The telegraph and the telephone were the first electrical communications networks to become hallmarks of modernity. Yet they were not initially expected to achieve universal accessibility. In this pioneering history of their evolution, Richard R. John demonstrates how access to these networks was determined not only by technological imperatives and economic incentives but also by political decision making at the federal, state, and municipal levels.
In the decades between the Civil War and the First World War, Western Union and the Bell System emerged as the dominant providers for the telegraph and telephone. Both operated networks that were products not only of technology and economics but also of a distinctive political economy. Western Union arose in an antimonopolistic political economy that glorified equal rights and vilified special privilege. The Bell System flourished in a progressive political economy that idealized public utility and disparaged unnecessary waste.
The popularization of the telegraph and the telephone was opposed by business lobbies that were intent on perpetuating specialty services. In fact, it wasn’t until 1900 that the civic ideal of mass access trumped the elitist ideal of exclusivity in shaping the commercialization of the telephone. The telegraph did not become widely accessible until 1910, sixty-five years after the first fee-for-service telegraph line opened in 1845.
Network Nation places the history of telecommunications within the broader context of American politics, business, and discourse. This engrossing and provocative book persuades us of the critical role of political economy in the development of new technologies and their implementation.
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About the Author
Richard R. John is Professor of History at Columbia University.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations and Tables vii
Introduction: Inventing American Telecommunications 1
1 Making a Neighborhood of a Nation 5
2 Professor Morse's Lightning 24
3 Antimonopoly 65
4 The New Postalic Dispensation 114
5 Rich Man's Mail 156
6 The Talking Telegraph 200
7 Telephomania 238
8 Second Nature 269
9 Gray Wolves 311
10 Universal Service 340
11 One Great Medium? 370
Epilogue: The Technical Millennium 407
Chronology of American Telecommunications 415
What People are Saying About This
A foundational business history that will be an essential component of what well-educated Americans need to know about their society.
Richard White, Stanford University
In a compact, learned-yet-lucid, and deeply informed book spanning roughly eight decades, Richard R. John provides an engrossing history of the emergence of telecommunication networks in the United States.
David A. Hounshell, Carnegie Mellon University
The innovators who built America's telecommunication networks created more than new devices. With elegant prose and exhaustive research, Richard R. John's eagerly awaited masterwork shows how business and governmental institutions shaped the first century of the telegraph and the telephone.
Pamela Walker Laird, author of Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin
Network Nation is an extraordinary feat of scholarly imagination. Richard John's sweeping history of the telecommunications industry reveals as much about the development of the American state and of the culture of technology as about the rise of a troubled monopoly. Like Alfred Chandler's The Visible Hand, it is one of few institutional studies that anyone with a serious interest in U.S. history should read.
Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan