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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 568-570

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Book Review

Global Communications since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology

Global Communications since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology. By Peter J. Hugill. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 277; maps, figures, tables, notes/references, index. $55 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

During the past five hundred years, posits historical geographer Peter Hugill, there have been some "interesting regularities" in human history that have been "somewhat controlled" by technologies for moving people, goods, information, and ideas (p. 1). In a previous book on transportation technology, World Trade since 1431 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Hugill considered the movement of people and goods. Here his focus is on the movement of information and ideas. For 130 years, Hugill contends, telecommunications has been the key technology in world politics: "If information is power, whoever rules the world's telecommunications system commands the world" (p. 2). To illustrate his thesis, Hugill has written a history of long-distance communications in the century between 1844--when the first "user-friendly" electric telegraph was commercialized in the United States--and 1945, when radio and radar helped the Allies defeat the Axis in the Second World War.

Global Communications will appeal to readers with a taste for sweeping generalizations about the rise and fall of nations. Hugill himself is drawn to works on this theme, and he freely acknowledges a major debt to an eclectic group of theoretically minded scholars that includes economic historian Harold A. Innis, geographers Peter J. Taylor and Halford J. Mackinder, and historians Immanuel Wallerstein, Charles Tilly, and Paul M. Kennedy. Indeed, much of this book's interest lies in Hugill's often ingenious borrowings from theoretical traditions that are rarely juxtaposed. Though Hugill is not always persuasive, he is rarely dull--not an inconsiderable achievement in a work that ranges so widely in time and place.

Hugill offers case studies of four technologies--telegraphy, telephony, radio, and radar--in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. He justifies his neglect of the rest of the world by positing that fundamental geopolitical changes begin in the core rather than the periphery. The "defining hegemonic challenge and response of the twentieth century," he declares with characteristic self-assurance, pitted Germany against Great Britain during the Second World War in an epic confrontation that determined the "destiny of our current version of world-system" (p. 163). There [End Page 568] are, of course, other ways to write about global communications during this period. It is by no means self-evident that telephony was more of a global technology than printing, mail delivery, or film. Curiously, Hugill displays little interest in broadcasting, even though it was arguably no less important than two-way communication in shaping the course of events. Similarly, it is somewhat odd to read an account of world politics in the first half of the twentieth century that marginalizes France and Russia and omits Africa, Asia, and Latin America altogether.

Hugill makes a persuasive case that for the past century and a half telecommunications has played a large and often underappreciated role in world affairs. More questionable is his Anglocentric contention that the outcome of the two world wars hinged on Britain's strong position in telegraphy, radio, and radar, rather than on a wider constellation of political, military, and economic factors. Readers in search of a more genuinely global history of the political dimensions of telecommunications technology in this period should turn instead to Daniel J. Headrick's Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), which covers more ground in both a literal and figurative sense.

Hugill is at his best when he describes how the British government relied on advances in telecommunications technology to compensate for its gradual military and political decline. Britain's dominant position in international telegraphy permitted government officials to "read everybody's mail," while its deployment of wireless telegraphy played an often unappreciated role in its air strategy during the First World War. Hugill also persuasively demonstrates--in what is by far...


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