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.
Could it be that Americans actually like communications monopolists? Do we want dominant firms to run our world? Richard R. John’s splendid book helps to answer that question by telling us just where this American affection for info-monopoly came from. John has produced a detailed study of the grand-daddies of it all: AT&T and Western Union, the first great info-monopolists, whose role in communications history is similar to that of the Allosaurus and the T. rex in the history of the animal kingdom. A work of careful history based on archival research, Network Nation begins with Samuel Morse’s construction of the first electric telegraph line in 1844 and concludes with the establishment of AT&T (or Bell, a term that can be used interchangeably with AT&T) as America’s regulated telephone monopoly… What Network Nation does deliver is a nuanced answer to the basic question, why monopoly?
This is a richly detailed and readable book that fills an important gap in the history of communication networks. It definitively debunks palaver about mass communications as an autonomous agent of change, emphasizing how Americans constructed the telegraph and the telephone through a political process of continual negotiation and redefinition.
[An] exceptional new history of American communications technologies from 1840 to 1920.
This is a valuable book on the technological and economic trends that impacted the popularization of the telephone, one of the most profoundly significant inventions in the record of humanity. To understand the history of American telecommunications is to attend to the political economies at the time technological innovation occurred. John brilliantly articulates this context. Shifting municipal and federal sensibilities always shaped the diffusion of technologies, even in times where strong federal governmental oversight did not yet exist. The threat of federal and municipal government ownership of telecommunication systems was real, as seen in the case of the Bell system (and its failure).
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.
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.
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.
A foundational business history that will be an essential component of what well-educated Americans need to know about their society.
- 2011, Winner of the Ralph Gomory Prize
- 2010, Winner of the Best Journalism and Mass Communication History Book Award
- 528 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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