Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 September 2020
I Geography Undone by History
A strong recommendation of the study of Natural Philosophy arises from the importance of its results in improving the physical condition of mankind. At no period of the world's history have the benefits of this kind conferred by science been more remarkable than during the present age … Who would have believed … that our messages should now be communicated for thousands of miles by sea or land, literally with the speed of lightning?
In 1858 the first attempt to lay a telegraph cable between Europe and North America ended in disaster: after an initial transfer of some 700 messages, the signals faded, became unintelligible and ended. William Thomson, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, had been an adviser to the project but his advice had been ignored by the managing engineer, Wildman Whitehouse, who did not have Thomson's expertise in the theoretical aspects of the transmission of electronic currents. After a parliamentary investigation into the failure, Thomson was put in charge of a second attempt in 1865 and eventually succeeded in 1866 not only in laying a cable from Ireland to Nova Scotia but in establishing a consistent contact that linked continent to continent in an almost instantaneous circuit of information.
With the establishment of the intercontinental telegraph distance was, as far as information was concerned, effectively abolished. The telegraph became, for Britain, the nervous system of Empire, binding the centre and its most farflung margins so that nowhere could be beyond the horizon of almost immediate perception. Marshall McLuhan suggested that the reporting of the Crimean War by William Howard Russell for the Times produced a political storm in England in 1854–5 because, for the first time, the events on the battlefield were also the events at the breakfast table, and those digesting their breakfasts had to consume, at the same time, the fact that their troops were dying of starvation at the front. It is the image of Empire as an organic self-conscious unity, core and periphery linked in an immediate reciprocity of instantaneous responsiveness.