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Home » Book Review » Book review: Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge, 2013).

Book review: Roland Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge, 2013).

1901_Eastern_Telegraph_cables

The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century (A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, 1901), available via Wikicommons (click here).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The first thing that is obvious on reading this book is the author’s training as a social scientist. Much of the introductory and first chapter of the book is taken up with the social theory of technology. While this is an essential task for a history of technology study, in places the author’s use of detailed explanation and examples in striving for clarity can be excessive and detract from the empirical and narrative flow of the book. This makes the book an excellent starting point for students seeking to understand the sub-discipline that is the history of technology, as well as providing an excellent source of further readings. But it does make reading certain sections difficult and would deter the average readership without a strong interest in the history of communications.

The central aim of Wendzlhuemer’s book is to examine the role that the telegraph played in the process of globalisation during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book begins with the now near-obligatory comparison between the telegraph and the internet. This section concludes that there were similarities and differences between both technologies, in particular the ability of both technologies to ‘dematerialise’ information, i.e. physically separating information from a physical carrier. The book argues that to understand the development and application of these technologies we must look beyond the socio-, or technological-determinist understanding of technological development to what has been termed a ‘post-humanist’ approach. Thus, while technological systems are socially ‘shaped’, the technology has agency and impacts on its use. Bearing this in mind the book aims to understand how the forces of globalisation ‘shaped’ the global telegraph network and in turn how the availability of this network was utilised by those involved in the formation of a global economy.

The book is very successful in tracing how the development of global communication impacted upon temporal distances; that is the time it took to communicate between different regions of the world. The author through detailed research and analysis, using social network theory, is able to demonstrate that important financial and mercantile centres such as London developed significant links to regions like the east coast of the United States and India and this allowed rapid communication. However, in contrast, as these regions were becoming temporally closer other parts of the globe, due to poor telegraphic connectivity, were bypassed. In chapter six the book traces the development of international telegraphy and the author attempts to correlate the development of telegraphic connectivity with increases in trade, however while he maintains that this was the case in some regions it did not happen in others. The author, aware of the limitations of reliance upon telegraphic and trade statistics alone, is quick to point out that a study of the wider economic and structural factors behind these is needed to integrate the benefits of telegraphic connectivity within wider commercial interests.

As well as a global study of telegraphic development the author dedicates a chapter to the development of the telegraph in Britain and another to India. Again the use of social network theory allows an analysis of the use of this technology.

While the product of a substantial amount of work which provides a considerable amount of data of use to historians of the telecommunications this book at times presents this information without enough contextualisation. It is here perhaps that the book is too ambitious and by concentrating purely on international telegraphy could have allowed itself room to explore the wider factors influencing telegraphic development and its impact on globalisation in more detail.

In conclusion, for anyone researching globalisation, telegraphy and international trade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this is a must read, but the density of statistics would deter the average reader.

 

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