Volume 12, No. 2
April 2000

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Global Communications since 1844

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Global Communications since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology. By Peter J. Hugill. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. Xvii + 277; maps, figures, tables, notes/references, index. $55 (cloth) $24.95 (paper).


Geographer Peter Hugill has made an admirable attempt to write a history of 150 years of global telecommunications. He has synthesized the work of many eminent theorists of world systems, including Immanuel Wallerstein, Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, Lewis Mumford, and especially Harold Innis. Collectively, these theorists have tried to make sense of the ways in which control over the flow of goods, people, and ideas has influenced geopolitics and the emergence of hegemonic nation-states. Hugill extends this formidable body of work to investigate how control over the pace and direction of technological change in telecommunications has shaped global politics and economic relations since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Hugill stakes out broad ground for his approach, arguing that control over global telecommunications networks has been a major determinant of world-power status. "If information is power," he asserts, "whoever rules the world's telecommunications system commands the world" (p. 2). For instance, he claims that "at least part of the struggle for hegemony between Britain, Imperial Germany, and America at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth is best analyzed by looking at . . . their respective communications systems" (p. 16). Furthermore, he believes that the emergence of the next hegemonic state during the twenty-first century "can be predicted in part on the basis of its chosen communications strategy" (p. 18).

In Hugill's view, three communications technologies have proven important in reshaping the world order since 1844: telegraphy, wireless, and radar. Land-based telegraphy complemented the railroad in the United States, and helped the country to maintain secure political and economic control over the North American continent. Similarly, control over the fabricating, laying, and operating of submarine cables cemented British imperial dominance between about 1850 and World War Two. The British lead in submarine telegraphy especially paid off during the First World War. At the beginning of the war, British naval vessels cut German lines and attacked German wireless stations in Africa and the Far East, forcing Germany to rely on inadequate communications facilities to coordinate naval operations and to conduct diplomacy. The British stranglehold over German communications led directly to the interception of the famous Zimmerman telegram, one of the causes that propelled the United States into the war in 1917.

Between 1896 and 1940 Britain extended its lead in global communications technology through its head start in wireless. British researchers and entrepreneurs accounted for nearly all of the important early work on wireless telegraphy. After Marconi demonstrated a practical long-distance system by sending a signal across the Atlantic in 1901, the British government exploited the new technology for control over its imperial possessions and high-seas fleets. Before the First World War, Germany and the United States lagged behind British developments in wireless. By 1912, Hugill claims, Britain "was on the verge of total domination of global radio communications" (p. 100). Following the First World War, the United States attempted an end run around the British cable and wireless networks through the new technology of high-frequency beam transmission. The United States Navy was instrumental in setting up the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919, hoping to "achieve American hegemony of global telecommunications" (p. 138). However, in 1929 the British government brokered a merger between the cable and wireless industries, allowing Britain to maintain its lead. Thus, "RCA failed to do what it was created to do. Instead of creating American hegemony, it merely reduced British monopoly, and without obvious benefit to America" (p. 138).

The range of international wireless telephony, 1937, made possible by wireless telephone circuits and beam antennas. As Hugill points out, however, distribution maps such as this "speak . . . mainly to the geographical pattern of the system, only partly to its capacity, and not at all to its quality."

From Global Communications since1844, pp. 50, 56.

The use of radar during World War Two was perhaps the starkest example of the geopolitical implications of communications technology. Hugill, like many other historians, finds that radar was crucial-perhaps necessary-to the Allied victory over the Axis powers. But he also argues that "the massive industrial and military research establishments" of the United States "came to dominate all fields of radar development" by the end of the war. American control over radar technology, he argues, helps to explain the "transition of hegemonic power" from Britain to the United States during and immediately after the war (p. 219).

Communications historians will find this work useful in several ways. Most importantly, Hugill's sweeping scope encourages us to rethink the role of communications technologies in shaping the modern global polity. The book also provides good cross-national comparisons of the development of the telegraph, telephone, wireless, and radar. Finally, Hugill gives a clear and accessible summary of major technical developments in communications, and outlines the important government policies that fostered these developments.


David Hochfelder is the postdoctoral fellow at the IEEE History Center, Rutgers University. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled "Taming the Lightning: The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920." He is also interested in the history of public ownership of the communications, transportation, and energy industries.