A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present

By Alfred D. Chandler Jr.; James W. Cortada | Go to book overview

2

Early American Origins
of the Information Age

Richard D. Brown


The Ancien Regime of Information Diffusion
in the British Colonies

During the nineteenth century a dynamic, innovative information culture emerged in the United States, one in which the production of print and oratory, and systems for their diffusion, came to set the pace for much of the world. In global terms this was an astonishing development, especially in light of the condition of British North America during the Colonial Period. Colonial society had been by European standards relatively crude, even backward: its population was thinly spread in a vast landscape, and there was a general scarcity of social and economic infrastructures and the capital to develop them. Information and transportation infrastructures were only beginning to grow, and they lagged far behind Britain. Whether one counts printing presses and associated industries such as papermaking, typefounding, and bookbinding, or libraries, roads, and canals, the American colonies were a raw, frontier society when measured against England. Indeed, colonists relied more on the British information infrastructure than on anything their own settlements could muster for much of the eighteenth century. The American starting point was not especially promising. 1

It is true that Europe's most advanced information technology came early to the colonies. The Puritan stronghold, Massachusetts-Bay, imported a press into Cambridge in 1638, and thereafter sponsored a printer. But the purpose of this government-controlled press was limited to printing the laws of the colony, such religious works as the leading magistrates and clergymen thought necessary, and job-printing for the government and Harvard College. Almost forty years would

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