The People's Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

The People's Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

The People's Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

The People's Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

Synopsis

The Bell System dominated telecommunications in the United States and Canada for most of the twentieth century, but its monopoly was not inevitable. In the decades around 1900, ordinary citizens--farmers, doctors, small-town entrepreneurs--established tens of thousands of independent telephone systems, stringing their own wires to bring this new technology to the people. Managed by opportunists and idealists alike, these small businesses were motivated not only by profit but also by the promise of open communication as a weapon against monopoly capital and for protection of regional autonomy. As the Bell empire grew, independents fought fiercely to retain control of their local networks and companies--a struggle with an emerging corporate giant that has been almost entirely forgotten.

The People's Network reconstructs the story of the telephone's contentious beginnings, exploring the interplay of political economy, business strategy, and social practice in the creation of modern North American telecommunications. Drawing from government documents in the United States and Canada, independent telephone journals and publications, and the archives of regional Bell operating companies and their rivals, Robert MacDougall locates the national debates over the meaning, use, and organization of the telephone industry as a turning point in the history of information networks. The competing businesses represented dueling political philosophies: regional versus national identity and local versus centralized power. Although independent telephone companies did not win their fight with big business, they fundamentally changed the way telecommunications were conceived.

Excerpt

In 1906, on the thirtieth anniversary of the telephone’s invention, an entrepreneurial author named Paul Latzke published a history of the device called A Fight with an Octopus. This was not the story of the telephone that most of us think we know. in Latzke’s version of events, Alexander Graham Bell was a fraud. He had not invented the telephone in 1876, as almost everyone believed. Instead, Latzke charged, Bell had swindled the telephone’s true inventor, who might have been his rival Elisha Gray, or a Pennsylvania mechanic named Daniel Drawbaugh, or any one of several other contenders. But Alexander Graham Bell was not the villain of Latzke’s tale. the real villain was the cluster of corporations organized in his name —the nation-spanning system Latzke called the Bell octopus. For twenty years, Latzke wrote, the Bell octopus had “fastened a gouging monopoly on the necks of the American people.” It bribed the press, corrupted government, and manipulated the courts. It charged exorbitant rates, keeping telephones out of all but the wealthiest offices and homes. It refused to serve small towns and rural areas. It grew rich under the shield of fraudulent patents and strangled the growth of a revolutionary new technology.

But then, Latzke said, the people rose up against the octopus. Bell’s original patents on the telephone expired in 1894. the Bell companies tried to extend their monopoly with new patents, but the courts struck these down. and when Bell’s patents expired, Latzke said, a new era in the telephone’s history was born. Enterprising Americans who resented Bell’s rates and haughty attitudes started their own companies. Tens of thousands of telephone systems were created in the years immediately after 1894, competing with Bell in hundreds of American cities, and bringing the telephone to thousands of smaller towns and villages that the old monopoly did not serve. the coming of competition, Latzke argued, triggered the mass diffusion of telephone service in America. Prices dropped, access spread, and . . .

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