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Private Telegraphy: The Path from Private Wires to Subscriber Lines in Victorian Britain

Fava-Verde, Jean-Francois (2016) Private Telegraphy: The Path from Private Wires to Subscriber Lines in Victorian Britain. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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In this thesis, I investigate private telegraphy from its rise in the late 1830s to the advent of exchange telephony in the early 1880s. In contrast to public telegraphy where telegrams were transmitted over a shared network infrastructure, private telegraphy was a direct, more immediate form of user-to-user communication delivered over private wires. My objective is to redress a historiographical distortion in the understanding of the Victorian telegraph created by the conflation of the concept of telegraph with telegram, and by the prominence given to the nationalisation of the telegraph industry in 1870 in the discourse of historians like Jeffrey Kieve or Charles Perry, thus obscuring the critical role played by private telegraphy in the history of communication. To begin with, I expose the dichotomy between public and private telegraphy by demonstrating the similarities and rivalry between telegrams and letters. I contend that this rivalry was an important factor behind the nationalisation. The extent to which private telegraphy was distinct from public telegraphy is demonstrated through a comprehensive history of private wires and the first domestic telegraph instruments. I track the development of private wires, from their inception at the hands of users of the telegraph to their assimilation by telephony, and show their versatility for diverse uses. I also reveal how telegraphic intercommunication systems – the so-called Umschalters – were reconfigured to become the Post Office’s first generation of telephone exchanges in the early 1880s. From this novel perspective, I counter the received scholarly view that the Post Office obstructed the expansion of telephony to protect the Crown’s stake in telegraphy. I claim instead that the Post Office exploited the installed base of Umschalters and private wires, by then referred to as subscriber lines, to become an active participant in the nascent telephone industry alongside the private companies, thus accelerating the take-up of exchange telephony.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Electric Telegraph, Telegraphy, Telephony, Post Office, Private Wires, Telegrams, Letters
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.702606
Depositing User: Dr Jean-Francois Fava-Verde
Date Deposited: 25 Jan 2017 14:47
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2020 10:53
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/16017

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