The current debate over the so-called cyberstream, the data highway that futurists promise will lead us to a technoutopia, has many people bewildered, so dense is it with rhetoric and empty assertion. This is not surprising: most of the debate is filled by boosters of gadgetry on the one hand, by neo-Luddites on the other. Neither side has quite figured out the real, beneficial uses of a broadened information network (they are many, although the vaunted 500 TV channels of times to come are not among them), and neither has identified some of the real problems associated with a nation of computer-monitor zombies.
Ecclesiastes has already reminded us that there is nothing new under the sun, and our culture’s headlong disappearance into the data vortex is no exception. In his thorough study News Over the Wires, the Israeli social historian Menahem Blondheim brings to life the swirl of debate over a similar technological transformation that took place in America a century before the present era of innovation and upheaval. Charting the growth of the telegraph industry and its effect on the course of public information from 1844 to 1897, Blondheim offers a cautionary tale of the media’s power to sanitize political discourse, heighten tensions between contending groups, and serve itself before the common good. Students of the current electronic mélee would do well to read his findings.
In 1790, Blondheim notes, the average interval between an event’s occurrence in Washington and its reportage in Boston was an astonishing 18 days: but these were times, he goes on to note, when a newspaper editor could close an issue by writing, “We stop the press to announce that there is no news, and no more expected,” when a slow period meant that an urban weekly could simply skip an issue without anyone blinking. (Even late in the 19th century. papers short on news were filled by happy custom with biblical passages, noteworthy speeches, and homilies. Papers today are just as short on real news, but filled out with display advertising, stock reports, gossip, and comics.) Contemporary readers and editors alike were less sure than we that some big event might break at any moment, and the early years of the Republic had a decidedly unfrantic cast.
By the 1840’s, however, telegraph wires had been strung over much of the Eastern seaboard, whence they soon radiated into the American interior. Their initial use was commercial, largely to enable merchants to report the arrival of expected shipments into port and to secure orders for newly debarked goods. Somewhere along the line New York’s growing daily newspapers realized that the telegraph could be put to their uses as well, ushering into journalistic history the notion of the scoop. “News reporters,” Blondheim writes, “appeared in the telegraph offices hours or even days in advance of anticipated information, equipped with the Good Book, and had the obliging operator commence all their messages with ‘In the beginning. . . . ‘ [An editor] testified that occasionally the operator approached the end of Deuteronomy before he was presented with newsier text for transmission.” Monopolizing the wires may have been infra dig by some lights, but journalists and telegraphers alike soon realized that theirs was an inevitable partnership. In 1846 elements from both camps merged to form the New York Associated Press, an agency that, like the Associated Press of today, issued releases in “journalese” (a simplified, formulaic language made standard for the telegrapher’s convenience).
Blondheim excavates a few wonderful stories in connection with the AP’s growth. One involves a mysterious young woman who wandered into a telegraph office, sent a message to Baltimore, and disappeared into the streets of New York after receiving a reply. Afterward someone cut the wires between the two cities. Some months later the woman reappeared, with the same results. The AP editors may have been without their customary news for a short time, but their wallets thickened all the same: Blondheim speculates that they were using their virtual monopoly to speculate on the commodities market, cutting their own wires to deny other parties the latest shipping news. He is just as good in his account of the arduous race to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in midcentury, offering the interesting tidbit that in 1866 each word wired from London to New York cost a staggering five dollars in gold.
Karl Marx likely had the telegraph in mind when he penned one of his few lovely phrases, “All that is solid melts into air.” The data highway of today takes us further into the ethereal. For that reason, I wish that Blondheim had taken a bit more leisure to examine the parallels between the period of his study and the present, or at least the technological transformations of American society after World War II. A more broadly comparative view would have brought News Over the Wires a wider readership. As it is, tucked inside the series Harvard Studies in Business History, it may be ignored. That would be a shame, for this is a good, provocative book that has bearing on more than one unsettled time.
[News Over the Wires, by Menahem Blondheim (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 305 pp., $39.95]