We’ve all been there: a patchy Zoom connection, an interrupted online transaction, a YouTube video that just won’t load. We all recognise the everyday frustrations that come with the malfunctioning of the Internet, even as we celebrate ever faster broadband or cheaper mobile data allowances. Communications networks don’t always fulfil their promises, but as the recent lockdowns have shown, they have become embedded in our lives. It is, of course, our reliance on these technologies that makes us all the more sensitive to their failings, but the potential consequences of being ‘disconnected’ differ from person to person and from place to place, and they point to the deeper structures that underpin society.
In researching my book, Networks of Modernity: Germany in the Age of the Telegraph, 1830-1880, I sifted through numerous complaints and petitions sent to German state authorities during the nineteenth century, by customers dissatisfied with the most novel communications technology of their day—the electric telegraph. The exasperation expressed in some of these documents is remarkably relatable: what was the point in sending a telegram instantaneously from St Petersburg to Augsburg, if it then took 45 minutes for it to be delivered to the recipient’s home? Why did a neighbouring town possess a better connection to the national telegraph network when its local economy was almost identical?
Taken individually, these complaints are sporadic reminders of the potential for all technologies to fail, as well as their dependence upon human intervention. While there were many in the nineteenth century who, like Karl Marx, believed that the communications revolution heralded the ‘annihilation of space’, but to the Bavarian official who missed an appointment with the King because a telegram was delayed, that vision must have sounded fairly irrelevant. If the telegraph was indeed the ‘Victorian Internet’, its effects were just as multifaceted as its digital descendant. Yet add up the many different expressions of discontent, which the authorities received from the public during the period, and what emerges is a complex picture of how the ‘communications revolution’ was transforming Germany.
Complaints and frustrations are not always trivial, as our recent experience of shifting to a quasi-virtual world has shown. Having to work, teach, learn, and even socialise online during lockdown produced its fair share of additional stress for most, but it also revealed the deep (infra-)structural inequalities in our society. The reality of the ‘digital divide’ that separates the urban from the rural, the socio-economically privileged from the disadvantaged, even the older generations from the younger, was once again highlighted. Communications networks, in this regard, are more than a tool, they reflect and at times enhance the hidden social, economic, cultural and even political framework of our world.
A glance at any nineteenth-century telegraph map makes this plain, as not all regions, towns or villages were equally well connected to the new instant messaging service of the age. Unlike in Britain, where it was privately driven, the construction of telegraphs in Germany was carried out by the individual states that made up the region until unification in 1870/1. The ‘German’ telegraph network was therefore a web of ‘hubs’ that had been prioritised by the individual state administrations—not only their respective political centres, such as Berlin, Bremen, Frankfurt, or Munich, but also those areas identified as economically productive—the financial and industrial sectors around Augsburg, Nuremberg, or the Ruhr, for instance. Even after unification, the Kaiserreich’s telegraph network long remained remarkably decentralised.
None of this was lost on representatives of the regions that were neglected in the process, and many were vocal in pressing their demands for better connectivity within the German parliaments. During the 1870s, the Reichstag became the scene of a confrontation between landowners of the rural ‘hinterland’ who felt that the government’s attitude to communications favoured the financial, cosmopolitan elites eager to take part in a ‘globalising’ economy. Within cities and towns themselves, debates emerged on the location of telegraph offices, and the strata of local society that they were best serving. All of this at a time when the relative cost of sending telegrams itself excluded large sections of the population from making frequent use of the service.
Following the thread of the telegraph as it began to pervade everyday life in Germany thus gives us a clearer view of a society in transformation. The period 1830-1880 which this book explores was one of intense upheaval, during which remarkable industrial growth was coupled with a major geopolitical reconfiguration of the region. Thanks to new technologies like the telegraph, and in contrast with perhaps commonly held assumptions, German public opinion was deeply involved in this process. But this, too, was a multifaceted phenomenon. Some valued, for instance, the greater speed at which news from across the world could reach their morning paper, whilst others believed it was unduly interfering with political debates. The news agencies that emerged during these years, from Reuters to Havas and Wolffs Telegraphisches Büro were similarly both praised and denounced for their role in selecting the information that was circulated, and for their susceptibility to government influence—a susceptibility not lost on Bismarck.
This book is therefore an invitation to view Germany through a different lens, one that foregrounds both the connections and the disconnections, the process of inclusion and exclusion, that characterised the communications revolution, and that might be concealed by other metanarratives of the period. It is also, I hope, a useful reflection on the role played by technologies in society, neither as fundamental agents of historical change, nor as mere tools of human activity, but as co-constitutive of the world we live in. As such, it is perhaps a reminder that our everyday expectations and frustrations have a basis in the deeper structures that situate us in society.
Dr Jean-Michel Johnston is a lecturer in Modern European History and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. Their new book Networks of Modernity: Germany in the Age of the Telegraph, 1830-1880 is out now, published by Oxford University Press.
Banner image and Figure 2. ‘The Electric and International Telegraph Company’s Map of the Telegraph Lines of Europe, 1856’. Princeton University Library. Understood to be in the public domain.
Figure 1. ‘The true causes of our quarrels. The Press…’ Kladderadatsch, 15. Mar. 1863, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Translated: The true causes of our quarrels. The Press; for if it did not print everything immediately, nobody would find out about it. The evil men at the Dönhofsplatz; for if they didn’t reveal that which is rotten in the state, nobody would concern themselves with it. The Telegraph; for if it didn’t spill the beans on everything straight away—that would be nice!