The Newberry

Mapping Movement

Mapping Communication

by: 
Robert MacDougall

Human beings have always communicated—our ancestors communicated before they were technically human beings—yet the concept of “communication,” as we understand it today, is remarkably recent in origin. It was only in the nineteenth century that the word communication came to refer primarily to the transfer of information. Before that, the word was used to describe any kind of physical exchange: commerce, gift-giving, even sexual intercourse. A door offered communication from one room to another. Scientists spoke of the communication of momentum or heat. Our modern understanding of communication has been powerfully shaped by technological change. In particular, nineteenth-century technologies like the telegraph and telephone demanded a word for the new thing they did—transmitting information without physical transportation—and an old term was refitted for this purpose. Communication, in this newer sense, became and still is a defining preoccupation of our age (Peters 1999, 3-10).
     Mapping communication is also a modern preoccupation. In a way, any map used for travel or navigation could also be considered a map of communication. But in order to draw a map of communication qua communication, one must believe that at least two places on that map want to communicate with each other, and one must conceive of their communication as a thing to be mapped. This means that maps of communication can be rich historical sources, not only for evidence about specific communication routes and practices, but also about the various networks and communities of which people imagined themselves a part. If we agree with Benedict Anderson (1983) that nations are “imagined communities,” and that maps have been powerful tools for constructing the modern nation, then maps of communication are doubly so. Both the nation and the network must be imagined to be mapped, and mapped to be imagined.
     Geography, technology, and politics made communication networks particularly visible and mappable to Americans in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries—the same years, of course, in which the United States itself was constructed. By studying maps of communication in the US, we can see a nation imagining itself, and we can chart some of the changing horizons of American life. At what geographic scale did Americans imagine their own identities? What networks did they see themselves as part of? Maps of communication can provide a window on these questions.
     In reading historical maps, we must remember that mapping is always prescriptive as well as descriptive. Maps of communication show us who communicated with whom, but they also train us to imagine such communication. Many of the maps examined in this essay are official or semiofficial maps: “Top-down” tools of government or private industry. We should read them, at least in part, as prescriptive maps of sanctioned communication. Part of their work was to tell Americans with whom they should communicate, or to illustrate the communities of which they should imagine themselves a part. Maps of communication served in part to paper over fissures, tensions, and divides. It takes close reading and attention to historical context to remember that there were alternate networks and alternate geographies not shown on these maps.

Colonial Communications
In the early eighteenth century, few could have predicted that Britain’s American colonies would soon be the site of two revolutions: A political revolution, but also a communications revolution that would turn a peripheral string of coastal settlements into the loudest, fastest, most prodigious nation of communicators in the world. Long distance communication in British North America was difficult and slow. Printed materials were scarce, the postal system was expensive, and the small population was thinly spread over hundreds of miles of rough terrain. Most adults could read and write, thanks to common schools and widespread belief in the importance of studying scripture for salvation, but colonial communication networks were highly stratified.
     The communication network that mattered most to colonial elites was not trans-American but transatlantic. Wealthy colonists looked back across the ocean to Britain and Europe for information, culture, and identity. They took part in a transatlantic exchange of letters, books, and periodicals to which the great majority of Americans had little access (Brown 2000). One great exemplar of the transatlantic communications network, and one of the first people to map it, was Benjamin Franklin. Printer by trade and scientist by avocation, Franklin kept up a steady correspondence with scholars and statesmen in England, Scotland, and France. In 1737, Franklin became the postmaster for Philadelphia. In 1753, he went to London to serve as deputy postmaster for all of Britain’s North American colonies. Franklin’s famous chart of the Gulf Stream (Map #1), published in 1769, was in fact a map of transatlantic communications. As postmaster, Franklin wondered why British mail ships took longer to sail from Europe to America than those returning from America to Europe. He consulted with merchant and whaling captains and realized the westbound ships were fighting against a current. Sailors had certainly noticed the wide band of warmer water flowing up the coast of North America and east across the Atlantic, but it was Franklin who named the Gulf Stream and mapped it in its totality, and it was the regular flow of letters back and forth across the Atlantic that made it visible and mappable to him (Johnson 2008, 9-11).
     As tension between Britain and the colonies grew, communication itself became highly politicized. The Stamp Act of 1765 placed a heavy tax on newspapers and periodicals, turning many printers and publishers against the British government. Popular pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense mobilized a broad public, enlarging and radicalizing the circuits of communication (Starr 2004, 47-82). Yet while the press fomented rebellion, the post remained an instrument of the crown. In 1773, the British postmaster general instructed Hugh Finlay, Franklin’s successor as colonial postmaster, to travel through the colonies mapping and assessing the postal system. Finlay’s maps (Map #2) and journals offer a valuable portrait of both communications and political unrest on the eve of the American Revolution. Everywhere he went, Finlay found colonists and even postal employees circumventing the official postal system, sending and carrying letters outside the mail to avoid British postage or surveillance (Steele 1983). So his maps described the official network of communication sanctioned by the crown, while his journals described the thriving counter-networks that were stitching together a new American identity.

The Revolution after the Revolution
The American Revolution was followed by a communications revolution. This second revolution would involve steamboats, railroads, and telegraphs, along with advances in printing and publishing, but its origins were cultural and political as much as technological. The role of print and post in the war for independence imbued many Americans with the ideal of a free press and an informed citizenry. The new republic encouraged the spread of schooling and literacy, subsidized newspapers with cheap postage, and constructed the largest, most active postal system in the world. By 1831, the United States had almost twice as many post offices as Great Britain and five times as many as France. These offices employed more than 8,700 postmasters, a larger force than the US Army or indeed any other single enterprise in the country. The postal system was then carrying thirteen million letters and sixteen million newspapers per year, figures that would triple by the end of that decade (John 1995; John 2000). “There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. “I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France there is intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness.”
     A famous set of maps from Charles O. Paullin’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (Map #3) shows the expansion of post roads and canals in the early nineteenth century, and the increasing speed of travel and communication in America. As Paullin’s maps illustrate, travel times in 1830 were approximately half of what they had been in 1800. It still took weeks for news to travel from, for example, New York to New Orleans, but it took two weeks instead of four. Paullin’s contour maps center on New York, but New York in the early 1800s was not the center of American communications in the way it would be by Paullin’s day. In the early nineteenth century, America’s communications infrastructure was polycentric, with distinct regional networks and variations from place to place. Most Southern states, for instance, rejected common schools (for both whites and blacks), had fewer printers and publishers than the North, and, with the support of the federal government, censored the mail in defense of slavery (Brown 1989; Starr 2004, 83-112).
     Still, by the 1840s and 1850s, cheap postage and a widely literate population had made the US mail a mass medium, and postal communication truly national. This national network was made most visible—and thus worthy of mapping—during episodes of migration and dislocation like the California Gold Rush or the Civil War, when many Americans traveled far from home and many more tracked their journeys with both maps and correspondence (Henkin 2008). J.H. Colton’s Map of the United States (Map #4), published at the peak of the California Gold Rush in 1849, highlights the long, difficult routes by which gold-seekers traveled to California and then communicated with friends and family back home. The overland journey could take as much as seven months; the sea journey around the southern tip of South America was no faster. Of course, mail carried by men on horseback could travel faster than a wagon train. The most famous example, though it operated for only a few years, was the Pony Express, a private chain of relay stations with riders and fast horses. Established in 1860, the Pony Express astonished the nation by carrying letters from Missouri to California in about ten days. Episodes like the Gold Rush gave many Americans their first opportunity to communicate with someone on the other side of the continent. Transcontinental maps and the experience of transcontinental communication trained Americans to see the West as part of the United States, a single nation stretching from sea to sea.

The Railroad and the Telegraph
America’s communications revolution gained even greater speed with the coming of the railroad and the telegraph. Samuel Morse, the son of geographer Jedidiah Morse, introduced his electric telegraph in 1844. Morse hoped to sell his invention to the Post Office, but it declined, leaving development of the telegraph in the US to private firms. The first American railways were constructed in the 1830s, with the real boom in railroad construction coming in the late 1840s and after. Rail and telegraph networks often grew together. The railroads gave telegraph companies the right-of-way to string their wires and the telegraph companies gave the railroads free service to coordinate their trains. By 1848, telegraph lines ran from New York as far south as New Orleans and as far west as Chicago. By 1857, they connected every state east of the Mississippi River (John 2000; Hochfelder 2012).
     As the communications scholar James Carey observed, the telegraph severed communication from transportation, making it possible to send information faster than any person, horse, or train (Carey 1989, 203-204). This turned communications into its own distinct activity, and indeed, our modern sense of the word communication, meaning the transmission of information as distinguishable from physical travel or exchange, emerged at exactly this time. At the same time, the telegraph attached communication to a fixed, physical network of poles and wires. These two shifts made it meaningful to draw maps of communication in a way it had not been before.
     Rudd and Carlton’s Map of the Submarine Telegraph between America & Europe (Map #5) shows the first transatlantic telegraph cable, connecting Valentia Island, Ireland to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. The cable was the vision of Cyrus Field, a paper manufacturer who, along with Samuel Morse, formed the American Telegraph Company, one of the leading telegraph conglomerations of its day. Stringing a 1,600-mile cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean was no easy feat. Two of the largest navy vessels in the world—one American, one British—met in the middle of the North Atlantic, each carrying thousands of tons of insulated copper wire. They connected their cables, then slowly sailed back to Ireland and Newfoundland, carefully unspooling the cable into the ocean as they went. After multiple failed attempts, the ships carrying each end of the cable reached land in August 1858. North America and Europe were, briefly, joined in electrical communication. This map was published to celebrate and publicize this historic achievement. But transmission on the line proved difficult and slow; it could take hours to send and accurately decipher a single message. After less than a month of operation, the cable failed permanently. Almost a decade passed before a second transatlantic cable was completed in 1866.
     E.W. Welton’s Map of the California State Telegraph and Overland Mail Road (Map #6) shows one portion of the first transcontinental telegraph line, which connected California to the eastern United States in 1861. The telegraph to the Pacific followed the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail as far west as Wyoming, then ran southwest to Salt Lake City and across the desert to Carson City and Sacramento. The line was built and operated by American Telegraph’s great rival, Hiram Sibley’s Western Union, along with a consortium of California firms. Western Union received generous subsidies for this work from the federal government, which saw the transcontinental telegraph as an important way of keeping California attached to the Union, both practically and symbolically, during the Civil War. The telegraph never became a mass medium like the postal service, but it transformed the distribution of news and business information. In 1860, the Pony Express had broken all previous records when it brought news of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the West Coast only one week after the East. In 1865, news of Lincoln’s assassination reached San Francisco by telegraph overnight.
     The speed of the telegraph changed the business of news-gathering and indeed the meaning of “news” itself. The Civil War introduced Americans to the experience, then nearly unprecedented, of receiving running accounts of battles as they happened. “You cannot imagine the feeling of knowing there is a battle going on,” wrote Anna Shaw Curtis, the sister of Colonel Robert Shaw, in 1862. “Men cannot think, write, or attend to their ordinary business,” observed Oliver Wendell Holmes. During major battles, newspapers sold five times as many copies as usual. Crowds gathered at telegraph offices to receive updates on events. Mapmaker Louis Prang sold a “War Telegram Marking Map” that came with colored pencils so civilians could mark the advance or retreat of Union and Confederate troops after each telegraphic update from the front (Hochfelder 2012, 91-95).

Mapping Time and Space
The telegraph even altered the mapping of time and space. For nineteenth-century mapmakers and navigators, time was space: the only precise way to determine the longitude between two points was to compare astronomical measurements made from both points at the same time. In the eighteenth century, navigators used chronometers—reliable clocks—to determine time and therefore longitude. But the nearly instantaneous signals of the telegraph offered far more precision than even the best clocks. In 1848, the Harvard Observatory and the US Coast Survey began working together to determine longitude by telegraph. The astronomers watched the stars and tapped out time signals; the mapmakers used their measurements and signals to determine the precise longitude between any two points on the telegraph line. By 1858, this was known as the “American method” of longitude determination, and had been used to fix the relative location of American ports from New Orleans to Calais, Maine. In 1866, the second transatlantic cable made it possible to measure the exact longitude between North America and Europe—after the surveyors waited seven rainy weeks for a night on which both Valentia, Ireland and Heart’s Content, Newfoundland could see the stars (Galison 2003; Stachurski 2009).
     Like everything else in late nineteenth-century America, time was becoming a commodity, something to be bought and sold. By the 1870s, Harvard and other observatories charged for access to their telegraphically-transmitted time signals, selling the exact time to ports, where ship’s captains set their chronometers before voyages, to jewelers, who sold accurate time pieces (what good was an expensive watch, the thinking went, if it did not show the true time?), and above all, to the railroads, which did more than any other industry to standardize measures of time (Galison 2003). Before the late nineteenth century, every community kept track of its own time. But for efficiency and safety, railroads in this era started synchronizing their clocks by telegraph, with each system adopting the local time of the most important city it served. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran on Philadelphia time, the New York Central on New York City time, and so on. As American railroads grew and interconnected, they gradually chased away local times. In 1883, all the major North American railroads agreed to adopt a system of standardized time zones. A map of the system published in 1889 (Map #7) shows the time zones much as we know them today, along with a list of conversions back to the old local, or solar, times for each city: Eastern Standard Time is sixteen minutes slower than Boston’s solar time, but eight minutes faster than Washington, DC’s, etc. This multiplicity of local times seems chaotic to us now, but it was not experienced as such before the 1880s. Having a few minutes difference between Boston and New York was only a nuisance after the railroad and telegraph wired these communities together, creating the expectation of simultaneity. Once again, maps of communication were also maps of Americans’ social and commercial horizons, charting the changing scale of American life.

Mapping the Economy
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the long lines of the railroad and telegraph became a national grid. By 1871, American railroads had laid approximately 45,000 miles of track, including the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. Over the next thirty years, Americans would build another 170,000 miles of track, including four more transcontinentals and a dense web of interconnections east of the Mississippi: “Railroads as thick as grasshoppers,” in the words of one newspaper (Musich 2006, 124). The furious competition and construction of the 1870s and 1880s was followed by a wave of takeovers and bankruptcies in the 1890s. By the turn of the century, two-thirds of US railroads were operated by one of seven large conglomerates, and Western Union’s monopoly over the long distance telegraph was secure (Chandler 2000, 11-12).
     These maps of Ohio and Pennsylvania (Map #8), from a railway atlas published by the George F. Cram Company in 1899, show a thicket of interconnected trunk, branch, and short lines. Along with the Rand McNally Company, George Cram pioneered the use of wax engraving, a method of producing maps that was faster and cheaper than traditional copperplate engraving. To many eyes, wax-engraved maps were less aesthetically appealing than copperplate maps, but they could contain far more detail. Cram’s maps were crammed full of tiny place names and other text. His map of Pennsylvania shows 135 different railroads and more than a thousand towns and villages. These were detailed reference works, not works of art (Schulten 2001, 23-28).
     The title page of Cram’s railway atlas made its audience and purpose clear. The atlas, the 1887 edition declared, was “prepared to fill the wants of Banks, Bankers, Brokers, [and] Railroad Officials” by showing “locations of Towns, Railroads, giving Population by Towns and Counties, designating Post Money Order and Telegraph Offices, with the number of Banks in each place.” Railroads, telegraphs, and banks—these atlases were maps of the economy, of the lines and wires through which capital and commodities now flowed. The carpet of place names on each map made another powerful point. Every little village and hamlet was now part of the national grid, their significance defined less by topography or terrain than by their proximity to trunk lines and telegraph offices (Short 2001, 221-229).
     Not everyone embraced the grid. The railroad and telegraph were supposed to bring prosperity, but they also brought economic dislocation and an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few rich men. Small businesses were swallowed up; big businesses grew bigger. Some grew so big that many Americans feared they were incompatible with democracy. The late nineteenth century’s favorite caricature of corporate power—the octopus—was a vivid representation of this fear. All those cartoons depicting Western Union, Standard Oil, and the railroads as giant octopuses with their tentacles reaching across the nation were, if not maps per se, anxious visual representations of the new networks of commerce and communication (MacDougall 2014).

The Telephone and the Scale of American Life
The telephone, invented in America’s centennial year of 1876, would eventually eclipse the telegraph, connecting almost every home and life to the new national grid. In its early years, however, the telephone was less a rival than a complement to the telegraph. Bell Telephone leased telephones and patent rights to operating companies in different regions of the country, creating a patchwork of regional Bell monopolies. The Bell companies in the 1880s and early 1890s concentrated on bringing telephones to big cities and wealthy customers, and often acted as a feeder network for Western Union’s telegraph lines. After the Bell patents expired in 1894, thousands of new telephone systems were established across the country. Bell’s new competitors called themselves the independent telephone movement. Some of these independents competed directly with Bell for its valuable urban markets. Many more brought the telephone to small towns and rural areas that the Bell monopoly had not served. Competition sped construction and drove down the price of telephone service. The number of telephone users in the United States exploded from the thousands to the millions in just a few short years.
     The contest between the Bell System and its independent competitors was a kind of referendum on the scale of American economic life. The Bell companies symbolized and promoted national integration through commerce. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which took control of the Bell System after 1900, staked its success on the long distance telephone, building a nationwide long distance network that the independents never rivaled. In 1915, AT&T celebrated its first coast-to-coast telephone call. The independents questioned the importance of very long distance telephony. Why, they asked, would an ordinary American in Indiana or Ohio ever need to call anyone in San Francisco? They focused instead on short and middle distance communication, connecting towns to the farms and villages in their own hinterlands, and building regional networks that mapped onto the regional subsystems of the American economy. A 1905 map of independent toll lines in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (Map #9) suggests both the extent and the limits of the independent approach. What the map depicts is not a single, national system centered on New York City—the Bell companies fought hard to protect their largest urban markets, and the independents struggled to gain footholds there. Instead, the map presents a network of smaller networks linking together small and medium-sized towns. When Americans chose between installing an independent telephone or a Bell telephone, they were, in effect, signaling their allegiance to either the older, more regional, economy or an emerging new economy of national markets and corporations.
     This contest was waged with maps and images as well as money and wires. The independents produced countless caricatures of AT&T as an octopus or spider, implying that there was something monstrous or unnatural about its continent-spanning wires. But independent competition peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the Bell companies bounced back in the years to come. AT&T advertisements from the 1910s and 1920s vigorously promoted the ideal of a single, national communications network. Many of these ads featured maps of a nation made small by the long-distance telephone, and images of giant businessmen stretching their arms across the continent, a visual answer to the monstrous octopus trope. As much as any other company, AT&T in this era taught Americans to stop worrying and love the grid.

Radio and the Decline of the Local
A similar contest between local and national visions of communication was waged in the early days of radio. The radio was originally understood as a wireless version of the telephone or telegraph, to be used for two-way point-to-point communication. Guglielmo Marconi introduced a system for wireless telegraphy in 1899 and the first crystal radio sets were constructed around 1906. In the decade that followed, thousands of wireless hobbyists built their own two-way sets and thrilled at throwing their voices across the continent without wires. The United States and other governments began to regulate the radio spectrum after the Titanic disaster in 1912, and the US War Department and Navy Department took control of the technology in America during the First World War. After 1918, the War and Navy Departments sponsored the creation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), pooling all the radio patents held by General Electric, Westinghouse, and AT&T. Westinghouse was the first company to realize the commercial potential of one-way broadcasting. An employee and wireless hobbyist named Frank Conrad had started transmitting “concerts” from his Pittsburgh home, playing phonograph records and the piano into a crystal set. Thinking this might boost the sale of radio receivers, Conrad’s bosses gave him a stronger transmitter and a regular gig. From there, commercial radio was born.
     Westinghouse’s radio station KDKA made its first broadcast in November 1920. By the middle of the decade, hundreds of stations had been established, and millions of Americans were listening to the radio every day. Rand McNally’s Radio Map of the United States (Map #10), published in 1926, captures the industry on the cusp of a transition. Early radio broadcasting was ad hoc, chaotic, and profoundly local in its orientation. It cost relatively little to establish a local radio station. By 1926, dozens of churches, department stores, high schools, labor unions, college fraternities, Tin Pan Alley music publishers, revival preachers, even quack doctors and flat-earthers owned their own radio stations. But in the year this map was published, RCA struck a deal with AT&T to link radio stations across the nation by wire, creating a national radio network, based on a new business model: Professional programming produced for sponsors and paid for with on-air advertising spots. Rural and regional interests fought against the consolidation of radio into national chains, but the financial clout of the networks, the influence of federal regulators, and the mass appeal of commercial programming made the fight to preserve local radio a losing battle.

Communications Today
The revolutions in communication that began with popular literacy and an affordable post, and gathered speed and impact with the telegraph, telephone, and radio, have only accelerated and expanded since then. Radar, television, computers, the internet, and cellular and satellite communication have all reshaped the ways we communicate and in so doing reshaped the ways we imagine our communities and the world. Communication technologies have never been more powerful or ubiquitous, yet maps of communication, ironically, may be less visible now than they once were.
     Engineers and regulators make maps of cellular telephone coverage or of optical fiber cables, but ordinary users rarely view such maps. Communication today is so fast, easy, and pervasive that most of us do not need to visualize it in geographic terms. An isochrone map like Charles Paullin’s, showing the speed of communication in our own time, would reveal very little. A more characteristic way of mapping twenty-first century communications is the network diagram or social graph, which does away with geographic information altogether, depicting individuals and their interconnections as nodes and lines in abstract space. The discourse surrounding modern communication is all about the eradication of geography. The world, we are told, is small, or flat, or in the palm of our hands. In truth, of course, geography remains. All of our supposedly distance-eradicating media are shaped and defined by local conditions, territorial governments, economic realities, and the earth’s environment itself. But today, more than ever before, we imagine we have transcended distance. And maps of communication, as we have seen, are maps of imagined worlds.

Further Reading
Not a great deal has been written on the mapping of communication, but more general works on the history of cartography often visit the subject. John Rennie Short’s Representing the Republic: Mapping the United States, 1600-1900 and Susan Schulten’s The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 are excellent books that chart the history of America imagining itself through maps.
     There is an extensive body of work on the history of communication in America, with many recent works inspired, at least in part, by the communications revolutions of our own time. Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications offers a sweeping survey of American communications from colonial times to the rise of network radio, as do the essays collected in A Nation Transformed by Information, edited by Alfred Chandler and James Cortada. On particular moments in the evolution of American communications, some of the best works include: Richard Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America; Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse and also Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications; David Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America; David Hochfelder, The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920; and Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Alexander Russo’s Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks is especially attentive to the geography of early radio. My own book, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, tells the story of the telephone, with special attention to the struggle between Bell and the independents for control of North American telecommunications.
     Moving farther afield, Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America is a trenchant, authoritative history of the industry that did so much to shape both transportation and communication in America. John Durham Peters’ Speaking Into the Air is a beautifully-written history of communication as an idea. Michael O’Malley’s Keeping Watch: A History of American Time chronicles the shift in American consciousness from natural time to standard time and time as commodity. And Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, by Peter Galison, is a unique exploration of the intellectual and technical webs connecting nineteenth-century trains, telegraphs, maps, and time signals, and how they remade our world.
 

Suggested Readings: 

Not a great deal has been written on the mapping of communication, but more general works on the history of cartography often visit the subject. John Rennie Short’s Representing the Republic: Mapping the United States, 1600-1900 and Susan Schulten’s The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 are excellent books that chart the history of America imagining itself through maps.
     There is an extensive body of work on the history of communication in America, with many recent works inspired, at least in part, by the communications revolutions of our own time. Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications offers a sweeping survey of American communications from colonial times to the rise of network radio, as do the essays collected in A Nation Transformed by Information, edited by Alfred Chandler and James Cortada. On particular moments in the evolution of American communications, some of the best works include: Richard Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America; Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse and also Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications; David Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America; David Hochfelder, The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920; and Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Alexander Russo’s Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks is especially attentive to the geography of early radio. My own book, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, tells the story of the telephone, with special attention to the struggle between Bell and the independents for control of North American telecommunications.
     Moving farther afield, Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America is a trenchant, authoritative history of the industry that did so much to shape both transportation and communication in America. John Durham Peters’ Speaking Into the Air is a beautifully-written history of communication as an idea. Michael O’Malley’s Keeping Watch: A History of American Time chronicles the shift in American consciousness from natural time to standard time and time as commodity. And Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, by Peter Galison, is a unique exploration of the intellectual and technical webs connecting nineteenth-century trains, telegraphs, maps, and time signals, and how they remade our world.
 

Bibliography: 

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Arrington, Leonard J. 1951. “The Deseret Telegraph: A Church-owned Public Utility.” Journal of Economic History 11: 117-139.

Brown, Richard D. 1989. Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Richard D. 2000. “Early American Origins of the Information Age.” In A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and James W. Cortada, 39-54. New York: Oxford University Press.

MacDougall, Robert. 2014. The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Musich, Jerry. 2006. “Mapping a Transcontinental Nation: Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century American Rail Travel Cartography.” In Cartographies of Travel and Navigation, edited by James R. Akerman, 97-150. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Malley, Michael. 1990. Keeping Watch: A History of American Time. New York: Viking Penguin.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Russo, Alexander. 2010. Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schulten, Susan. 2001. The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Short, John Rennie. 2001. Representing the Republic: Mapping the United States, 1600-1900. London: Reaktion.

Stachurski, Richard. 2009. Longitude by Wire: Finding North America. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.

Starr, Paul. 2004. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Steele, Ian K. 1983. “Finlay, Hugh,” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5. Toronto: University of Toronto. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/finlay_hugh_5E.html

White, Richard. 2011. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: Norton.

View Bibliography