Disruptive Telecommunication and Singing Telegrams

This week saw announcements of the latest round of telecommunication devices. Apple is coming out with the latest iPhones:

Amazon, for its part, has a whole new line of Kindles:

We have become almost inured to the incredible telecommunication capabilities packaged into consumer products that fit in a hand. You can pull your phone out of your pocket and watch live sports, instantly download and start enjoying virtually any book or song you can think of, call, text, email, or send a yo! to your friends. With Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, the dream of making any movie or TV episode available on demand is coming closer and closer. And these devices don’t even cost thousands of dollars or take up a whole room. But, as spiffy as they are, these latest, incremental improvements fail to excite us as much as they used to. Now, think about a world in which no long distance communication is possible. That is, every message must physically travel from sender to recipient before it can be read. Adding instant communication to such a world would certainly be more “disruptive” than the latest app or handset.

Such was the case in the Victorian Era. As Tom Standage points out, when the telegraph was introduced, there were no airplanes, credit cards, or automobiles. But there was, suddenly and for the first time, instant communication. News from Europe arrived in the United States in minutes instead of weeks. Business orders and money could fly over wires around the world. Journalism became a mature profession. Along with the burgeoning train industry, local time was replaced with organized time zones. As a funny side-note, short distance telegrams were sometimes sent through a series of (pneumatic) tubes.

Front Cover

By the time of the US Civil War, telegraphy was an important part of military strategy. This was a strong centralizing force, limiting the autonomy of generals and giving it to the commander-in-chief.

Few people are reorganizing their lives in anticipation of the iPhone 6. But the world has been greatly changed as the result of a extremely low bandwidth dot-dash channel. And this:


Author: lnemzer

Assistant Professor Nova Southeastern University

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