Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Telegraphy: The Time-Space Governmentality

Posted on | January 21, 2011 | No Comments

    By reducing what previously took weeks, to a minute, it (the telegraph) forced the acceleration of methods of obtaining, processing, and codifying information, thus laying the foundation of what decades later was to be called “data processing.”
    – Moreno Fraginals [1]

As argued in Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, the development of widescale telegraphy was far more disruptive and disconcerting for those of the 19th century than the modern Internet was for us at the turn of the 2nd millennium. “If any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such a revolution, it is not us—it is our nineteenth-century forebears.”[2] From roughly 1840 to 1892, the world that had known only communication by ship, horse and the occasional pigeon was suddenly confronted by the implementation of an electric telegraph network.

The transport of electrical signals over metallic wires resulted for the first time in almost instantaneous transmission across large distances and was often much more economical than a communication system dependent on the available modes of transportation. News traveled quickly, prices of goods synchronized between different geographical areas, and the West was tamed as descriptions of outlaws were quickly distributed. By 1900, in the era of J.P. Morgan, the modern mentality had incorporated new modes of space, time, and institution.

The telegraph was strongly linked to the railroads and steamships. Invented in England in 1825 and introduced in the US by 1829, the steam locomotive was in itself a dramatic communication revolution, speeding up the movement of farm and industrial goods, hauling postal mail and providing humans “true mobility” for the first time.[3] The domestication of steam by James Watts propelled its wide-scale use by Britain’s burgeoning industry in the late 18th century. The steam-powered locomotives were first used coal mines in Pennsylvania for transporting coal. The power of trains soon exceeded that of horsepower and the limitations of the animal and wind-based speed. Speeds soon reach 25-40 miles an hour.

As trains and steamships became more prevalent, they required the use of the telegraph to coordinate their movements. “Without the telegraph, and subsequent electronic communication modes, rapid-transit transportation would be confined to a few journeys per day for a small minority and a tiny proportion of manufactured goods. Mass transportation demands precisely timed and ‘spaced’ movements, which in turn presumes the capability of communicating ‘ahead of time’ what is planned.”[4] Together the two technologies and their control over the time-space relationship helped propel the United States to the forefront of industrial nations.

Understanding this new metamorphosis of communicative capability and how it set the stage for a domestic and global system of electronic communications requires that it be analyzed in light of a number of historical developments.

  • One was the drive in the US to expand westward and connect with the Pacific. Driven by the rapid rise of immigration in late 1800s, emigrants moved further west to settle the lands and make a new life for themselves. The railroad was integral to this process of westward expansion and was a significant user of the telegraph as well.
  • Second, the struggle with the South resulted in the Civil War and the subsequent utility of using electronic communications to conduct military activities as well as to keep speculators in the financial centers informed of battle developments. The war-disciplined military also provided an important source of managerial talent for the new telegraphic political economy.
  • Third was a system of transnational capital that embraced the telegraph and ticker-tape machines in order to facilitate investment opportunities in the emergent industrial economy. Previewed by the famous Civil War battle between the U.S.S. Monitor and Merrimac ironclad ships, the US would expand beyond railroads to shipbuilding and other steel-based manufacturing activities.

Laws pertaining to telegraphy did not come about under the rubric of free speech but rather, from the precedents established in railroad law. Early on, the telegraph was considered more of a business machine than a print technology. Initially, it was used primarily to transmit stock exchange information. Before the Civil War, over half its messages related to stocks and 80 percent of its messages were commercial.[5] Despite telegraphs using the printed word, it was excluded from being legally examined under the constitutional protection of free speech because of its expense. Ranting editorials or even short news items were prohibitively expensive for the newspapers.

The British Empire was quick to make use of the telegraph. Connected to the US in 1868, Britain laid a cable to India in 1870 and shortly after to Australia. Its claim to be the world empire that the sun never set on was due to its rapid deployment of telegraph lines throughout its territories and directly to London. By the end of the century, it had fully established telegraph links for commercial, diplomatic, and military purposes across the world.

Unlike the US and British experience, European nations banded together to guide the expansion of the telegraph. It was France’s Napoleon III who called for the international conference that 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.”[6] The ITU would guide the future of the telegraph, as well as its successors, the telex, the telephone, and other telecommunications technologies for the next century and beyond.

This entry introduced how technology, events and policy converged to create a radical new form of corporate and governmental power. This technology collapsed factors of time and distance and created a global system of “data” networking capable of transferring new types of commercial and strategic information. The telegraph was a visual, text-oriented device. As such it worked nicely with bureaucracies’ need for rules and instructions. Instantaneous communication through telegraph lines challenged the postal system as the fastest method of sending written text. Consequently, it helped shape types of tabular and hyper-rationalized knowledge that transformed organizational power over time and distance.

This argument continues in Part II focused on Samuel Morse.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2011, Jan 11). Telegraphy: The Time-Space Governmentality.


[1] This quote was from Mattelart and Schmucler (1985) Communication and Information Technologies: Freedom of Choice for Latin America? and was originally attributed to Moreno Fraginals, a Cuban historian. p. 41.
[2] Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. NY: Berkley Books.
[3] Drucker, P. (1999) “Beyond the Information Revolution,” THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY. October. P.47-57.
[4] Anthony Giddens tied the relationship together between the telegraph and transportation in his work on administrative power and internal pacification in The Nation-State and Violence. (1987) San Francisco, CA: University of California Press. This quote is from p. 175.
[5] Ibid, p. 94.
[6] ITU quote from Armand Mattelart (2000) Networking the World: 1794-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p.7.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii during the 1990s.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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