- Beyond the Means of 99 Percent of the Population: Business Interests, State Intervention, and Submarine Telegraphy
In 1912, the Australian journalist and postal reformer Henniker Heaton was made a baronet of the British imperial crown. He was also the self-proclaimed spokesperson of “99 per cent of the population” who were disconnected from global communication. 1 Introducing the new peer to the imperial world, the London Times singled out Heaton as “Unofficial Postmaster General of the World.” “More than any other man,” the tribute proclaimed, this British Member of Parliament was responsible for the imperial penny post, introducing telegraphic money orders in the UK, improving the parcel post, and “not a few other services to humanity which rank him high among those who have served their fellow-men of many countries.” 2 But amid these splendid successes in global postal communication, the article omitted Henniker Heaton’s utter failure with a global telegraph communications reform. For more than two decades by that time, the “Postmaster General of the World” had rallied for a tariff reform of the international communications system to allow universal access. Those disconnected from global communication due to exorbitant cable tariffs had found their most fervent advocate in the Australian Heaton. Heaton revived a heated debate simmering between users, potential users, and providers on access to the telegraphic network since the mid-nineteenth century. In the end, reforms failed because privately-run submarine telegraph [End Page 439] companies, entrenched in the logic of economic liberalism and profit maximization, would not subject themselves to ideas of international governance and global communication as a public good. Up to World War II, the world’s governments in turn lacked incentives and willingness to enforce changes favoring cheap telegraphic communication for all. In a global communications system based on private-public partnership between primarily state-run telegraph landlines and privately-run submarine lines, advocates for universal access found themselves confronted by a marriage of seemingly irreconcilable interests of political and economic actors. In the nineteenth century, from the reformers’ perspective, this marriage was a failure.
Since 1865, the International Telegraph Union (ITU) had provided the official framework for international governance through standards on technology, usage, and tariffs. Apart from the United States, the ITU assembled almost all the world’s Ministries of Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones, which generally ran telegraphic landline systems. As Léonard Laborie has shown, the ITU was an important tool to foster intergovernmental cooperation—even during imperial fragmentation. 3 While scholarship has focused on the ITU as one of the oldest institutions of international governance on the one hand, or regulatory challenges after 1932 and the founding of the International Telecommunications Union on the other hand, little attention has been paid to the interrelation of private businesses and national infrastructure within the ITU before 1932. 4
As this article shows, the primarily privately-owned submarine cables represented the incongruous element within this framework of international governance. In the 1870s and 1880s, an interdependent regulatory duopoly developed between public and private communication enterprises loosely connected under the umbrella of ITU conferences. Both systems were run according to the logic of natural monopoly theory, as contemporaries deemed communications to be most efficient if concentrated in a single firm. 5 Domestic telegraphic communications was usually supervised by the respective Ministries of Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones; international cables communication was neatly distributed among essentially four big submarine cable companies that had divided the globe into spheres of influence. From 1871 onward, the private submarine cable companies participated as advisory members at ITU conferences. Although its statutes prevented the ITU from regulating private companies, its regulations of communications norms and technical standards still influenced the private cable business. Private cable tariffs were exempt from any ITU regulation. These very ocean cable tariffs, however, stood at the [End Page 440] center of media reform debates between users, administrators, and ocean cable entrepreneurs.
The tentacles of global communications in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dense network of submarine and terrestrial telegraphs, were never a means of social or mass communication. From their introduction in the mid-nineteenth century to their relative decline in the early twentieth century...