What the history of the telegraph shows about the use of technology for geopolitical power

The history of the telegraph provides an illustrative example of how technology has shaped the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the world in the recent past. This not only impacted the relationship between nations and empires, but also shaped the outcome of at least one world war, and possibly two.

By the 19th and 20th centuries, Britain had developed monopolistic dominance of the world’s telegraph communications network. The British Eastern Telegraph Company alone manufactured between half and two-thirds of the cables in the world at that time. Of the approximately 30 ships capable of laying cables around the world, 24 were British owned.

The British, strategically, encouraged other countries such as the United States and Germany to lay their cables in and around Britain, with the effect that “their communications came under British control in time of war “.

The powerful combination of manufacturing expertise, ownership of physical infrastructure, strategic influence over cable routes, control of critical cable manufacturing raw materials such as latex jacket, unparalleled cable laying and repair capabilities and the dominance of international standards for telegraph technology all meant that British control of the telegraph industry was complete.

This domination conferred at least two extremely strategic advantages on Great Britain. First, this “strategic backbone of the empire” helped strengthen the dominance of British military and naval forces around the world and secure their colonies. Second, the strategic vision and decision to control these routes proved “prescient” during the world wars that followed the escalation of rivalry between the great European powers.

In August 1914, for example, a day after Britain declared war on Germany, it cut the German telegraph cables, which would then remain out of service for the rest of the war.

The British took advantage of the telegraph networks to isolate their adversaries, cut their communications with their respective armies and impose an economic blockade6. In fact, during both World Wars, British dominance of telecommunications networks would prove absolutely critical.

On the defense front, the British realized that their telegraph networks – especially those running through rival territory – were also subject to attack and espionage from their rivals, such as the French and Russians. In 1866, the select committee of the British House of Commons concluded:

That, in view of the magnitude of the political, commercial and social interests involved in the connection between this country and India, it is not expedient that the means of intercommunication by telegraph should depend on a single line, or on a single system of wires, in the hands of several foreign governments, and under several distinct responsibilities, so well that these services can be conducted as a whole, in time of peace.

The select committee decided to introduce “network resilience” and “redundancy” (the same defense strategies continue to be used today). By the dawn of the 20th century, the British government had laid an exclusive system of cables between Britain and its colonies, called the “All Red” routes, while simultaneously building an unparalleled capability to disable the cable networks of its rivals. .

The telegraph, like the Internet, was not initially envisioned as a geopolitical tool.

As Headrick describes it, until 1850, telegraph networks were used to “speed up everyday interactions between peoples”, much like today’s Internet networks. The rapid expansion of the telegraph network worldwide increased the dependence of nations (and their armies) on the communications made possible by the telegraph.

As trade using these networks increased and great power rivalry developed, as it still does today, the great powers of the time – Britain and France at the time – began to value the telegraph “as a means of projecting their will onto others”. So in many cases the governments of nations like France and Britain would eventually push for more emphasis on laying telegraph lines to new places, so that they could maintain “contact with their armies on distant battlefields”.

Just as technology then shaped geopolitics, geopolitics also shaped technology. Military and economic considerations would also prompt Japan to push for its first telegraph cable connection to the West via the Pacific submarine cable in 190611 (its Korean cable had proven to be a key strategic asset during a war with China in the 1890s).

Likewise, the United States had begun to grasp the military and economic importance of these telegraph networks. Realizing that these networks were essential for communications between Spain and its colonies, U.S. naval officers began using Caribbean telegraph stations to monitor Spanish naval movements around 1894.

Then, in 1896, when the Spanish Governor-General refused to grant the United States the right to use it, Lieutenant William W Kimball recommended cutting the submarine cable between Manila and Hong Kong (and also the cables on the Cuban coast for good measure).

In 1900, in a speech to the U.S. Naval War College, Captain George O Squier of the U.S. Army Signal Corps declared that the Spanish–American War had “for the first time demonstrated the dominant influence of wired communications submarine in the conduct of a naval war”.

The vulnerability of these lines of communication and the geopolitically risky dependence that nations like France and Germany had on “Britain’s goodwill” led many to attempt to build and subsidize their own exclusive All Red style telegraph networks. Unfortunately, this telegraph arms race only served to further stoke mutual suspicion and rivalry. It would even contribute to bringing nations to the brink of war. As Headrick describes it:

In 1914, instantaneous communications, far from dispelling misunderstandings between the powers, only sharpened the nervousness of nervous governments on the brink of war. Hoping to break free from their dependence on foreign cables, all the major powers helped push the nascent technology of radio into an early adolescence. Telecommunications, once hailed as a miracle and then considered a public service, had become a political tool in the rivalry between the great powers.

The two world wars further accelerated the politicization and militarization of telecommunications networks. While news, business, and private messages were the critical forms of information circulating on these networks during peacetime, three other forms of information – propaganda, secrets and intelligence – began to circulate on the networks. telegraphs.

As an emerging power at the time, the United States witnessed the negative impact that British capabilities and hegemony had on the Germans during World War I.

In 1914, the Americans had seen the British cable ship Alert cut the five German Atlantic submarine telegraph cables that linked Germany to France, Spain and the Azores, and then to the United States itself. In 1917 they had seen Germany retaliate by cutting a series of cables linking Britain, Portugal and Gibraltar, using its U-Boats and submarines equipped with specialist cutting equipment.

Witnessing these events made real the “potential danger of the United States being cut off from places of commercial, political, or military importance.” Realizing its own potential vulnerability, the United States would begin the process of laying the groundwork for its own strategic communications network. It would be this foundation that, in just a few decades, “would underpin the rise of the United States to global power in the mid-twentieth century.”

World War II was in many ways “a repeat of World War I with more advanced technologies”. The British again used their mastery of communications – this time combined with skilled decryption technology – to penetrate Germany’s most secret codes and ciphers, even as the Americans did the same with Japan.

And the impact was just as significant. Famously, in 1945, as the Second World War drew to a close, Winston Churchill said that Bletchley Park (the precursor to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British intelligence agency equivalent to the National Security Agency (NSA) responsible communications decryption) had proven to be the decisive factor in the British victory.

In this historical context, it is therefore not surprising that today China is seeking to build its own digital Silk Roads infrastructure as the basis for its own emergence as a world power in the 21st century.

Excerpted with permission from The great technological game: shaping geopolitics and the destiny of nationsAnirudh Suri, HarperCollins India.

Edward K. Thompson