The Telegraph May Have Been More Disruptive Than The Internet

When I ask people to name the most revolutionary technology, the most common answers are the Internet and the mobile phone. Both have certainly fundamentally changed our lives and it is difficult to imagine living without either of them. But a case can be made that the telegraph was just as impactful.

The telegraph, for those who are not familiar, was invented in the 1830’s, and operated by sending electrical signals over a dedicated wire between two locations. The so-called Morse code assigned a set of dashes and dots to every letter of the alphabet. SOS, the international distress signal, was chosen because it is easy to transmit: “S” is three dots and “O” is three dashes.

Researchers claim that the more revolutionary an invention is, the slower people adopt it because few recognize its potential. True revolutionary technology is not an improvement on existing methods but rather something brand new. As a result, people have to figure out why they want to use it – not just how to use it.

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage makes the case that the telegraph faced this initial resistance:

It took years for people to see advantages with the telegraph. Even after the first lines were built, and the accuracy and speed of the communications they could carry verified, […] everybody still thought of the telegraph as a novelty, as nothing more than an amusing subject for a newspaper article, rather than the revolutionary new form of communication that he envisaged.

However, once the telegraph took hold, it fundamentally reshaped business and society. For example, before the telegraph, remote branch offices received infrequent communications from headquarters – requiring them to operate somewhat independently. Afterwards, daily communication between headquarters and branches created the business concepts of centralization and middle management.

Standage points out the telegraph even changed the way we waged war. Before its invention, countries typically shared detailed information about battle plans with their citizens knowing it would improve morale and that the plans could not reach their enemies before their soldiers did. Afterwards, battle plans became highly secretive as plans could be communicated far more quickly than soldiers could be dispatched.

By the early 1900’s, the telegraph became indispensable, just like the internet or mobile phone today. But by the 1960’s it had already dramatically dropped in popularity due to the rising popularity of the telephone. The very last telegram was sent in 2013.

This makes me wonder: Will some new revolutionary technology disrupt the internet and the mobile phone?

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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2 Responses to The Telegraph May Have Been More Disruptive Than The Internet

  1. Peter May 21, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    Jonathan, it is always interesting to see how we view disruption as being what we do, not what happens to whole populations. We personalize it, and then see what is really a small step as a giant leap.

    I’m remembering a thought experiment, when a carpenter lays down to sleep in 1700 and wakes up in 1800. Not much has changed in his life and work. When he does the same from 1800 to 1900, the internal combustion engine has changed his business and his customer set in a fundamental way. If he wakes again in 1950, electricity has changed his business and customer set in an amazing way. (That includes the telegraph and telephone). From 1950 to today, I am not so sure that the business of carpentry has changed all that much nor has the customer set.

    We make new things happen, we disrupt in a small way, and maybe one of us gets rich and/or famous. Fundamental change is very rare. But striving for it is very good. I’m all for disruptions along the way and for one of us (you this time) getting rich and famous. But I still think that it would be myopic to think that the internet is, today, a fundamental disruption to our society. We can declare it a great leap for mankind, but, like space travel, is this disruptive or spectacular?


  2. Brad Borkan May 22, 2017 at 5:30 am #

    By coincidence, I just finished reading this book on the flight to Sapphire in Orlando. It is a wonderful book, filled with fascinating facts and anecdotes about the history of communication. Please don’t let the title “The Victorian Internet” put you off reading it, since the title makes it sound boring. It is thrilling, intelligent and well-researched, and gives a lot of scope for thinking about the future of the modern internet and communication.

    The telegraph grew because it used symbols in place of words. Maybe emoji’s will transform modern communication in that it too uses symbols rather than words. 🙂

    Whatever the future is, I agree with Jonathan, the book is well-worth reading.

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