Recasting the Information
Infrastructure for the Industrial Age
Richard R. John
In the century and a quarter between the framing of the federal Constitution in 1787 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the United States evolved from a struggling commercial republic on the margins of Europe into one of the most powerful industrial nations in the world. Accompanying the rise of the United States to world power was a comparable transformation in the informational environment. The period witnessed an unprecedented expansion in printing and publishing, the emergence of information-intensive industries such as credit reporting and life insurance, and the elaboration of major innovations in science, technology, and education. Each of these developments could furnish the theme for an essay on the role of information during the "long nineteenth century" that stretched from 1787 to 1914.
Yet there was one development that may well have been the most fundamental. This was the recasting of the facilities for transmitting information cheaply, reliably, and on a regular basis throughout the country and around the world. Challenged by the size of the territory to be spanned, emboldened by a highly competitive institutional setting, and inspired by an irrepressible popular demand for more and better information, government administrators, business leaders, and ordinary Americans joined together in a grand collaborative project that would have been unimaginable in any prior age. The central institutions in the information infrastructure during this period—the Post Office Department, the Railway Mail Service, Western Union, and the Bell System—may seem rudimentary today. Yet, at the time, they played a major role in U.S. business and public life.
The first communications revolution of the long nineteenth century began in the I760s, with the emergence of an organized opposition to the Crown, and culminated in the I820s with the establishment of a