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Technology and Culture 44.3 (2003) 628-629
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Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Communication, and Technology, 1850-1950. By Gregory J. Downey. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xiv+242. $85/$23.95.
Thomas Hughes showed us some time ago that technologies are embedded in systems. Gregory Downey reminds us that technological systems depend on labor to function, and that they reorder human geography as a consequence of their functioning. His example is the role of telegraph messenger boys in creating and sustaining a nationwide communications network, and he closely examines "the history of a group of 'system maintainers' at the lowest level of the telegraph hierarchy, and the lived geography of the telegraph network that both resulted from and set limits upon their day-to-day labor" (p. 191).
Downey's initial task is to resolve the "paradox of a 'lightning-fast' information system that nevertheless seemed to rest on the speed of a lazy schoolboy" (p. 4). To resolve this paradox he uses two theoretical concepts: the social construction of technological systems and the social production of space and time. He concludes that messengers "occupied a key position . . . at the boundary between the virtual and the physical" (p. 10). Messenger boys, in other words, connected the telegraph network that moved information through space with customers who depended on timely delivery.
Downey covers several facets of the history of telegraph messenger boys, including how they moved about in large cities and small towns, why they became objects of scrutiny for Progressive reformers, and what their prospects were for career advancement. Two subjects stand out as particularly useful and compelling. First, historians have typically regarded the postal system, telegraph, and telephone as competing communications media. Downey claims instead that the three were complementary, a "multimodal information internetwork that began and ended with young boys but encompassed a variety of technologies, institutions, and geographies in between" (p. 11). He points out that today's bicycle couriers and express-delivery drivers perform much the same function; they too connect diverse communications media and allow them to operate as a seamless web.
A second interesting argument is that messenger boys helped the telegraph industry to survive longer than it otherwise would have, while at the same time their cheap labor retarded technological innovation. Hand delivery of telegrams helped the industry retain a distinctive identity that was necessary for it to compete with cheaper or quicker media like airmail and the telephone. A hand-delivered telegram was "a special event,. . . an occasion for a brave and bold messenger to track you down in the midst of your busy day and hand you an urgent communication with a smile" (p. 202). In addition, the telegraph industry saw no need to modernize its collection and [End Page 628] delivery methods because it enjoyed an ample supply of cheap labor. Indeed, Western Union upgraded its message collection and delivery technologies only after 1940, when child labor and education laws, minimum wage laws, and unionization drove up the cost of human messengers. Without a messenger to deliver it, however, a telegram was no different than a letter or a phone call; Western Union lost its distinctive brand identity and its position in the communications marketplace steadily eroded after World War II.
This is one of the most insightful books in the history of technology that I have read in a long time. Through a close examination of the intersections between labor, space, time, and technology, Downey points the way to a new and fruitful framework for making sense of our networked world. I trust that his book will be a serious contender for the Edelstein Prize.
Dr. Hochfelder is with the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University.
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