Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

History Revisited - changing the way the world communicates

TRAILBLAZING: Built from as early as 500 BC, the Roman Roads were physical infrastructure vital to the maintenance and development of the Roman State. 
If you are going to run an Empire, you need communications. The Romans had the Roman Roads, while Marco Polo’s Travels describe in almost breathless tones the extensive communications system in the Great Khan’s empire.

Using both runners and horses with posting stations spaced at regular intervals, messages could be transmitted across vast distances within the Mongol Empire at remarkable speed. So important was the system, that provincial or local rulers were required by law to maintain the physical and animal infrastructure and given tax concessions to encourage them to do so.  

In the case of the British Empire, you find the Red Route, the network of undersea telegraph cables linking British territories. Intended to protect imperial interests and promote imperial commerce, the Red Route spread rapidly to the point that British cable laying ships dominated the global trade.

Australians have recently been commemorating various events connected with the First World War. There has been little recognition in those commemorations of the importance of the Red Route. It gave the British and Commonwealth side secure global communications, while Germany and the other Central Powers found their global communications badly disrupted.

Looking back, there were many remarkable features about the global spread of telegraphy. The first was its sheer speed.

Many complex problems had to be resolved before messages could be transmitted, let alone transmitted economically across a vast global cable network.

The first working telegraph system was created in 1816. The first commercial telegraph system was installed on the Great Western Railway between London and Birmingham in 1837. The first undersea cable was laid in 1850 between France and England. The growing international cable system reached Australia in October 1872.

If you think about it, that’s very fast, just fifty six years from first commercial application to global transformation. Its about the same time from the invention of the Turing machine to the creation of the internet.

Telegraphy transformed to world. It reduced the time taken to get a message from England to remote Australia from many weeks to seven hours. It transformed industry and governance.

New industries were created, warfare was revolutionised. For the first time, a newspaper in Sydney or Armidale could get information on events as they happened, not events past.. For the first time, a government official could expect to assert direct immediate control over a far distant subordinate. Real centralisation was born.

The remote Australian colonies were early adopters of the new technology. In my next  column, I will look at this and the impact on New England.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 June 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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