Global Media in the Nineteenth Century

The novelty of today’s globally connected society and economy is often overestimated.  The emergence of a truly globalised communications system can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century.  The late 1840’s saw an explosion in global trade.  This global expansion of capitalism was facilitated by improvements transport for people and goods.  Developments like clipper ships, transcontinental railways, the Suez and Panama canals revolutionised the speed and volume of global transportation.

At the same time, electronic communications developed rapidly. A system of globalised production and trade needed global information.  The development of the telegraph in the 1830s coupled with submarine cable laying, made possible in 1847, provided a means of almost instantaneous communication between European countries and their colonies, and between Europe and America via the transatlantic cable successfully laid by the Great Eastern in 1865.

The Transatlantic Cable landing in Valentia

Within the following five or six years cables straddled the globe.  Hobsbawm writes that ‘by 1872 one could telegraph from London to Tokyo and to Adelaide.  The result of the 1871 Derby was flashed from London to Calcutta in approximately five minutes’ (1975: 76).

The international telegraph network operated on Morse code.  The code was at the heart of what has been described as The Victorian Internet. The Economist noted that by the time of the death of Samuel Morse, the code’s inventor in 1872 ‘the world was well and truly wired’. There were:

more than 650,000 miles of telegraph line and 30,000 miles of submarine cable were throbbing with Morse code; and 20,000 towns and villages were connected to the global network. Just as the Internet is today often called an “information superhighway”, the telegraph was described in its day as an “instantaneous highway of thought” (The Economist January 23rd 1999).

By the mid-nineteenth century there was a highly integrated world economy. This was evident in the global slump of 1857 which passed from ‘the United States … to Britain, thence to Germany, thence to Scandinavia and back to Hamburg, leaving a trail of bankruptcies and unemployment, meanwhile leaping the oceans to South America’ (Hobsbawm 1975: 86).  Alongside a global economy and communications system the roots of a global culture began to emerge. Writing at the time, Marx recognised that alongside the global economy new communications were leading to the emergence of a globalised culture.

In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production.  The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.  National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.  The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation (Marx and Engels 1998: 39)

Before broadcasting or the internet were even conceived of there was a global media field integrated by a global market goods, services and information.

References:

Hobsbawm, E. 1975. The Age of Capital 1848-1875. London: Abacus.

Marx, K. and F. Engels.  1998. The Communist Manifesto. London : Verso.

The Economist. … — … .-. .. .–. (SOS, RIP). 21 January 1999.

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