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  • The Wire Devils:Pulp Thrillers, the Telephone, and Action at a Distance in the Wiring of a Nation
  • Robert MacDougall (bio)

We can remember the monsters of the Gilded Age, but not the horror they once evoked. The octopus, the spider, the hydra—historians find these images of corporations and the technological networks they built strewn across the culture of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States like the bones of dinosaurs long extinct. Of course, Americans still worry about corporate size and rapid technological change. Today's multinational corporations dwarf the leviathans that alarmed muckrakers and trustbusters a century ago. But that era's most lurid images of corporate and technological networks are somehow alien to twenty-first-century Americans. The political cartoons seem quaint or comical; the oratory of the Populists and the prose of muckraking journalists often read as hysterical or overwrought. In an age of planet-spanning corporations and instantaneous global commerce, it is difficult to apprehend how unnatural—how monstrous, to some—region- and nation-spanning companies and technologies of communication once seemed.

In this article, I reexamine the popular fears of that era by exhuming from obscurity some vernacular literature that directly engaged these anxieties. First, I examine the "wire thrillers," a series of pulp novels published in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s that put melodramatic depictions of technological and economic change at center stage. The thrillers were for the most part formulaic potboilers, but they were charged by a simultaneous attraction to, and repulsion from, the technological transformation they described. I then turn to the one advertising campaign that, probably more than any other, pacified fears of America's new techno-industrial order, and drove images of the corporate octopus and wire spider to extinction. This long and influential campaign was the work of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

New technologies—in particular the new national networks of telegraph and telephone—were the central subjects of the wire thrillers and the AT&T [End Page 715] campaign. Both the thrillers' authors and the telephone monopoly employed these new technologies as proxies for the nation, and as metaphors for controversial changes to America's political and economic order. While on the surface the wire thrillers celebrated the new technologies of long-distance communication, they also betrayed deep fears of sectional integration and nation-spanning commerce. AT&T publicity worked to answer these anxieties. The telephone company embraced the wire thrillers' metaphorical conflation of technological networks, corporations, and the American nation, but reversed the polarity of their images, celebrating the very sorts of social and economic integration that the authors of the wire thrillers most feared. Ultimately, AT&T succeeded both in constructing a national telephone network and in selling that network as a model representation of the nation itself. The story of how AT&T accomplished that feat is the story of how Americans learned to stop worrying and love the wire, or how technological networks, sectional integration, and nation-spanning corporations were at once conflated and redeemed.

Action at a Distance

Why were Gilded Age Americans so inclined to imagine large industrial organizations, and the technological networks they owned and operated, as monstrous octopi or spiders? In the visual culture of late-nineteenth-century America, tentacles and webs were shorthand for both technological networks—railroad tracks, oil pipelines, telephone and telegraph wires—and for corporate power more broadly (fig. 1). The sinuous tentacles of the octopus are what made it a frightening and powerful symbol—likewise the long limbs of the spider and the ensnaring strands of its web. How often were railroads, telephone and telegraph companies, or oil trusts depicted as octopi stretching their tentacles over a map or even clutching an entire globe? The octopus and the spider were not caricatures of corporate size alone. They were nightmares of reach. They were vivid depictions of what was often called "action at a distance." 1

Few features of late-nineteenth-century life seemed more novel or remarkable to observers than the technologies of action at a distance. Chief among these were the railroad, telegraph, and telephone. In the decades after the Civil War, American railroads linked the corners of...


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