New Histories of British Imperial Communication and the ‘Networked World’ of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

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Abstract

A number of recent histories of Britain’s late-19th century telegraph network have taken inspiration from many sources, not least historians’ concern to test and delineate the contemporary and modern world of transnational policymaking, the return of maritime history to the forefront of historical studies, and the desire to understand the late 19th century empire that seemed to be drawing strength from technological progress. But another key reason for this new interest in the electric telegraph is clearly the communications revolution of the last 20 years, and the internet’s development as the main means of dealing with information in the modern world. This article demonstrates just how important this present-mindedness has been, but it also shows just how unlike the internet was the Victorian telegraph system, for it was expensive, patchy and often unreliable, encouraging letter-writing and ship-borne commerce just as much as electronic communication. The telegraph’s inauguration reinforced local and imperial nationalisms and rivalries, and arms races, whatever the liberal hopes invested in it; its arrival often led to the concentration of press ownership and a sense of intra-imperial, rather than global or trans-continental, links. The example of the telegraph, it is contended, should form a cautionary example of how problematical it is to take present-day developments and apply them – even as organising concepts – to the past.

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