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DanAllosso

DanAllosso

Currently reading

400 Years Of Freethought
Samuel Porter Putnam
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Philip Pullman, Jacob Grimm
Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
Jennifer Michael Hecht
The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America
Paul E. Johnson, Sean Wilentz

Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications - Richard John Much like Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated, which I just read, John’s main point in this book is that “The first electrical communications media—the telegraph and the telephone—were products not only of technological imperatives and economic incentives, but also of governmental institutions and civic ideals.” (1) John points out at the outset that the telegraph was no “Victorian internet,” and that even the much more popular telephone system was really only used by regular people for local calls until World War II. (2, 3, 11) These tools were mostly used by elites, and the businessmen who ran them had a very narrow vision of their potential market. (6) John mentions the concept of the “network effect,” (that the value of a network expands with its user base), but suggests that historians might be wrong to project our understanding of it onto even the most forward-looking 19th century telegraph developers. (8,9) John distinguishes between the skills and temperament of inventors and innovators, suggesting that like Samuel F.B. Morse himself, the people who patented the technology were often not the ideal developers of nationwide systems.The issue of patenting, actually, turns out to be a prime example of the intersection of technology, business, and government. Morse built his historic Washington-Baltimore demonstration line with a $30,000 grant from Congress. (24) And from 1837 through the granting of the all-important patent in 1840, and its subsequent defense and promotion, the “assistance” that patent commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth gave Morse, his friend of over thirty years, was “little short of astounding.” (49) Similarly, Postmaster General Amos Kendall actively promoted “the rapid diffusion of intelligence” through telegraphy, and then went to work for Morse defending his patents. (33) But the patenting of technical improvements was new and controversial. “Scientist Joseph Henry…refused as a matter of principle.” (43) The creation of “intellectual property” in the 1830s might be an interesting topic to look into, at some point.To some extent, the success of the post office in moving business letters much more quickly than had been possible in recent memory probably dampened the market for telegraphy. John says an upstate New York postmaster told the Postmaster General in 1841 “merchants were the only class of postal patrons who demanded high-speed communications; for everyone else, low coast was the key.” (58) And since letters took only part of a day in upstate New York, to get from town to town, and even postal communication with the City was possible in a day or two, the number of messages that needed to move faster than the mail must have been small. I wonder, though, why sight drafts don’t seem to be part of the story at this point, when the movement of funds between Western Union stations later became such a big part of their business?