Mid-Semester Reflection

In his book, The Creation of Media, Paul Starr mentions how the establishment of the telegraph slowed the expansion of the telephone in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Robert MacDougall also discusses how it took a particularly long time for long distance telephone calls to catch on in his journal article “Long Lines: AT & T’s Long-Distance Network as an Organizational and Political Strategy.” Even though Starr points out that the telephone developed faster in the United States than in Europe, it seems that, even in America, the fact that the telegraph came first still slowed down its expansion.[1]

One aspect of this issue that I am particularly interested in concerns how everyday people reacted to the fact that the technology for the telephone existed, but was hampered by the establishment of the telegraph. While the telephone may not have been superior to the telegraph in every way, the ability to actually speak to someone must have provided some advantages. In class, we have discussed how people throughout history weren’t aware of faster (or better) forms of communication that didn’t exist yet. Dr. Adelman raised the idea that acquiring this awareness would be like us (21st century people) trying to conceive of the use of light-speed travel (except that we have some concept of it from science fiction movies). However, I feel that this situation was a bit different. While the technology for telephones existed, people just weren’t using them as much yet. I suppose that early on in the telephone’s development as a medium, some might not even have been aware of the technology, but I figure that many, if not most others, must have known about it. Perhaps people felt that, from a utilitarian standpoint, the telegraph served all of their needs when it came to instant, long distance communication. The fact that, with the telephone, you could actually speak with people instantly, and over a distance, may have seemed like an extravagance. At one point, Starr implies that the telephone was viewed as more of a novelty.[2]

If I were to raise another modern day example (like the one above), one that, albeit vaguely, parallels this situation of the telephone in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, it would be that of space travel. It exists, and it might one day be available to the wider public. But as of now, the idea of a commercial spaceflight is only just being broached as an extreme luxury. Most people accept that, at least in their immediate future, such a luxury will not be available to them.

Still, I feel that most American’s of the later 19th and early 20th centuries were closer to being able to use the telephone than most early 21st century Americans are to doing something as extravagant as going into space. Again, if not for the establishment of the telegraph, widespread use of the telephone might have been available to them sooner.[3]

Starr focuses on the specifics, the structural reasons, of why the establishment of the telegraph was more of a limiting factor for the expansion of the telephone in Europe than it was in the United States.[4] And yet, he acknowledges that it was a limiting factor, to some extent, in both regions.[5] I think it would be interesting to begin a discussion about some more of the specifics, the business and political details, of why the telegraph limited the telephone in the United States, even if these limitations were not as severe as they were in Europe.

I think of progress and technology as things that build on themselves. The reason I find this topic so interesting is because it was an example of the expansion of one type of technology actually impeding, in a way, the expansion of another, related technology.


[1] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, (New York: Basic Books, 2004) 192.

[2] Ibid, 195.

[3] Ibid, 192.

[4] Ibid, 198-200.

[5] Ibid, 192.


2 thoughts on “Mid-Semester Reflection

  1. Derek, I like your parallel to space travel. It gives your argument a sparkle that I appreciate because I find the majority of what we are studying in this class to be very concrete. The argument you raise is important in terms of your parallel between the telephone and the telegraph. Your quote from Starr could not sum that up enough in the way in which he notes the telephone to be seen as a novelty. I find that in the same breath the idea of having communication outside of a written form must have been an extremely weird concept for those being affected by these technologies because prior to such all of their communication was either printed, scripted and none the less material. This speaks to how even today we as American’s are so obsessed with material culture, in the way we are glued to our phones for instance. As we have become more acclimated to the technologies around us, we have in turn grown to be more attached to telephones as our main mode of communications as Americans during the 19th century had been first to letters and newspapers and then to the telegraph and eventually the telephone.


  2. Derek,
    To begin this is an awesome post and I too really like your parallel with space travel. I cant imagine how fantastic and strange it must have been in the late 19th century for people to use the telephone and communicate with loved ones in a way that epistolary correspondents just couldn’t. In regards to your point concerning why people didn’t utilize the telephone as much when it initially hit the market, I believe (I could be confusing the telegraph with the telephone) that the first long distance telephones were extremely expensive to utilize and thus only feasible for wealthy businessmen. I believe that also even after the price was brought down the fact that there were so many small competing companies made communicating with others difficult because not everyone utilized the same phone lines until AT&T consolidated the business. Anyway, in regards to your larger point, I also found it pretty interesting that the telegraph played such a big role in holding back the rise of the telephone and cant help but wonder what other great inventions have been shelved by pre-existing technologies.


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