Wired into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier by James Schwoch
In Wired into Nature, communications scholar James Schwoch joins historians Richard White and Cameron Blevins in reorienting the spatial locus of a key nineteenth-century American infrastructural innovation from the Atlantic seaboard to the trans-Mississippi West. Too often, Schwoch contends, historical writing on the nineteenth-century telegraph has neglected the “incredible significance, power, and value” that nature held, and continues to hold, over the “imagination” of Americans (p. 186). Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner is not only a character in Schwoch’s story—he gets a cameo in the conclusion—but also its guiding spirit.
Schwoch organizes his book around four themes: the high ground; signal flow; state secrets; and secure command. Each pertain to the medium itself—how it was built, how information circulated, and how the circulation of information shaped and was shaped by the central government. These themes weave through five substantive chapters, three of which are organized around regions (the Great Plains, the Arctic, the Southwest) and two around events (the Civil War, weather reporting). Unlike most writing on the telegraph by historians, though in keeping with a convention familiar to journalists (e.g., Tom Standage) and communications scholars (e.g., Nicole Starosielski), Schwoch is attentive to parallels between the nineteenth century and the recent past. Electronic surveillance, climate change, global security, “crypto-hackers” (p. 92), “denial of service attacks” (p. 81), and even “cyberwarfare” (p. 96) are all invoked to help explain the evolution of a network that—oddly, though characteristically—Schwoch repeatedly calls “electronic,” a term that is, strictly speaking, anachronistic for the period prior to the invention of the vacuum tube. Far less intriguing to Schwoch is the relationship of the telegraph to contemporaneous nineteenth-century media: the optical telegraph, the mail, the commodity exchange, the newsbroker, even the railroad.
The organization of the book is topical, with a particular focus on the relationship of the telegraph to the central government. One topic that is likely to be new to specialists in the history of communications is the role of the U.S. Army in the intentional setting, in January 1865, of [End Page 181] a huge wildfire in the Great Plains to deter Indian tribes from interfering with the transcontinental telegraph, a conflagration that burned a territory as large as Ohio. Other topics that receive attention include the contest between the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps and the corporate-staffed United States Military Telegraph during the Civil War; the evolution of telegraph codes; the administration by the post–Civil War Signal Corps of a telegraph network to improve weather reporting; the construction by the U.S. Army of a telegraph in Arizona Territory to facilitate the policing of the southwestern border; the origins of the White House Situation Room; and the military-led, Smithsonian-backed expedition to map the possible route of a trans-Siberian telegraph, an abortive project that was abandoned when British engineers successfully laid the Atlantic cable in 1866.
By “nature” Schwoch means the continental landmass. A more expansive definition would surely include electrical engineering, the role of the telegraph in the invention of the futures market, and the technical challenge of spanning the Atlantic. Gutta percha is not in Schwoch’s index, though this natural latex was essential to insulating telegraph lines that traveled underwater. Like Schwoch’s previous books on the regulation of radio and television, Wired into Nature is full of intriguing insights drawn from a thoughtful engagement with a wide range of primary sources. It is stimulating to view the nineteenth-century telegraph through the lens of the present. Yet, as recent historians of the nineteenth-century American telegraph as otherwise diverse as Benjamin Schwantes, Simone Müller, Joshua Wolff, and David Hochfelder have demonstrated, there is also much—and, arguably, even more—to be gained by locating the medium in the cultural, political, and economic milieu out of which it emerged. [End Page 182]
RICHARD R. JOHN is a historian who specializes in the history of business, technology, communications, and American political development. He teaches at Columbia University and is the author of two monographs: Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995) and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010).