Brief Historiography of Submarine Telegraphy

Charles Bright, 'Submarine Telegraphs - Their History, Construction, and Working', (London 1889),

I haven’t done a blog for a while, mainly as I’m still trying to get my head round such a huge topic that just seems to be growing and growing. Last week I put together a short paper look at where and was and thinking about where I’m going. As part of this I wrote a very brief historiography of the Submarine Telegraph and Submarine Telegraph cables. This is probably the section of that paper that made the most amount of sense so I thought I’d share it with you:


There are some key areas that work on submarine telegraphy tends to focus. These include the technical aspects of the cable which looks at the science behind the invention, application and development; this works spans from nineteenth century work up to more modern titles.[1] It is for these sorts of works that I believe the sections of submarine cables still held at museums have been predominantly used for; they are records of the materials and techniques used over the course of the submarine telegraph industry.

A more recent, but very popular, area of work looks at the political and imperial aspects of the cable i.e. how policy and empire was affected by the cables or vice versa.[2] Themes of empire and technology seem to have grown and developed of the years, and it is interesting that I have found one of the earliest examples of this sort of work, Kennedy’s ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’, one of the most informative of the relationship between the British Government and the submarine telegraph. Another strong body of work are the narrative histories of cables and biographies of dominate players; these histories tend to focus on the most famous cable, the Atlantic cable and have been written since the cable began to be laid in the latter half of the nineteen century.[3] In recent times the subject of the submarine telegraph cables has been revisited by other disciplines, appearing to become increasingly relevant to the modern world reliant on fiber-optic submarine cables for transmitting information around the world.[4]

Cultural aspects are touched on in some of the above works, but it on the whole the history of submarine telegraphy has been untouched by postmodernism. There are a couple of exceptions which includes Gillian Cookson’s paper given at the Science Museum in 2006 entitled ‘Submarine Cables: Novelty and Innovation, 1850-1870’ in which the theory is argued that by 1870 the submarine telegraph was no longer a novelty to the public or commerce. There have also been some interesting avenues of research in an overlapping area of study, the regular overland telegraphy. I. Rhys Morus’ ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ looks at the imagery associated with the telegraph and consequential meaning, suggesting that the embodiment of the telegraph through nervous system metaphors underlines its intelligence and speed but also suggests a system of management and a network of surveillance and discipline.[5] R. Menke’s Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems takes an alternative route of looking at language by using Victorian fiction as the starting point. Menke uses the idea of Media Ecology, the concept ‘a culture’s range of technologies and codes of communication dramatically shape and are shaped by human experiences, thoughts and values’,[6] to suggest that the Victorian idea of networks stemmed from the natural structures and so was then translated to technical structures, also the increase in data available through the telegraph helped develop the idea of information instead of knowledge.[7] These are features that can be seen in Victorian fiction, though Menke also points out that though Victorian novelists, like Dickens, were interested in the technology it was only from the 1860s and 1870s people ‘begin to imagine the fictional possibilities of electric telegraphy’.[8] This appears to be a growing area of study as I noticed at a workshop held by the Commodities and Culture network on ‘Commodities in Motion’ in July 2010 Clare Pettitt gave a paper entitled ‘The Telegraphic imaginer: Scrambled Messages in the 1860s’, that explored the forms of address and authority constructed by the technologies of the telegraph and the realist novel in the 1860s and 1870s, considering ‘the ways in which both proclaim themselves as representative of an ultimately knowable world susceptible to infinitely connective network’.[9]

Clearly the themes of imagery, representation and metaphor with regards to submarine telegraphy have only begun to be explored by historians, and as I am mainly focusing on objects these areas are central to my work.

If you know of any other works that I’ve missed here, and I know I’ve missed many, please do let me know. It’s worth mentioning that the Atlantic Cable website has quite an extensive bibliography, this includes references to biographies and local histories that I haven’t quite got round to:

[1] C. Bright, Submarine Telegraphs, (London, 1898); V. T. Coates & B. Finn, A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy. The Transatlantic Cable of 1866, (California, 1979); K. Haigh, Cable Ships and Submarine Cables, (London, 1968)

[2] B. Finn & D. Yang, ed., Communications under the Seas: The Evolving Cable Network and Its Implications, (Massachusetts, 2009); D. R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981); D. R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945 (New York, 1991); B. Hunt, ‘Doing Science in a Global Empire: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in Victorian Britain’, in E. Lightman ed., Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997); R. Kubicek, ‘British Expansion, Empire, and Technological Change’, in A. Porter ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteen Century, Vol. 3 (Oxford, 1999); Y. Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880’ in Technology and Culture, vol. 41 (2000); and finally P. M. Kennedy, ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’ in The English Historical Review, vol. 86 (Oct. 1971)

[3] G. Cookson, The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World (Wiltshire, 2003); B. S. Finn, Submarine Telegraphy: The Grand Victorian Technology (Margate, 1973); J. Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Bath, 2002); S. Carter, Cyrus Field, Man of Two Worlds, (New York, 1968); B. Dibner, The Atlantic Cable, (Norwalk, 1959).

[4] E. J. Malecki & H. Wei, ‘A Wired World: The Evolving Geography of Submarine Cables and the Shift to Asia’ in Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 99 (2009) and M. Sechrist, ‘Cyberspace in Deep Water: Protesting the Arteries of the Internet’, in Harvard Kennedy School Review, vol 10 (2009-2010) are good examples of articles written in the past two years looking at modern-day cables with reference to the Victorian invention.

[5] I. Rhys Morus, ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, vo. 33 (2000)

[6] R. Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford, 2008) p. 12

[7] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p.18

[8] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p. 163

[9] Abstracts from papers presented at the workshop: (22 June 2011)


2 Responses to Brief Historiography of Submarine Telegraphy

  1. Henry Law says:

    I expect you know all about this but have you consulted the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall? Very interesting and comprehensive. (Went there last week on holiday). Has artefacts from all ages of the submarine telegraph cable from their inception to the effective closure of the service, and covers technical, social and (to an extent) political aspects. but I recommend you go in person!

    • kathleenmcil says:

      Hi Henry, thanks for the comment. Yes I have heard about Porthcurno, in fact I’m going to be volunteering there for a week at the end of July, so fully intend to become immersed in their collection, as well as hopefully share my enthusiasm for the topic!
      Thanks again & please do let me know if you come across any other gems.

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