Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860-1930 / Edition 1

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Filling in a key chapter in communications history, Dwayne R. Winseck and Robert M. Pike offer an in-depth examination of the rise of the “global media” between 1860 and 1930. They analyze the connections between the development of a global communication infrastructure, the creation of national telegraph and wireless systems, and news agencies and the content they provided. Conventional histories suggest that the growth of global communications correlated with imperial expansion: an increasing number of cables were laid as colonial powers competed for control of resources. Winseck and Pike argue that the role of the imperial contest, while significant, has been exaggerated. They emphasize how much of the global media system was in place before the high tide of imperialism in the early twentieth century, and they point to other factors that drove the proliferation of global media links, including economic booms and busts, initial steps toward multilateralism and international law, and the formation of corporate cartels.

Drawing on extensive research in corporate and government archives, Winseck and Pike illuminate the actions of companies and cartels during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, in many different parts of the globe, including Africa, Asia, and Central and South America as well as Europe and North America. The complex history they relate shows how cable companies exploited or transcended national policies in the creation of the global cable network, how private corporations and government agencies interacted, and how individual reformers fought to eliminate cartels and harmonize the regulation of world communications. In Communication and Empire, the multinational conglomerates, regulations, and the politics of imperialism and anti-imperialism as well as the cries for reform of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth emerge as the obvious forerunners of today’s global media.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I know of no other recent work that comes close to this one in sweep, detail, and complexity, yet is so compellingly relevant to our present times. Dwayne R. Winseck and Robert M. Pike have done a masterful job unraveling a tortuously complex and fragmented narrative of the rivalries, alliances, ambitions, and subterfuges in which the cable companies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries engaged.”—Oliver Boyd-Barrett, editor of Communications Media, Globalization, and Empire

“The central arguments of Communication and Empire—that the ‘empire of capital’ is not coterminous with imperialism, and that many of the central features of the contemporary global communications system have their roots in the period of global commercial expansion before the high tide of imperialism—are both important and timely, and are supported with a wealth of original firsthand empirical material.”—Graham Murdock, editor of The Political Economy of the Media

Benjamin Schwantes

Communication and Empire offers a noteworthy overview of the development of global communications systems prior to the Great Depression. . . . [A] groundbreaking analysis of the connections between private communications firms and broader issues of global development.”
Lisa Gitelman

“[T]he great strength of this book is its exacting elaboration of so many additional vectors, which together comprise first-wave globalization of instructive complexity. If the core of the book is a global industry history that joins hardware (the cables) and ‘content’ (the wire services), the book is also attentive to political and diplomatic history. Readers will no doubt see striking parallels—even continuities—between the global media system that Winseck and Pike describe and the one we know today.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822339281
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2007
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Dwayne R. Winseck is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is the author of Reconvergence: A Political Economy of Telecommunications in Canada and a coeditor of Democratizing Communication? Comparative Perspectives on Information and Power and Media in Global Context.

Robert M. Pike is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is the author of many articles on the history of communications.

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Read an Excerpt


By Dwayne R. Winseck Robert M. Pike

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3912-0

Chapter One

Building the Global Communication Infrastructure: Brakes and Accelerators on New Communication Technologies, 1850-70

Nearly a century and a half before the World Wide Web and a glut of fiber-optic cables were weaved around the planet, another global communication infrastructure was being put into place. This chapter highlights three key factors that drove that process: the consolidation and cartelization of telegraph industries in Britain, Europe, and North America; the cooperation between Anglo-American and European interests in establishing the first major long-distance cable systems; and the interaction between the cable promoters and speculators and the political and cultural currents within the "developing countries" of the Middle and Far East that shaped the evolution of communications systems. Overall, the chapter canvasses the visions, successes, and failures that shaped global communications between 1850 and 1870.


Early prototypes of the telegraph had been around since the 1810s, but it was not until the 1830s that Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke introduced the new technology in England. Samuel Morse did likewise in the United States,but not until 1843. European countries quickly followed suit, although for years strict state control in some countries prevented use of the telegraph by the general public. This was particularly notable in France, where the French Interior Minister declared in 1847 that the telegraph was "an instrument of politics, not of commerce." Only after the revolution of 1848 and ensuing liberalization of the French economy was France's telegraph system thrown open for public use (1850). Likewise, the Austro-Hungarian Empire built a telegraph system in 1846, but did not permit the public to use it until 1849. Wheatstone was called on in 1845 by the Dutch government to construct a line between the stock exchanges in Brussels and Antwerp. And two years later Charles Siemens laid the basis for the communications colossus that would bear his name into the twenty-first century by constructing a network for the Prussian government. During the same period, lines were extended into Belgium, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Sweden and, over the next two decades, to Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

From their inception, European telegraph systems interconnected across national frontiers, and rules were put into place to govern technological standards, rates, the distribution of revenues, citizens' right to privacy, and also the prerogative of states to censor messages to ensure public morality and national security. From the outset it was clear that there were tensions around new communication technologies which would decide whether they would develop in relatively open ways or as closed systems under the strict supervision of nation-states. Beginning in the 1850s, these issues were handled by two agencies-the Austro-German Telegraph Union and the West European Telegraph Union-but in 1865 they were merged to create the International Telegraph Union (ITU). As the first multilateral organization, the ITU was on the forefront of efforts by legal scholars and diplomats to forge multilateral and cooperative solutions to world problems through the rule of international law.


As the telegraph business took off, William Cooke turned his effort to developing this business, while his partner, Charles Wheatstone, receded into the background to focus on the science of the new technology. Cooke formed in 1846 what was to become one of the two dominant companies in Britain, the Electric Telegraph Company. Five years later its main rival emerged, the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company. The Magnetic, as it was known, was packed with a "who's who" roster of engineers, financiers, and politicians, and over time these people became the global telegraph and cable barons of the age, notably its managing director, John Pender, a Manchester textile entrepreneur, and two communication technology experts, Charles T. Bright and John W. Brett. The only other firms of any significance in Britain during the 1850s and 1860s were Reuters' Telegram Company, the Universal Private Telegraph Company, and the London District Telegraph Service.

Pender's Magnetic Telegraph Company and Cooke's Electric Telegraph Company quickly consolidated their grip on the British telegraph industry by the mid-1850s, and as they did they diversified into the news business and expanded internationally. By 1846, the Electric Telegraph Company had its own journalists collecting and distributing news, stock market prices, and market information, and more than 120 newspapers subscribed to its services. Not to be outdone, the Magnetic began to do the same. By decade's end, however, both companies stopped competing in the news business in favor of combining with one another, as well as Reuters, in a deal that gave them sole distribution rights for Reuters's news service in British cities outside London -which remained the exclusive preserve of Reuters. For an annual fee the equivalent to US$1,000, the companies provided the Belfast Newsletter, Glasgow Herald, and Manchester Guardian, among other newspapers, a daily service of approximately 6,000 words. In short, the companies leveraged their control over networks into control over content. A decade later, the cartel's grip tightened with the admittance of the United Kingdom Telegraph Company into its fold. But the cartel was a steady source of irritation, and in their campaign for state-owned telegraphs, the British provincial press quickly made major issues of the "telegraph news monopoly" and its high rates.

While the Electric Telegraph Company and the Magnetic cooperated in the British telegraph and news market, they competed with one another in European and international markets. John Brett, a director at the Magnetic, led the way by establishing the Submarine Telegraph Company in 1850. A year later, and with the backing of British and French capital, the firm laid the first cable from Dover to Calais in 1851, thereby putting the London Stock Exchange and Paris Bourse into near real-time contact with one another. The company laid five more cables to Europe over the next decade. Brett also created two new affiliates-the Mediterranean Electric Telegraph Company (1854) and the Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company (1857)-in a bid to wire-up the Mediterranean region and to extend a system of cables from there to India-a point we return to later in the chapter. The Magnetic also expanded into Europe with two cables to Ireland in 1853 and joined an alliance with Brett's Submarine Telegraph Company in 1859. But such moves also drew into the fray the Electric Telegraph Company, which had two new cables of its own to Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1852 and extensions to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and St. Petersburg during the next four years. In short, cooperation at home was offset by competition between the two new firms in European markets.


The telegraph business in North America was more competitive from its beginnings than either the oligopolistic British telegraph industry or the state-controlled telegraph systems of Europe. By the mid-1850s, however, Western Union began to absorb its competitors at a furious pace and to establish affiliates in Canada. Close links were also forged with Cyrus Field, a New York publisher and printer who plunged into the telegraph business during the 1850s. Of particular importance to the ties between Field and Western Union was the acquisition of three small companies created by the Scottish-Canadian speculator, Frederick N. Gisborne, in the Canadian maritime provinces: the British North American Telegraph Company; the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company; and the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. Together, these firms constituted the nucleus for a planned transatlantic communications system that would reach from New York, Boston, and Halifax on one side to London on the other.

The consolidation of telegraph systems along the Atlantic seaboard was spurred on by rivalry among telegraph companies and news agencies for control over the flow of news and information between Europe and North America. American news agencies were obsessed with capturing European news as it arrived in Halifax by ship and speeding its delivery to the press and news services in New York and Boston. Using the telegraph instead of waiting for ships to make the journey from Halifax to Boston or New York shaved two days off the time for European news to be published in the North American press. However, those potentials had been compromised by unscrupulous news agents who would bribe telegraph officials and even resort to cutting the lines of their rivals to gain an advantage. Recognizing the advantage of bringing telegraphs under unified control and the need to cooperate with the main American news agency, the Associated Press, Field acquired Gisborne's Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company and the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company in the mid-1850s.

The acquisitions, in turn, became the pillars of two new firms: the American Telegraph Company (1854), which would operate along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, and the Atlantic Telegraph Company (1856), which was intended to operate the planned transatlantic cables. With these acquisitions, Field gained monopolistic rights to operate telegraphs in the aforementioned areas for the next half century, which played a decisive role in shaping the nascent Euro-American communication market for decades. Stitching up rights along the maritime coast also gave Field the clout to deal with Western Union on a more equal basis, as was reflected in their decision to form the North American Telegraph Alliance in 1857. Although there were six members in the cartel, it was a creature of the American Telegraph Company and Western Union.

As in Britain, consolidation within North America was a prelude to expansion into global markets. Between 1854 and 1856, and to howls of protest from rival telegraph companies and news agencies in the United States, Field and Western Union struck several deals that left the North American market exclusively to Western Union while reserving the yet-to-be-created Euro-American market to the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The deals also transferred the American Telegraph Company's inland system to Western Union and, in return, gave the Atlantic Telegraph Company exclusive access to Western Union's vast North American distribution network for the next fifty years. Rivals charged that these arrangements created an international cartel and petitioned the U.S. Congress to intervene on behalf of maintaining competition, but to no avail.

Field registered the Atlantic Telegraph Company in London in 1856, reflecting the fact that the American group behind the company was closely allied with the British-based Magnetic Telegraph Company directors, notably John Pender, John Brett, Charles T. Bright, and a few others. In fact, the vast majority of the capital and nine of the new firm's directors were from the Magnetic Company. The British connection was also obvious in the fact that Field relied on two British firms-Glass Elliot and the India Rubber Gutta Percha and Telegraph Company-to manufacture the cables to be used in his venture. The British Submarine Telegraph Company was also hired to lay the cables. Finally, the Anglo-American connection was evident as the U.S. Congress and British Parliament passed nearly identical legislation in 1857 pledging naval surveys and annual subsidies of $70,000. In return, both governments received guarantees that their messages would be treated equally and given priority over all others. All in all, the arrangements revealed the Anglo-American foundations of the Atlantic economy, even though a cable between North America and Europe was still almost a decade away.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company's first attempt to lay a transatlantic cable in 1857 failed. A second attempt a year later saw the cable work for a little over a month, but after a few press dispatches and some celebratory exchanges between U.S. President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria lauding the civilizing potential of cable communications, the line fell silent. A similar experience with the Red Sea and India Telegraph Company in 1859-as discussed below-raised grave doubts about the viability of cable communications altogether. As investors grew skittish, remaining projects were put on hold for several years.

In response, however, the U.S. and British governments gathered together a roster of eminent engineers and experts from the international cable communications industry in 1861 to conduct separate investigations into what had gone wrong. The results, especially of the British investigation, put things on a more solid footing and stood, as an article in the Electrician stated, as "the most valuable collection of facts, warnings, and evidence ever compiled concerning submarine cables." The British investigation concluded with four main recommendations: improve the quality of cable technology; establish common technological standards; develop better cable laying techniques; and improve the ends of the network in terms of signaling and receiving.

While that was one prong in efforts to revive the cable industry, the consolidation of two leading British cable operating and manufacturing firms a few years later (1864) was even more important. Up until this time, Britain's superiority in cable technology rested on five manufacturing companies-the India Rubber Gutta Percha and Telegraph Company, Glass Elliot, Siemens, Henley Telegraph Works Company, and R. S. Newall and Company. Britain also held a monopoly over the supply of gutta percha-the rubbery insulating material that protected cables from damage-given that it came from the Malay states within the British empire. The merging of the Gutta Percha Company and Glass Elliot created the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, a company that towered over the industry well into the twentieth century. Although several smaller firms continued to operate, the scope of their operations paled alongside the massive Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. This new technology powerhouse was presided over by the world's most prominent cable baron-John Pender-and woven into the fabric of business and diplomatic circles through a vast network of relationships. The firm was also vertically integrated with the most important telegraph company in Britain (the Magnetic) and well connected to the largest global communication projects then being contemplated.

All of these factors gave the nascent system of global communication a sturdy fulcrum point and this, ultimately, played a key role in fomenting the decade-long boom in cable building efforts that took place after the mid-1860s. Almost immediately, the transatlantic project was revived and a new firm-the Anglo-American Telegraph Company-launched. Many of the same interests involved in the earlier efforts were still involved, but significant changes had also taken place. Cyrus Field and several directors of the Magnetic Telegraph Company still figured prominently, as did a bevy of British engineers and financiers, including Thomas Brassey, Samuel Canning, and Daniel Gooch. American capital and technology were still conspicuously absent, although exclusive rights to use the Western Union's massive North American network, the maritime concessions, and contracts with U.S. news organizations were crucial. The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company was at the foreground, putting up a large portion of the capital for the venture and responsible for making and laying the Anglo-American Company's new cable.


Excerpted from COMMUNICATION AND EMPIRE by Dwayne R. Winseck Robert M. Pike Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

About the Series     ix
Illustrations     xi
Tables     xiii
Preface and Acknowledgments     xv
Introduction: Deep Globalization and the Global Media in the Late Nineteenth Century and Early Twentieth     1
Building the Global Communication Infrastructure: Brakes and Accelerators on New Communication Technologies, 1850-70     16
From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era: The Struggle for Control in the Euro-American and South American Communication Markets, 1870-1905     43
Indo-European Communication Markets and the Scrambling of Africa: Communication and Empire in the "Age of Disorder"     92
Electronic Kingdom and Wired Cities in the "Age of Disorder": The Struggle for Control of China's National and Global Communication Capabilities, 1870-1901     113
The Politics of Global Media Reform I, 1870-1905: The Early Movements against Private Cable Monopolies     142
The Politics of Global Media Reform II, 1906-16: Rivalry and Managed Competition in the Age of Empire(s) and Social Reform     177
Wireless, War, and Communication Networks, 1914-22     228
Thick and Thin Globalism: Wilson, the Communication Experts, and the American Approach to Global Communication, 1918-22     257
Communication and Informal Empires: Consortia and the Evolution of South American and Asian Communication Markets, 1918-30     277
The Euro-American Communication Market and Media Merger Mania: New Technology and the Political Economy of Communication in the 1920s     304
Conclusions: The Moving Forces of the Early Global Media     338
Notes     347
Bibliography     379
Index     403
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