Parallels Between the Telegraph and the Internet

_72347797_152236203 The telegraph represents the first groundbreaking technological achievement in communication. To the people of the 19th century the telegraph was their equivalent of Facebook and text messages. Before the invention of the telegraph sending messages could take days or even weeks as a message could on travel as fast as a person. News was never really current as by the time it reached other destinations in the world it was outdated and somewhat irrelevant. Today we are solely dependent on the communication allowed through the internet.

Initially the telegraph made many people suspicious as it seemed completely bizarre that messages could be wired from one continent to another in record time. The telegraph reshaped the 19th century economically, politically and socially. Originally it was primarily used for business and military purposes but eventually the telegraph became popular amongst everyone, even being used by the telegraph workers to flirt with one another from their different destinations – scandalous! Even more interestingly, some people would marry over telegraph with other guests being telegraphers in different locations.

An image from the novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes (1879) by Ella Cheever Thayer. The heroine of the book, Nettie flirts with a man she met over the wires during her job as a telegraph worker.

The telegraph and the internet are both technological innovations which allow people to conquer geography. By doing so it encourages globalisation and contact between people from across the world. It allowed for news to flourish in a way it never before had. Newspapers would compete to receive information through telegram first, “For the first time the newspapers had access to day-by-day reports of the fighting, delivering the latest news to readers and the most up-to-date reports to the enemy.” (Standage, 1996) Similarly the internet has allowed for a greater upgrade in fast news consumption. They were also able to collect election results via telegraph for the first time in 1848. (McNamara) As a result, the public were able to have stronger opinions and hold their governments and monarchies in higher scrutiny. With the instantaneous updates of war and political action citizens could backlash immediately, effectively causing those in power to find solutions which would keep society happy. The internet today works as a public sphere allowing people to receive and discuss issues in the same way the telegraph might have in the 19th century.

The telegraph created a social revolution as the internet has done today, leading to social justice and globalisation. Although the telegraph and internet have both produce some negative aspects they have undoubtedly changed the way the world functions. It allowed communication and was able to shape geo-politics in World War I, however it also lead to misunderstandings. (Kurbalija, 2013) Academics such as Stephen Kern maintain that ’telegraph confusion’ contributed to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, This telegraphic exchange at the highest level dramatised the spectacular failure of diplomacy, to which telegraphy contributed with crossed messages, delays, sudden surprises, and unpredictable timing.’ (Kurbalija, 2013)


Kurbalija, J., 2013. Ten parallels between the telegraph and the Internet in international politics. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015].

McNamara, R., n.d. The Invention of the Telegraph Changed Communication Forever. [online] Education. Available at: <; [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015].

Standage, T., 1996. WIRED 2.09: The 19th Century Internet. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015].


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