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How the Telegraph Changed the World, by William J. Phalen

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Pp. viii, 212. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 078649445X.

The Nineteenth Century’s “High Tech” Communication System

Prof. Phalen (Rutgers), gives us a readable popular overview of the early history of the telegraph and the ways in which it influenced the world. After an introduction on early attempts at long distance communication, Phalen discusses the role of the portraitist Samuel Morse’s invention, the “Morse Code”, which is what made the technology work, while in the process he reminds us that the inventor was both anti-Catholic and pro-slavery. 

Phalen then looks at the various ways in which the telegraph affected the world, often making comparisons, not always favorable, to the ways it affected journalism, diplomacy, war, railroading, commerce, and so forth, even trade unionism, before and after its introduction. Phalen includes frequent reminders that the new mode of communication was not always reliable, and it that at times its acceptance wasn’t always immediate, diplomats, for example, fearing telegraphic communications could be intercepted. 

Two of Phalen’s early chapters deal with the telegraph and the Civil War. In the first he gives us a general overview of the role the telegraph played in the conflict, rapid communications often having a major impact on events in the field. He follows this with a chapter on Lincoln’s surprisingly sophisticated use of the instrument, for political as well as military purposes, and even touches on the role of the presidential telegraphers in code breaking. It’s unfortunate that Phalen doesn’t spend a little more time on the telegraph’s use in other wars, or address the reluctance of some armies, including the Prussian, to adopt it. 

This a very useful introduction to the ways in which the telegraph changed the world and war for the general reader.


Note: How the Telegraph Changed the World is also available as an e-Book, ISBN 978-1-4766-1867-8.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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