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Networks of ModernityGermany in the Age of the Telegraph, 1830-1880$

Jean-Michel Johnston

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780198856887

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198856887.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
(p.iii) Networks of Modernity

Jean-Michel Johnston

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Introduction presents the historiographical context and main themes of the book. It situates the book within discussions surrounding the process of scientific innovation and industrialization during the Sattelzeit, the process of ‘time-space’ compression associated with the communications revolution, the role of networks of transport and communication in the creation of regional and national identities, and the emergence of a new, connected middle class during the nineteenth century. Bringing together these narratives, the Introduction introduces the book’s principal argument—that, once shorn of its normative connotations, modernization remains a useful concept to illuminate the process through which state and society were transformed during the nineteenth century, and that networks played a crucial role in producing the profoundly ambivalent experience of modernity most often associated with the turn of the twentieth century. It ends with a description of the structure of the book as a whole.

Keywords:   Germany, nineteenth century, historiography, modernity, modernization, networks, industrialization, communications revolution, bourgeoisie, global history

‘Whoever seeks to detect the fundamental waves in the economic currents of our time’, Karl Knies wrote in 1857, ‘is repeatedly steered towards the world-historical revolution in the means of communication.’1 A few years earlier, the man later considered a founding father of the German ‘Historical School’ of economics had published an analysis of The Railways and their Effects, and now he set out to consider the impact of an equally transformational technology—the electric telegraph.2 Doing so, Knies recognized, meant investigating the countless facets of social, economic, cultural, and political life which had been altered by this new means of communication. Describing the endeavour, he wrote: ‘Whoever seeks to register the achievements and effects of the telegraph soon witnesses a vision, like that of a tree which, from a trunk which is easily spanned, shoots out many branches and limbs, which themselves carry innumerable leaves and constantly swell with new sprouts and buds from the invisible passages and chambers of its lifeblood.’3

This book tackles the challenge which Karl Knies faced in 1857, drawing upon the additional benefit of hindsight to examine the role played by telegraphic communication in the transformation of Germany during the nineteenth century. It takes this challenge one step further, considering not only the impact but also the origins of this technological revolution—both the roots and the visible manifestation of Knies’s metaphorical tree, as it were, situating them in the changing landscape of Central Europe between the Vormärz and the early years of the Kaiserreich. It investigates how the much-acclaimed ‘communications revolution’ both derived from and fuelled the broader, contested process of Germany’s modernization.

As Knies’s text suggests, developments in transport and communication have long been considered central to the momentous changes which shook Europe and North America during the nineteenth century. Trains, telegraphs, and steamships elicited both wonder and anxiety among contemporaries, of course, but they also quickly became the subject of scholarly attention. In the 1870s, the Austrian Emil Sax studied the economic impact of these innovations upon the national economy, (p.2) and by the early twentieth century the historian Karl Lamprecht emphasized the profound influence which they had exerted upon German culture.4 In 1932, Roger Albion coined the expression ‘communications revolution’ to emphasize the distinctive impact of new means of travel and exchange within the broader ‘industrial revolution’ under which they were often subsumed.5 Today, the communications revolution has become a compulsory chapter in master narratives of the nineteenth century, while attracting attention in its own right as an ongoing process often associated with the age of the Internet.6

Despite this long-standing consensus, the telegraph, whose leading role in the communications revolution is widely recognized, remains remarkably overlooked in the historiography of modern Germany.7 Horst A. Wessel has provided an essential overview of the various lines which were established across different states during the nineteenth century, and Josef Reindl and Jan-Otmar Hesse have productively engaged with the question of how telegraph networks were administered across Central Europe and in the Kaiserreich.8 The wider intellectual, political, or socio-economic implications of telegraphic communication, meanwhile, have been hinted at in a selection of thought-provoking but necessarily (p.3) limited articles or book chapters.9 Often, however, the most up-to-date literature on the subject still remains the collection of somewhat dry and narrow-focused publications issued in the early twentieth century to celebrate the anniversaries of the postal and telegraph services in individual German states.10 To this day, the technology remains in the shadow of its more boisterous partner in crime, the railway.11

Yet it would be difficult to overstate the telegraph’s role in the transformation of the nineteenth-century world. Telegraph lines were first established in Europe and North America during the 1830s and 1840s, and within three decades they had evolved into fully fledged national and international networks of communication. From the 1850s, submarine cables began to adorn the ocean floor, connecting continents and launching a new phase of globalization. Information circulated faster and wider than ever before, binding industry, trade, and finance ever closer together, streamlining bureaucracy and diplomacy, energizing the press and the public sphere. For many contemporaries in the West, this growing worldwide web of cables and wires heralded the seemingly inevitable triumph of ‘civilization’—both at home, where they drew rural villages out of the depths of ignorance and ‘tradition’, and abroad, where they brought ‘progress’ to imperial colonies.12 From industrialization to capitalism, state-building, imperialism, and the belief in progress itself, the telegraph connected and stimulated many of the phenomena associated with the birth of the modern world.

By investigating the development of telegraphic communication, therefore, this book revisits Germany’s encounter with modernity. To describe this process as modernization is perhaps contentious, as the term has become synonymous with the schematic models of socio-economic and political development drawn up in the aftermath of the Second World War. These models prescribed a path to ‘modernity’, based principally on the British and American experience, through (p.4) which industrialization and democratization worked in tandem. According to the ‘Sonderweg’ thesis developed in the 1960s, Germany’s failure to follow this path had led to its twentieth-century ‘catastrophe’.13 Unlike in its Western neighbours, so the argument ran, industrialization in Germany had not led to the emergence of a robust and vocal middle class, allowing traditional agrarian elites to block political reform and preside over an economically powerful but illiberal and aggressively imperialistic state.14 The German psyche, in George Mosse’s interpretation, never came to terms with this schizophrenic reality, rejecting the technological apparel of modernity and seeking refuge in dreams of an imagined, bucolic, völkisch past.15

The limits of this deterministic model were highlighted in the 1980s, in a path-breaking work by David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley. The Sonderweg thesis, they pointed out, rested on a comparison with an arguably flawed representation of ‘modernization’ in Britain, where industrialization, middle-class hegemony, liberal politics, and parliamentary rule were assumed to have gone unproblematically hand in hand.16 The fixation upon Germany’s failure to fulfil these criteria had, in the words of Blackbourn, created ‘a curiously static picture of imperial German politics and society’, populated by immovable elites and a notoriously passive bourgeoisie.17 Historians were invited to break free from the shackles of this prescriptive theory, and to consider the ‘peculiarities’, rather than the purported aberrations, of Germany’s development.18 Over the past three decades, the diversity and dynamism of German nineteenth-century history have been recovered, its social, religious, and political divisions, uneven industrialization, nation- and empire-building initiatives, and scientific culture being recast as expressions of a much more ambiguous, at times very dark, modernity that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century.19

A similar shift has taken place in the historiography of Europe as a whole. Like the Sonderweg thesis, the socio-economic determinism, abstraction, and (p.5) Eurocentrism of modernization theories had been criticized since the 1970s, some seeking more flexible models, others emphasizing the agency of individuals, of discourse, and of culture in explaining historical change.20 Perhaps more significantly, however, the underlying faith in a normative concept of Western modernity has been shaken by scholars of postcolonial and global history. In recent years, the ‘provincialization’ of Europe within a global context has highlighted the exchanges and transfers through which ‘its’ vision of modernity, its very uniqueness, was constructed, contested, adopted, and adapted by different actors in different settings.21 Here too, the straightjacket of a linear, purportedly universally applicable, modernization theory has been shed, scholars now preferring to describe the ‘multiple’ or ‘alternative’ modernities which coexisted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.22

These conceptual changes have brought about a welcome recognition of the diversity previously masked by efforts to make history fit the model. But in a strange reversal of fortunes, the past appears to have become static once again, full of contradictions but lacking direction, as the mechanism of modernization that held developments together has been jettisoned. The concept of modernity, as Frederick Cooper has pointed out, risks being dissolved into an effectively timeless diversity, devoid of analytical content.23 At the very most, it seems, historians agree that modernity ‘was’ or ‘is’ at a particular moment, and often stands in as the container, rather than the product, of diverse historical forces.24 In the German context, the beginning of that period is most commonly situated around 1890 and identified with the Wilhelmine Empire, a time when, as a recent collection has shown, visions of the future were contested—these were Germany’s ‘modernities’.25 As Helmut Walser Smith highlighted a decade ago, ever since the path dependency of the Sonderweg model was discarded German historiography has been characterized by an uneasy attempt to balance this observed diversity of (p.6) contemporary experiences with the need to provide a meaningful, explanatory continuity to the past.26

This book argues that the very ambiguity of modernity—its contradictions, perhaps—can be traced, at least to a great extent, to the unprecedented expansion of networks of communication during the nineteenth century. For networks are themselves Janus-faced creatures; they not only create connections and relations of interdependence between people and places but by their very nature also include and exclude; they privilege the ‘connected’ to the detriment of those who remain ‘disconnected’.27 Indeed, recent studies in the field of global history have shown how telegraph networks fuelled both the growing interconnectedness and the social, political, and racial division of the nineteenth-century world.28 These were the engines of a thoroughly ambiguous process of modernization.

Following the development of networked communication, therefore, this book reveals one of the mechanisms underpinning the social, economic, political, and cultural paradoxes of the nineteenth century. In doing so, it situates Germany within broader efforts to revisit the transformation of Europe as a connected, but uneven and uncertain, process. During this period, Europe was arguably not so much driven by a ‘dual revolution’ in politics and industry as enmeshed in its effects, caught ‘between growth and equality’, as Jörg Fisch puts it.29 In a thought-provoking work, James Vernon has described the nineteenth century’s oscillations as the ‘dialectic’ of modernity, a continuous synthesis of seemingly opposed forces which, this book argues, were in fact fundamentally connected.30 It also suggests not simply the parallels but the continuities between the nineteenth century and (p.7) the present day, now that the techno-optimism that accompanied the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s has been replaced by an awareness of the world’s many digital inequalities, hinting at the existence of much more deeply entrenched mechanism of connection and division.31

To adopt this approach is to focus our attention on the half-century during which telegraphs and railways first transformed the European landscape—the decades immediately preceding the Wilhelmine Empire, which continues to occupy centre stage in Germany’s dramatic encounter with modernity.32 This period straddling the revolutions of 1848 and the early years of the Kaiserreich continues to be overlooked in the historiography, despite the emphasis which some historians have placed upon the considerable social upheaval and industrial ‘take-off’ which it witnessed.33 Caught between an increasingly ‘long’ eighteenth century and a twentieth century whose roots reach ever further back, the years 1830–80 appear to be ‘dangling in space’, as David Blackbourn has recently stated.34 Much of this impression is no doubt a question of changing historical perspective, but, as this book seeks to demonstrate, these were unquestionably decades of intense and important change. In approaching this period of transition, this book also constitutes a plea for the rehabilitation of ‘modernization’, not as a normative model of historical development but as an analytical concept to explain the emergence of a fundamentally ambiguous and diverse modernity by the late nineteenth century. It seeks to restore the utility of the term in defining a historically contingent process, while accounting for the ambivalence of its consequences.

Networks and modernization have long been intertwined in the historiography of nineteenth-century Europe. In the 1950s, Karl Deutsch famously placed infrastructures of communication at the heart of the emergence of national cultures, a thesis taken up twenty years later by Eugen Weber in his classic illustration of nation-building under the French Third Republic.35 The linearity of these parallel processes of ‘modernization’ and ‘nationalization’, as then conceived, has since (p.8) been successfully challenged.36 Abigail Green and Siegfried Weichlein have demonstrated how the development of communications networks in Germany’s federal context fostered a dual process of regional and national state-building, both before and after unification.37 New means of transport and communication, these works suggest, not only tolerated but in fact supported the now well-documented persistence of local and regional identities in Germany.38

In this process, telegraph lines went one step further than the railways. In many ways, they were the latter’s silent partner, often erected or buried alongside the heavy iron tracks that criss-crossed the countryside. But the relative ease and speed with which telegraph wires could be constructed, and the lower levels of investment which they required, meant that the technology reached both deeper into the countryside and further across state borders than the railways ever could. Not limited to the same extent by geographical and topographical constraints, telegraph lines and offices tied together villages, towns, and cities across Europe and beyond. They became, quite literally, the infrastructure connecting the local, national, and eventually global dimensions of the transformations which characterized the nineteenth century.

This book therefore investigates the wide variety of spatial frameworks in which telegraph networks were established, and which they came to sustain. Building upon the work of Green and Weichlein, it emphasizes the ‘particularistic’ origins of these networks, whose construction was part and parcel of the state-building policies pursued by the various governments of the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) during the 1850s and 1860s. They contributed to the entrenchment of the federal German heritage with which the Kaiserreich of 1871 would have to contend when it, too, sought to turn the telegraph into a tool of nationalization.39 But it also follows these lines of communication inwards and outwards. It spotlights, on the one hand, the expanding international networks in which the German states were repeatedly repositioned by the technology and, on the other hand, the local contexts through which telegraphic transmissions were channelled—the towns and villages where telegraph offices became a new focal point in the everyday life of the community.

(p.9) Telegraph networks thus provide an invaluable lens through which to investigate the ‘jeu d’échelles’, the different levels at which the very idea of ‘Germany’ was simultaneously being constructed during the nineteenth century.40 One need only look at the administrative organizations which regulated telegraphic communication to get a sense of how this game was played. The German-Austrian Telegraph Union (Deutsch-Österreichischer Telegraphen-Verein)—a ‘großdeutsch’ organization, as the name suggests—was established very early on in the 1850s, but its dissolution in 1871 triggered attempts by some states to secure their independence. This they could do, in part, through their participation in the broader International Telegraph Union (ITU) which had been established in 1865, and which limited the new Reich administration’s freedom of action.

The same interplay of forces becomes apparent when we turn from the administration of telegraphy to its content and its users. From the outset, of course, the technology provided a new tool for the conduct of government, diplomacy, policing, and warfare.41 The ‘reaction’ of the 1850s, the Crimean War, and the changing European balance of power during the 1860s and 1870s were all driven by the to and fro of urgent telegrams. In this regard, the telegraph alerted governments to the growing interdependence of domestic and international security. Across society, meanwhile, the technology altered the conduct of trade, finance, industry, agriculture, and news distribution. And here too, its impact was ambivalent—it fostered the integration of a German economic sphere while enabling individuals to develop independent relations within different regional, national, and international systems of exchange. It supported structures of decentralized production in some regions, but facilitated the concentration of modern industries in others; it made East Elbian landowners more sensitive to the influence of their American competitors, while encouraging ‘cosmopolitan’ Hanseatic merchants to shift their gaze away from the Atlantic and back to the domestic German market; it enabled private bankers to strengthen their networks of debtors and creditors while extending the practice of stock market speculation to a wider public; it spawned telegraphic news agencies who then fought for control of regional, national, and global control of the press.

Behind the scenes, the ‘wiring of the world’ had begun, tentatively at first, as connections were established across smaller stretches of water in the 1850s, then proceeding apace after the laying of the transatlantic cable in 1866.42 Yet German states appeared to be sidelined in this incipient globalization of communication, driven as it was by the governments and funds of their Western (p.10) counterparts—they were close enough to feel the ripples of a changing world economy, but too far to make an impact of their own. German journals and newspapers celebrated the apparent shrinking of the globe, a select few businessmen even took part in its realization, and its economic repercussions were very real, as the crises of 1857 and 1873 demonstrated. In reality, however, a vanishingly small minority of Germans were communicating across the world’s longest wires, the vast proportion of their exchanges taking place across Germany and Europe.

Here, again, was another paradox. A modest wood merchant in Bavaria was increasingly aware of the ‘distant’ causes of local price fluctuations, parliamentary deputies discovered that transatlantic connections benefited an infinitesimally small elite, and Bismarck well knew that news agencies now had global connections, but their ability, or willingness, to engage these channels were limited. The potential challenges of globalization, as Cornelius Torp has described them, were made apparent from an early stage and at particular times, and telegraph networks certainly helped to spread news from overseas, no doubt influencing political and cultural discourse at home.43 As Mark Hewitson has argued, however, taking up the finer points of Karl Deutsch’s model, networks had created a competitive system of interactions, one in which global, European, national, and local connections vied for attention. For the time being, more regional concerns tipped the balance.44

The crisis of the 1870s, therefore, unleashed tensions which had been building for the preceding two decades, as Germany was pulled in a variety of directions. During the 1850s and 1860s many liberal parliamentary deputies had pushed governments to accept the primacy of ‘national’ economic priorities when designing networks of communication. The favour shown to particular elites as a result, however, was widely recognised and later became the subject of intense discussion in the Reichstag. Governments, meanwhile, struggled to maintain their influence over a seemingly increasingly independent public sphere, shaped by the telegraphic news from agencies which were themselves bound by their dependency upon international agreements. And in towns and villages across the country, conflicts arose between the officials, bankers, and industrialists who all sought to resituate telegraph offices in locations suited to their needs. These offices had become their point of access to the regional, national, or global economy upon which they depended, and provided one of the ‘modern’ focal points around which, as Oliver Zimmer has shown, the rhythms and priorities of local communities were reorientated and reconfigured.45 Viewed from this perspective, the (p.11) zweite Reichsgründung’ (second founding of the Empire) and the ‘conservative turn’ of 1878 did not so much mark Germany’s sudden entry into a globalized modernity as constitute an effort to manage the Manichaean forces by which it was already being shaped.

Within this complex web of relations there lay one particularly visible silken strand, one that tied German businessmen to their counterparts across Europe and, in some cases, the globe. This ‘telegraphic elite’ was composed of individuals from the higher echelons of trade, finance, and industry, who drew from, and often determined, the flow of information and capital across state borders. It cannot be claimed that they represented the contested category of a German ‘bourgeoisie’ as a whole, but they constituted a privileged section of the middle class, for whom the telegraph became a very real ‘network of means’ connecting them to a pan-European elite.46 These were the men (most often) who expected daily updates on international stock market fluctuations and relied on the technology’s punctuality to effect their business transactions at specific times. Their needs often determined the shape and management of telegraph networks, fuelling this ‘silent bourgeois revolution’ with what were in fact at times rather vocal demands.47 As in any revolution, there were both winners and losers: the elation of the connected elite was often matched by the frustrations of those who remained disconnected or poorly served by the network. Nevertheless, the technology helped place the rising bourgeoisie centre stage in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe. After all, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, ‘[f]or good or ill, it was their age…’.48

Across politics, society, and the economy this was also an age of speed, and the telegraph, like the railways, was one of its principal engines. The cognitive impact of this speed, however, the transformation of Europeans’ perception of time and space, remains under-researched.49 The key theoretical texts on the matter, from (p.12) Anthony Giddens to David Harvey and Zygmunt Bauman, associate the onset of modernity with a linear process of ‘time-space compression’ or ‘distantiation’ stimulated by the communications revolution.50 Distance, according to these texts, and as contemporaries asserted, was progressively ‘annihilated’ during the nineteenth century, and time was standardized into a universally measurable quantity. This, indeed, is the spatio-temporal counterpart to the classic narrative of modernization—a Weberian rationalization of time and space, through which the clock became the principal means of coordinating life across ‘what we call modern civilization’, signalling the triumph of abstract, linear, and measurable time over the cyclical rhythms of nature, of night and day, and of the human body.51 The telegraph, by effectively dematerializing communication, appears to have accelerated the death of distance.

Once again, research on extra-European modernity has called this narrative into question. On Barak, for instance, has foregrounded the telegraph as one of the technologies which nominally imposed ‘Western’ time management in colonial Egypt. His research shows, however, that time was infused with different meanings, and that a variety of ‘times’ could coexist in such a setting.52 Taking a global view of developments, Vanessa Ogle has similarly shown that, from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, the effort to establish a Universal Standard Time across the world met a number of obstacles, and in fact provided a framework in which other conceptions of social, religious, and ‘national’ times could be defined.53 Other works have highlighted the multiplicity of modes of reckoning and experiencing time in different contexts, a multiplicity which, it seems, was also reflected in the spatio-temporal confusion reigning in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, as Stephen Kern has illustrated.54

Modern concepts of time and space were not merely multiple, however. As this book will demonstrate, the fragmentation of conceptions of time and space (p.13) derived directly from the development of new means of communication, which came to ‘enframe’ Germans’ experience of modernity.55 As the telegraph spread progressively and unevenly across the German landscape, space appeared to contract for those people and places included in the network of high-speed information circulation, but expanded for those who remained excluded. In a similar way, time might speed up for some users but appear to drag on for those suffering delays in transmission, its value fluctuating accordingly. The quality of an individual or a locality’s access to telegraphic communication generally reflected their social, economic, or political status, such that the speed of finance and politics might contrast sharply with the rhythms of rural life—perceived fluctuations in time and space were the cognitive counterpart to the uneven modernization of Germany.

None of these geopolitical, social, economic, and cognitive changes escaped the attention of contemporaries. Historians have argued that the late nineteenth-century Wilhelmine Empire was dominated by a dangerous and ultimately destructive combination of economic strength and cultural self-doubt—it was a ‘nervous Great Power’ engulfed in an ‘age of nervousness’.56 By the early twentieth century, indeed, the sociologist Georg Simmel and the historian Karl Lamprecht denounced the excessive speed of modern life.57 Society, Lamprecht believed, was subject to a growing ‘excitability’ (Reizsamkeit): ‘forwards, without pausing, is the catchword of the present’, he believed.58 And ‘[t]here is no doubt’, Lamprecht added, ‘that this concern [Betrachtung] for every second is directly, and to a large extent, due to modern means of communication’.59 Yet this phenomenon, as recent work has shown, was not unique to Germany—in Britain too, these were anxious times.60

The broad brushstrokes of this modern culture of speed, moreover, concealed the process through which new means of communication had penetrated society. The generalized alarm which historians have detected in the latter decade of the nineteenth century was the result of the progressive infiltration of technologies such as the telegraph into the habits of different strata of the population. The (p.14) towering figures of the emerging realist literature during the period, from Gustav Freytag to Friedrich Spielhagen and Theodor Fontane, had already noted this transformation in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. They themselves drew on a widespread perception of the effects of telegraphic communication which was expressed in newspapers and journals, from Kladderadatsch to Die Gartenlaube. As these novelists and publications show, the public had learned to marvel at, caricature, and ultimately internalize the individual stages of the technology’s development as an accelerator of finance, business, geopolitics, and, eventually, social life. Along the way, Germans had experienced the same hopes and disappointments, expectations and frustrations, as their Western counterparts, to whom they were connected by the technology.61

In essence, this book investigates the emergence of one major new means of communication to reveal the ways in which it transformed Germany before it was—sometimes literally—sunk into the foundations of society. In doing so, it seeks to illuminate the process through which the networks created by the telegraph came to form the often invisible infrastructure of German modernity. This process was by no means linear; on the contrary, it proceeded by means of inclusion and exclusion, of connection and division, paving the way for the contests and challenges which the country, like many of its neighbours, faced at the turn of the century.

The Roots of Modernity

In 1850, the schoolteacher Heinrich Schellen produced a textbook on telegraphy aimed at ‘friends of physics, telegraph personnel, engineers, technicians, and mechanics’, the principle aim of which, he stated, was to ‘bring a certain order to the great mass of electro-telegraphic experiments, and to the motley tangle of inventions, constructions, priority contests and the like’ which they had engendered.62 As Schellen’s text implied, this revolutionary new technology had not emerged fully formed from the mind of a single inventor, nor was it simply a natural successor to earlier, inferior means of communication. The telegraph was the product of discussions and negotiations between numerous actors, at a time when the function and means of communication in society had become a subject of debate.

This book therefore begins by plunging into the world of Vormärz Germany to explore the social, economic, and cultural context from which the telegraph (p.15) emerged. It seeks both to highlight the little-known German ‘contributions’ to the narrative of this technology’s development and to challenge its linearity.63 For despite the now long-standing efforts of historians of science and technology to turn our attention to the environment in which scientific ‘truths’ and practical innovations are produced, the history of telegraphy remains dominated by an account which prioritizes the individual achievements of primarily Anglo-American protagonists.64 Samuel Morse in the United States and Charles Wheatstone in Britain had their counterparts in Bavaria’s Carl Steinheil and, later, Prussia’s Werner Siemens. Neither Steinheil nor Siemens, however, could have brought their telegraphic apparatuses to life without government funding, private investment, and a widely disseminated stock of scientific and technical knowledge.

Indeed, the ‘motley tangle’ of individuals who, in one way or another, contributed to the development of the electric telegraph in Germany included scientists, technicians, entrepreneurs, political economists, and bureaucrats. Between c.1830 and c.1850, scientific knowledge on the subject was exchanged between academicians and university professors, but also amateur inventors and skilled technicians, who would later form the core of an engineering profession; investment in the technology was provided both by governments and the private railway companies interested in developing new signalling systems to help coordinate their trains; the strategic, political, and commercial utility of communications networks in general, meanwhile, was being re-evaluated by officials and writers who sought to understand the changing relationship between state and society.

To investigate the origins of the telegraph, then, is to explore the social, cultural, and economic history of the later Sattelzeit, when the concepts of ‘science’ and ‘technology’, ‘state’, ‘society’, and ‘communication’ itself were in flux. Doing so invites us to reconsider the origins and process of early industrialization in Germany, which has generally been associated primarily with Prussia and has tended to emphasize the state’s role in providing the legal, administrative, educational, and entrepreneurial support for that process.65 As some research has (p.16) suggested, however, other states such as Baden were equally active in promoting industrialization, and even in Prussia the influence of private investment should not be underestimated.66 As James Brophy and Eric Brose have shown, when it came to industrialization, technological development, and railway construction, there was considerable dialogue and a constant negotiation of interests between Prussian bureaucrats and businessmen, as well as among state officials themselves.67

Building upon these insights, this book highlights the interactions between individuals on either side of the fluid boundaries of ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ who brought together the logistical, financial, and technical resources necessary to the development of telegraphy. Borrowing from Joel Mokyr, it argues that a broadly conceived ‘useful knowledge’ circulated among the variety of people and institutions concerned, allowing them to collaborate, whether consciously or unwittingly, in developing a new technology.68 Something akin to an ‘industrial Enlightenment’ was taking place in Vormärz Germany, a concept which Peter Jones has applied to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain to challenge the primacy of either ‘science’ or technical ‘know-how’ in the process of industrialization.69 It accompanied the ‘agricultural Enlightenment’ which, as Jones has also recently argued, was taking place across Europe between 1750 and 1850, as knowledge circulated increasingly broadly throughout society.70

Adopting this concept is not to dilute individual agency and causality in a broth of ideas. Knowledge circulated through a constellation of academies, universities, institutions, and associations which had emerged across Germany by the early nineteenth century. It was discussed by scientists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats in person or through letters, and disseminated to a wider audience in a growing variety of books and journals. As Denise Phillips has shown, the concept of science itself remained remarkably broad until the mid-1800s, progressively redefined by an intellectual culture shared across a broad social (p.17) spectrum.71 People and places, as well as ideas, filled the German ‘landscape of innovation’.

There was thus more at stake during the early nineteenth century than the first stages of industrialization. This was, indeed, the ‘end of the economic old order’, a period during which the relationship between state, society, and even nature, was redefined, requiring the many actors who feature in this book to find their place in a changing world.72 The interactions between scientists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats engaged in developing the telegraph provide a glimpse into the ways in which they sought to manage this ‘Great Transition’, defining and defending their respective realms of expertise and authority.73 The Prologue therefore turns to this period when the ‘thick strands of continuity’ in German history, the very fabric of state and society, were being unravelled and intertwined anew.74 The networks of communication which emerged from this process of incipient modernization were to constitute the new seams of society.

This book cannot claim to be comprehensive, and the desire to include a diverse selection of protagonists, as well as to consider the many facets of the communications revolution, naturally imposed some limitations on the choice of source material. To claim exhaustiveness, however, would be to defy this book’s premise: that the origins of the telegraph cannot be attributed to a single set of actors, and that the impact of telegraphic communication was not circumscribed by traditional borders. It is nonetheless based upon extensive research in archives throughout Germany, in addition to which a number of published newspapers, journals, textbooks, and novels from the period have been consulted.

Where the development of individual states is under consideration, the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Prussia feature most prominently, acknowledging the latter’s undeniable predominance during the period while eschewing the tendency to make it the source of broader generalizations on German history. As a number of historians have now shown, Bavaria and the ‘Third Germany’ more generally were of considerable weight in defining the course of that history.75 In order to account for regional and local differences in development, meanwhile, further (p.18) research was also conducted at state, municipal, and private archives in Berlin, Bremen, Nuremberg, Duisburg, Wuppertal, and Munich. Some additional primary material was also kindly provided by the Institut für Stadtgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. Developments in Austria do not feature centrally, as the Habsburg Empire merits a study of its own, but they are described where information was readily accessible and insofar as they affected and tied into events and decisions in the region. It is hoped that the changes thereby depicted provide something of a representative picture of nineteenth-century Germany as a whole.

This book is structured chronologically and divided into two parts. After the Prologue, the first three chapters explore the ‘landscape of innovation’ across which the idea of telegraphy was discussed, applied, and developed into a useable technology, between 1830 and 1849. Chapter 1 traces the expectations which scientists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs placed in the possibility of instantaneous, long-distance communication. Chapter 2 highlights the negotiations which took place between these actors as they brought together the technical, logistical, and financial resources necessary to turn that possibility into a reality. Chapter 3 focuses upon the pivotal years which brought the Vormärz to a close, when the revolutionary upheavals of 1848/9 spurred governments to take a leading role in the construction of new networks of communication.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 investigate the process through which telegraph networks were built and administered between 1850 and 1880, and their influence upon the development of the German economy, society, politics, and culture. Here, it is the ‘consumers’ of the technology who take centre stage, from state administrators, ministers, and members of parliament, to news agencies, bankers, merchants, and manufacturers. The technical development of the telegraph continued during this period, of course, and many actors—the state in particular—straddled the border between ‘production’ and ‘consumption’, but the focus here is upon the impact of the telegraph upon state and society. Throughout, an emphasis is placed upon the challenges which these many different applications of the technology created for users and administrators, the competition which it produced between them, and the many different local, regional, national, and eventually global contexts to which it connected them.

The development and implementation of telegraphic communication tied Germany into the Western experience of modernization, complete with its many ambiguities. Like its neighbours, Germany was subject both to the celebrated benefits of technological progress and to the disruptions caused by its onward march.76 From the process of its development to its widespread (p.19) integration, the telegraph was the product of, and a contributor to, the growing interdependence of people and places across Germany, Europe, and the globe. It lay at the heart of the connections and divisions, the excitement and frustrations, the hopes and disappointments that were to characterize modernity.


(3) Knies, Der Telegraph, p. 190.

(4) E. Sax, Die Verkehrsmittel in Volks- und Staatswirthschaft, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1878–9); K. Lamprecht, Zur jüngsten deutschen Vergangenheit, 2 vols. (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1903), ii/1.

(5) R. Albion, ‘The “Communication Revolution”’, American Historical Review, vol. 37, no. 4 (July 1932), pp. 718–20. The Canadian historians Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, who emphasized the transformative impact of media upon society, also helped to bring the communications revolution to the attention of historians. Cf., for example, H. A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto, 1951); H. M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto, 1962).

(6) See, for example, R. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (London, 2016), pp. 147–58; J. Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. P. Camiller (Princeton, 2014), esp. pp. 710–43. The literature on the ‘communications revolution’ per se is replete with narratives in which the telegraph features in a trajectory leading from ‘Gutenberg to the Digital Age’. Cf. B. Kovarik, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age (London, 2011), esp. pp. 255–74; Further examples include J. Bray, Innovation and the Communications Revolution: From the Victorian Pioneers to Broadband Internet (London, 2002); B. Winston, Media, Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet (London, 1998). For a critical evaluation of the concept see Wolfgang Behringer, ‘Communications Revolutions: A Historiographical Concept’, German History, vol. 24, no. 3 (2006), pp. 333–74.

(7) On the telegraph in continental Europe, see: C. Bertho, Télégraphes et téléphones: De Valmy au microprocesseur (Paris, 1981); Svenska Telegrafverket: en historisk framställning, utgiven enligt beslut av Kungl. Telegrafstyrelsen, ed. Kungl. Telegrafstyrelsen (7 vols., Stockholm, 1931–97); U. Cavina, La Telegrafia Elettrica e le Origini del Morse (Uffici e linee nell’Italia preunitaria) (Albino, 2008); C. Colavito, Telegrafi e Telegrafisti del Risorgimento: Storia delle Prime Comunicazioni Elettriche in Italia (Rome, 2014); S. Fari, Una Penisola in Comunicazione: Il Servizio Telegrafico Italiano dall’Unità alla Grande Guerra (Bari, 2008); L. E. Otero Carvajal, ‘La evolución del telégrafo en España’, in A. Bahamonde Magro, G. Martinez Lorente and L. E. Otero Carvajal, Las communicaciones en la construcción del Estado contemporáneo en España, 1700–1936 (Madrid, 1993), pp. 123–88.

(9) M. Wobring, ‘Telekommunikation und Nationsbildung. Die politischen Konzepte früher deutscher Telegraphenplanung vom ausgehenden 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Paulskirche’, Technikgeschichte, vol. 71, no. 3 (2004), pp. 201–21; W. Löser, ‘Die Rolle des Preuβ‎ischen Staates bei der Ausrüstung der Eisenbahnen mit elektrischen Telegraphen in der Mitte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts’, Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 4 (1963), pp. 193–208; B. Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System (Stanford, 1999), esp. pp. 165–85.

(10) See, for example, Rückblick auf das erste Jahrhundert der K. Bayer. Staatspost (1. März 1808 bis 31. Dezember 1908), ed. K. B. Staatsministerium für Verkehrsangelegenheiten  (Munich, 1909); F. Weber, Post und Telegraphie im Königreich Württemberg: Denkschrift aus Anlass des Ablaufs der fünfzigjährigen Verwaltung des württembergischen Post- und Telegraphenwesens durch den Staat (Stuttgart, 1901); Hundert Jahre Telegraphie in der Pfalz, 1853–1953, ed. Oberpostdirektion (Neustadt, 1953).

(14) The classic formulation of this thesis is H.-U. Wehler, Das Deutsche Kaiserreich, 1871–1918 (Göttingen, 1973), which drew on the work of Eckart Kehr: Der Primat der Innenpolitik, ed. H.-U. Wehler (Berlin, 1965). See also B. Moore, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship (Boston, 1966); R. Dahrendorf, Gesellschaft und Demokratie in Deutschland (Munich, 1965).

(18) Blackbourn and Eley, Peculiarities.

(19) D. F. Crew, ‘The Pathologies of Modernity: Detlev Peukert on Germany’s Twentieth Century’, Social History, vol. 17, no. 2 (May 1992), pp. 319–28; S. O. Müller and C. Torp (eds.), Das Deutsche Kaiserreich in der Kontroverse (Göttingen, 2009); Heinrich August Winkler’s magisterial history of modern Germany, however, suggests that the Sonderweg thesis remains a powerful historiographical leitmotif: Der lange Weg nach Westen, (2 vols., Munich, 2000).

(20) S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘Studies of Modernization and Sociological Theory’, History and Theory, vol. 13, no. 3 (1974), pp. 225–52. The validity of the critique was acknowledged by one of its earlier proponents, Alexander Gerschenkron: see ‘Europecentrism and Other Horrors: A Review Article’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 19, no. 1 (1974), pp. 108–23. See also the particularly trenchant critique of the model as ‘ahistorical’ by Immanuel Wallerstein: ‘Modernization: Requiescat in Pace’, in L. Coser and O. Larsen (eds.), The Uses of Controversy in Sociology (New York, 1976).

(24) As suggested by discussions in the round table on ‘Historians and the Question of “Modernity”’, American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 3 (June 2011), pp. 631–751.

(27) M. Castells, ‘Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint’, in Manuel Castells (ed.), The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Cheltenham, 2004), pp. 3–45. There is a wealth of literature taking various approaches to the use of networks in history and sociology. As early as 1939, Norbert Elias proposed to view society as a network out of which individuals emerge and to which they contribute: Die Gesellschaft der Individuen, ed. M. Schröter (Frankfurt am Main, 1987 [1939]). In the latter decades of the twentieth century, networks witnessed many reincarnations, ranging from studies on social networks often derived from the work of Mark Granovetter to the ‘Actor-Network-Theory’ proposed by Bruno Latour, which places humans, objects, and ideas on an even, interconnected plane: M. Granovetter, ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, no. 6 (1973), pp. 1360–80; C. Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, Findings (New York, 2012); B. Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford, 2005). This book considers social networks and the material means of communication upon which they rely to be mutually constitutive.

(28) R. Wenzlhuemer, Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge, 2012). Wenzlhuemer’s overview suggests a number of directions which the historiography might fruitfully follow and has spurred some very interesting studies: S. M. Müller, Wiring the World: The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks (New York, 2016); A. Bonea, The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c. 1830–1900 (Oxford, 2016). Cf., most recently, A. Asseraf, Electric News in Colonial Algeria (Oxford, 2019). Jürgen Osterhammel hints at these two dimensions of globalization in his chapter on ‘Networks: Extension, Density, Holes’, in Transformation of the World, pp. 710–43.

(32) James Retallack has recently offered a much more nuanced view of the Kaiserreich’s place in the longer thread of German history: J. Retallack, Germany’s Second Reich: Portraits and Pathways (Toronto, 2015).

(33) W. Siemann, Gesellschaft im Aufbruch. Deutschland 1849–1871 (Frankfurt am Main, 1990); H.-U. Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte (5 vols., Munich, 1987–2008), iii, pp. 66–97; see also H. Böhme, Deutschlands Weg zur Grossmacht: Studien zum Verhältnis von Staat und Wirtschaft während der Reichsgründungszeit, 1848–1881 (Cologne, 1968). More recently, Christopher Clark has called for more research on the post-revolutionary decade of ‘reaction’ in particular: ‘After 1848: The European Revolution in Government’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 22 (Dec. 2012), pp. 171–97.

(39) On the ‘long’ history of German federalism, see M. Umbach (ed.), German Federalism: Past, Present, Future (Basingstoke, 2002).

(42) Müller, Wiring the World.

(49) Notable exceptions include R. Wenzlhuemer, ‘“Less Than No Time”. Zum Verhältnis von Telegrafie und Zeit’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, vol. 37, no. 4 (Oct. 2011), pp. 592–613; I. R. Morus, ‘“The Nervous System of Britain”: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 33, no. 4 (Dec. 2000), pp. 455–75. The paradigmatic attempt to analyse this cognitive transformation is Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, 1986). For a thought-provoking analysis, situated in the context of nineteenth-century Canada, see J. Stein, ‘Reflections on Time, Time-Space Compression and Technology in the Nineteenth Century’, in Thrift and May (eds.), TimeSpace, pp. 106–19.

(57) G. Simmel, ‘Die Groβ‎städte und das Geistesleben’, in Rüdiger Kramme, Angela Rammstedt, and Otthein Rammstedt (eds.), Georg Simmel: Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, 1901–1908, 2 vols. (Frankfurt am main, 1995), i.; K. Lamprecht, Zur jüngsten deutschen Vergangenheit, 2 vols. (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1903), ii/1.

(58) Lamprecht, Zur jüngsten deutschen Vergangenheit, ii/1, 262, 242.

(59) Ibid., 159.

(61) David Blackbourn has elegantly described this ambiguous culture of progress in The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1780–1918 (New York, 1998), pp. 270–310.

(63) V. Aschoff, Geschichte der Nachrichtentechnik (2 vols., Berlin, 1995), p. ii. A much earlier work, E. Feyerabend, Der Telegraph von Gauss und Weber im Werden der elekrischen Telegraphie (Berlin, 1933), provides a very brief summary of early developments and reproduces a number of crucial documents which, it seems, have since been lost.

(73) Ibid.

(74) H. W. Smith, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race Across the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2008), p. 12. Smith uses the expression to illuminate the different but related issue of historiographical debates on the German Sonderweg.

(76) G. Eley, J. L. Jenkins, and T. Matysik, ‘Introduction: German Modernities and the Contest of Futures’, in G. Eley, J. L. Jenkins, and T. Matysik (eds.), German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar: A Contest of Futures (London, 2016), pp. 1–30; Y.-S. Hong, ‘Neither Singular nor Alternative: Narratives of Modernity and Welfare in Germany, 1870–1945’, in ibid., pp. 31–58; G. Eley, ‘What Was German Modernity and When?’, in ibid., pp. 59–82.