia and the other undersea via Alexandria and Aden were both started in 1870. India was linked to Hong Kong in 1871 and to Australia in 1872 and Shanghai and Tokyo were linked by 1873 (Read, 1992). By the 1870s, telegraph lines were operating within most countries in Asia and an international communication network, dominated by Britain, was beginning to emerge. The expansion of cable was marked by the rivalry between British and French Empires, which intensified after 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal.
The decade from 1870 to 1880 saw the successive inaugurations of communications links between the English coast and the Dutch East Indies (Batavia), the Caribbean network, the line from the British West Indies to Australia and China, the networks in the China and Japanese seas, the cable from Suez to Aden, communication between Aden and British India, the New Zealand cables, communication between the east and south coasts of Africa, and the cable from Hong Kong to Manila (Read, 1992).
In South America, the south transatlantic cable, opened in 1874, linked Lisbon with Recife, Brazil, via the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira. Two years later, a network was established along the coast of Chile. The British cable of 1874 was joined in 1879 by a new French cable across the North Atlantic, with a spur to Brazil, and by a new German cable from Emden to the Azores to Morovia on the African coast, and from there to Recife. By 1881, a network along the pacific coast from Mexico to Peru was in operation. In the 1880s, France established a series of links along the coast of Indochina and Africa, with networks in Senegal (Desmond, 1978).
The British-sponsored Indo-European landline telegraph between India and the Prussian North Sea coast had gone into operation in 1865. The cable had been extended from British shores to Alexandria by 1869, to Bombay in 1870, and other cables had been extended from Madras to Ceylon and from Singapore to Australia and New Zealand by 1873, and also to Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Japanese coast. Connections were made in China in 1896 with a spur of the Great Northern Telegraph Company Danish-owned line across Siberia to Russia and other points in Europe. This made a Tokyo-Shanghai-St Petersburg-London communications link possible (Desmond, 1978).
Undersea cables required huge capital investment, which was met by colonial authorities and by banks, businessmen and the fast-growing newspaper industry, and the cable networks were largely in the hands of the private sector. Of the total cable distance of 104000 miles, not more than 10 per cent was administered by governments. To regulate the growing internationalization of information, the International Telegraph Union was founded in 1865 with 22 members, all Europeans, except Persia, representing, ‘the first international institution of the modern era and the first organisation for the international regulation of a technical network’ (Mattelart, 1994: 9).
According to the International Telegraph Union, the number of telegraphic transmissions in the world shot from 29 million in 1868 to 329 million in 1900 (Mattelart, 1994). For the first time in history, colonial metropolis acquired the means to communicate almost instantly with their remotest colonies … The world was more deeply transformed in the nineteenth century than in any previous millennium, and among the transformations few had results as dazzling as the network of communication and transportation that arose to link Europe with the rest of the world. (Headrick, 1981: 129-30)
Military operations – such as the Japanese-Russian war of 1904-5, were both assisted and reported by the first transpacific cable which had been completed in 1902, joint property of the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada. It ran from Vancouver to Sydney and Brisbane, by way of Fanning Island, Suva, and Norfolk Island, with a spur from Norfolk Island to Auckland. A connection already existed, established in 1873, linking Tokyo and London, with spurs to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Calcutta, Bombay, and Alexandria, and with cable and telegraphic spurs by way of Singapore and Batavia to Darwin, Sydney and Auckland, where ties were made to the new transpacific cable to Vancouver.
A second transpacific cable was completed in 1903 by US interests, providing a link between San Francisco and Manila, through Honolulu, to Midway Island and Guam, and from there to the Asian mainland and Japan by existing British cables. All of these landing points were controlled by the United States: the Hawaiin Islands had been a US territory since 1900 and Midway was claimed by it in 1867, while Guam and the Philippines had become US colonies as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War (Desmond, 1978). Control over cables as well as sea routes was also of enormous strategic importance in an age of imperial rivalry (Kennedy, 1971). The cables were, in the words of Headrick, ‘an essential part of the new imperialism’ (1981: 163).
The outcomes of the two imperial wars – the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Boer War (1899-1902) – strengthened the European and US positions in the world and led to a rapid expansion in world trade that demanded immediate and vastly improved communications links, as well as more advanced naval capabilities. The new technology of ‘wireless’ telegraphy (also called radiotelegraphy) promised to meet these needs.
In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi harnessed the new discovery of electromagnetism to make the first wireless transatlantic telegraph transmission, with support from naval armament companies and newspaper groups. The British Empire had a great technological advantage since the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Great Britain dominated global telegraph traffic and had a virtual monopoly on international telegraph exchanges, as it refused to communicate with any other system other than its own. The operators of a Marconi apparatus were prohibited from responding to radio signals emanating from a non-Marconi transmitter, a policy that had the effect of blocking the exchange of critically important information relating to the safe passage of ships. However, at the Berlin Conference on Wireless Telegraphy in 1906 the first multilateral agreements on radiotelegraphy were signed and the International Radiotelegraph Union was born. By 1907 Marconi’s monopoly was being challenged by other European countries as well as the United States.
The dominance of British cable companies, which lasted until the end of the First World War, was based on direct control through ownership, and indirect control by means of diplomatic censorship, which Britain exercised over the messages travelling through its cables. Britain had a critical advantage in its control of the copper and gutta-percha markets – the raw materials for the manufacture of cable – since the world rates of these were fixed in London and British mining companies owned copper deposits and mines in Chile, the world’s biggest producer (Read, 1992).
Colonial governments supported the cable companies, either scientifically by research on maps and navigation, or financially by subsidies. In 1904, 22 of the 25 companies that managed international networks were affiliates of British firms; Britain deployed 25 ships totalling 70 000 tons, while the six vessels of the French cable-fleet amounted to only 7000 tons. As a result, British supremacy over the undersea networks was overwhelming: in 1910, the Empire controlled about half the world total, or 260 000 kilometres. France, which in contrast to the USA and UK, opted for the state administration of cable, controlled no more than 44000 kilometres (Headrick, 1991; Mattelart, 1994). As Table 1.1 demonstrates, the Anglo-American domination of international communication hardware was well established by the late nineteenth century, with the two countries owning nearly 75 per cent of the world’s cables.
Much of the global cabling was done by private companies, with Britain’s Eastern Telegraph Company and the US-based Western Union Telegraph Company dominating the cable industry. By 1923, private companies had nearly 75 per cent of the global cabling share, with British accounting for nearly 43 per cent, followed by the American companies which owned 23 per cent (Headrick, 1991). Within a quarter of a century, the world’s cable networks had more than doubled in length.
As British companies were losing their share of global cable, the Americans increased their control on international communication channels by leasing cables from British firms. US companies challenged Britain’s supremacy in the field of international cables and telegraph traffic, which, they claimed, gave unfair advantage to British trade. The American view was that the pre-war cable system had ‘been built in order to connect the old world commercial centres with world business’ and that now was the time to develop ‘a new system with the United States as a centre’ (cited in Luther, 1988:20).
The cables were the arteries of an international network of information, of intelligence services and of propaganda. Their importance can be gauged from the fact that the day after the First World War broke out, the British cut both German transatlantic cables. After the war, the debates over who should control the cables, which had been taken over early in the war, one by the British and another by the French, dominated discussions at the 1919 peace talks at Versailles and reflected the rivalry between the British cable companies and the growing US radio interests for ownership and control of global communications networks. The USA proposed that the cables be held jointly under international control or trusteeship and that a world congress be convened to consider international aspects of telegraph, cable and radio communication (Luther, 1988).
Unlike cables, the Americans dominated the new technology of telephones. Following the patenting of the telephone by the Bell Telephone Company, established by the inventor of telephony Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, telephone production increased in the US. In 1885, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), later to become the head office of Bell Systems, was founded and for the next 80 years it succeeded in keeping a near-monopoly over US telecommunications networks.
Britain, Spain, France and Italy as well as in Japan, China and Australia (Mattelart, 1994). However, the area covered by telephones was very limited – telephone networks acquired a global dimension only in 1956 when the first telephone cable was laid under the Atlantic.

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