Simone Müller-Pohl, Wiring the World. The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks, séminaire HSHI, 20 novembre

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La prochaine séance du séminaire Histoire des sciences, histoire de l’innovation (Université Paris Sorbonne, UPMC, LabEx EHNE)
se tiendra le jeudi 20 novembre à 17h00
à l’Institut des sciences de la communication du CNRS (ISCC),
salle de conférence, 20 rue Berbier-du-Mets à Paris.

Simone Müller-Pohl,

Assistant Professor for North American History, Universität Freiburg

Wiring the World.
The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks


Wiring the World narrates the development of a worldwide submarine cable system from the actor networks’ perspective. It focuses on the protagonists of the wiring of the world, the engineers, entrepreneurs, operators, politicians, media reformers and financiers and inserts these men and women as key actors of globalization. Through their often contesting imaginaries of an electric world in union, they negotiated and shaped the very concepts that defined the global media system prior to World War I. These negotiation processes found expression in cable wars, rivalry between science and business, discourses on ‘civilization’ and ‘universal’ peace, strategic nationalism and almost constant, albeit unsuccessful, challenges to the system’s social scope. My work takes a new approach to the establishment of the cable system. While previous work has focused on the heroes of submarine cables or the political and economic repercussions, I examine how those establishing the system as well as those rallying against it, users and non-users alike, determined the history of communications. By using global history’s focus on agency and the parallelism of processes of integration and fragmentation, my narrative opens up new perspectives on the social and cultural alongside the technological, economic and political structuration of the modern world through communications. Further, I insert the concept of maritime space as an alternative mode of modern territorialization, which allowed my protagonists to mediate ‘between’ nations as well as between market and nation.

The wiring of the world plays an essential role in descriptions of nineteenth-century globalization. Scholars, such as Christopher Bayly, Charles Maier or Jürgen Osterhammel agree that (submarine) telegraphs were crucial for the development of world politics, global markets and a global media system. I examine globalization as a non-linear process of a global intensification, expansion and densification of international networks and spaces of transboundary interaction; integration hence plays as much of a role as fragmentation. My focus on the actor networks, and hence the agency aspect of globalization, shows the vital importance of social actors to the wiring of the world. Yet, actor networks do not just provide insights into individuals, but can illuminate the intricate relationship between global markets and the nation, the role of imperial policies in the expansion of a global media system or the interplay between notions of internationalism and cosmopolitanism. It examines not just the conventional cable heroes, such as John Pender, but the small investors in cable companies, the cable station operators, and cable engineers whose stories have remained untold.

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