Newsletter of the Mercurians

If we are living in the information age, when did it begin? To what extent have changes in what we have come to call the information infrastructure shaped the course of history? To what extent have they been shaped by the wider society?

These questions inform the book that I have been working on for the past few years that is tentatively titled "Making Connections: The Advent of American Telecommunications." My theme is the history of U.S. telecommunications in the seven-and-a-half decades between the first public demonstration of electric telegraphy in 1844 and the beginnings of commercial radio in 1920. This period, the heyday of the industrial age and the cradle of modern America, witnessed the creation of a global telegraph network and the nationwide telephone grid—two of the most notable scientific, technological, organizational, and entrepreneurial achievements of the day.

Most histories of U.S. telecommunications in its formative era stress the primacy of economic incentives and technological imperatives. Though I neglect neither economics nor technology, I broaden the angle of vision to embrace politics and culture, too. By paying attention to losers as well as winners, and to the often neglected paths not taken as well as to the more familiar success stories, I challenge familiar triumphalist narratives of technological progress and economic growth. In no sense was the outcome foreordained. Government officials, business leaders, industry critics, and telegraph and telephone users all made choices that shaped the evolution of the information infrastructure. Technological and economic considerations were never unimportant; yet they were rarely as pivotal as most previous scholars suppose. Far more important were cultural values and political practices—precisely the considerations that existing accounts underplay.

No history of American telecommunications can neglect the extent to which the leading institutions have been shaped by governmental agencies and civic ideals. Historians have long recognized the centrality of politics to twentieth-century developments of American telecommunications. Yet only rarely have they explored the relationship of politics and telecommunications in the less recent past. My project traces the influence upon U.S. telecommunications of a variety of governmental policies, including patent law, eminent domain, city charters, and state and federal regulation. Among the topics I consider are the brief experiment in government telegraphy in the 1840s; the postal telegraph movement of the post-Civil War decades; and the public ownership movement of the 1910s.

Perhaps the most significant and enduring of the cultural values to influence U.S. telecommunications in its formative era was the expansive, and indeed, almost utopian, ideal of equal access to information. Americans have long invested information technologies with an extraordinary range of meanings. It is partly for this reason that the realization of the equal access ideal has been so elusive. What one generation regarded as unattainable became, for the next, necessary and even unremarkable. Time and time again, critics warned that the potential of telegraphy and telephony was being perverted or unmet.

At its core, the equal access ideal affirmed a faith that improvements in information technology would foster social solidarity and moral progress. To invoke a religious metaphor that nineteenth-century Americans would have understood, it kept the covenant by affirming cherished values to which all Americans were presumed to subscribe.

The origins of the equal access ideal long antedated the initial public demonstration of electric telegraphy. During the Reformation, access to the printed Bible inspired lay challenges to clerical authority. During the Enlightenment, access to newspapers and pamphlets emboldened popular protest against monarchial prerogative. In the U.S., the equal access ideal acquired a heightened prominence in the 1780s, when the founders of the republic shifted the locus of sovereignty from the government to the people. Now that the people were sovereign, it seemed indisputable that they had a right to be informed.

In the new republic, the ideal of equal access initially focused on the obligation of government officials to provide citizens with information on public affairs. Beginning in the 1790s, this civic rationale shaped the mandate of the postal system, the keystone of the new republic’s information infrastructure, and the first long-distance communications network in the United States. (Of course, this characterization of the postal system challenges the many media scholars who deny the existence of a long-distance communications network prior to the commercialization of the electric telegraph.) By the 1820s, this civic rationale expanded to embrace information relevant to market transactions. In the following decades, this gospel of speed prompted some to urge that the federal government build a nationwide optical telegraph network and prompted others—including inventor Samuel F. B. Morse—to urge that the government purchase the rights to the Morse telegraph.

With the establishment in the 1860s by Western Union of a nationwide telegraph network, the debate over equal access to information entered a new phase. Western Union critics urged Western Union managers to adopt the same civic rationale that had long shaped postal policy. Western Union managers rejected this rationale by contending, among other things, that ordinary Americans would never use electricity to transmit information, regardless of the cost. Telegraph users, in their view, were not citizens for whom access to information was a fundamental right, but clients willing to pay a fee for a service. This disagreement sparked a thirty-year debate over the merits of what Western Union critics called "postal telegraphy."

In this debate, Western Union managers and their critics debated three distinct yet related issues: First, did Western Union have a civic obligation, like the Post Office Department, to provide equal access to every newspaper editor who wished to receive low-cost news reports? Or might it permit favored clients—such as the New York Associated Press—to provide special rates to its members? Second, did Western Union have an obligation, like the Post Office Department, to serve the masses as well as the classes? Was it merely a business tool, as Western Union managers assumed? Or did this assumption deny the revolutionary potential of the new technology, as their critics charged? And, third, should the federal government establish its own telegraphic facilities and, if so, would these facilities be superior to those that Western Union maintained?

With the invention of telephony, the terms of the debate shifted once again. From the outset, executives at American Bell (the parent of AT&T) presumed—like postal administrators, but unlike telegraph managers—that they had an obligation to serve the general population. In large part, this was because they conceived of telephony not as a private enterprise like Western Union, but as a public utility like the Post Office Department. The rejection of Western Union's business strategy by the founders of American Bell is overlooked by scholars as otherwise diverse as Claude Fischer and Milton Mueller who mistakenly assume that American Bell emulated Western Union in its early years. Business leaders learn from each other; the early history of American Bell is a case in point. Gardiner Greene Hubbard was not only a major American Bell investor and the father-in-law of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, but also a longtime critic of Western Union and a leader in the movement for postal telegraphy. Hubbard's critique of Western Union would decisively shape corporate strategy at American Bell.

Early debates over equal access to telephony pivoted on divergent conceptions of its likely users. Bell executives initially envisioned as their primary clientele the urban middle-class. Bell's rivals, in contrast, targeted the inhabitants of the small towns and farm homesteads that dotted the vast American hinterland. Neither paid much attention to the urban working class. Goaded by would-be-telephone users, as well as by the threat of competition, Bell executives in the 1890s devised a variety of innovative pricing schemes—including pay telephones, party lines, and measured service—that enabled them to reach a much larger portion of the urban population. In addition, they met the demand of their core business users for long-distance connections by establishing what would by 1915 become a nationwide telephone grid. In the process, they reconceptualized telephone users as neither citizens nor clients but as consumers.

Among the most important of Bell's pricing innovations was measured service. Business historians have often assumed that measured service was unpopular with telephone users. This may well have been true in the small towns and farm homesteads dominated by Bell's competitors. Yet a very different situation prevailed in major urban centers such as Chicago and New York. In both cities, telephone user groups, often in conjunction with city government officials, opposed competition in telephony while supporting innovative pricing schemes (including measured service) as a superior alternative to flat rates.

The debate over equal access to telephony was subtly transformed after 1907, when a new generation of AT&T executives, led by Theodore N. Vail, championed "universal service" as a business strategy. Like the equal access ideal (which in certain respects it resembled), universal service was by no means easily defined. Did it imply universal interconnectivity for a relatively limited number of users at a relatively high cost? Or the extension of telephony at low cost to every American household within a limited geographical area? Or something else altogether? To ensure that they would have a major voice in answering these questions, AT&T executives launched a major corporate public relations campaign that was one of the first in American history. This campaign helped AT&T forestall its threatened dismemberment by the Justice Department and block the threatened nationalization of the industry—a major issue during the 1910s. No less importantly, it legitimized a regulatory regime that would guarantee AT&T a dominant position in the industry for the next seventy years.