Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Napoleon III and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

Posted on | January 8, 2011 | No Comments

Unlike the US experience, the Europeans banded together at the nation-state level to guide the expansion of the telegraph. France’s Napoleon III called for the international conference that would lead to the establishment of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). “Its mission was to determine procedures, standards, and common rates between member countries, and to record telegraph traffic.”[1] The ITU would guide the future of the telegraph and its successors, the telex, the telephone, wireless radio spectrum, and other telecommunications technologies for the next century and beyond. .

Napoleon III, the nephew of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, had years of experience using the telegraph and was convinced of its use in international affairs. Before America’s Civil War, Napoleon III was directing the Italian Campaign against Austria via telegraph from Paris. Having traversed the area via a secret railroad trip (also a new technology at the time), he subsequently directed the actions of his generals from his war room.

He also struck a deal with Paul Julius Reuter to transmit the text of his speech announcing the war against Austria to the London Parliament while he was giving it in Paris, marking one of the first times the telegraph was used as a political instrument. The 1859 offensive was so bloody, though, particularly the Battle of Solferino with some 6,000 dead and 40,000 injured, that not only was the Red Cross started and the Geneva Convention written, but a movement was initiated to try to harmonize international relations with the use of the telegraph.

The conference to coordinate European telegraphy convened in 1865. It consisted of some twenty European countries. Previously, several bilateral agreements had been reached between countries starting with a treaty in the 1840s between Austria and Prussia that set up a link between Berlin and Vienna.

The Treaty of Dresden created the Austro-German Telegraph Union in 1850 when Austria, Bavaria, Prussia, and Saxony agreed to coordinate their activities. In 1855, Belgium, France, Sardinia, Spain, and Switzerland formed the West European Telegraph Union. But the gathering in Paris was arguably the first veritable multilateral tradition that would pave the way for agreements to coordinate and regulate posts, railways, weights and measures, sea routes, and industrial patents.

Many delegates to the convention believed that the telegraph would lead to a new era of peace on the beleaguered continent. As they gathered in Paris, they quickly reached a consensus that coordination and cooperation were necessary. They began to examine the technical and accounting operations that would make a continent-wide telegraph system work. They also agreed on technical and accounting details. The Morse code and other specialized apparatus were quickly confirmed as European standards, despite Morse’s earlier experience of rejection when he traveled throughout Europe in the 1840s.[2]


[1] ITU quote from Armand Mattelart (2000) Networking the World: 1794-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p.7.
[2] The creation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 1865 from Debora L. Spar (2001) Ruling the Waves: From the Compass to the Internet, a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier. New York: Harcourt Press. pp.84-86.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD was on the New York University faculty from 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global economics.


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