Goddam history gets wired

The Communications Miracle

January 19, 1996

The study of the mass media is a study of technologies. Without the dramatic falls in production, reproduction and transmission costs that began with Gutenberg there would be no mass media. Technological change in printing has been well documented but not that in the electronic media of broadcasting and telecommunications. So Bray's "account of the dramatic advances in telecommunications and broadcasting that have occurred in the last century and a half, told through the stories of the people who made it happen" promises to fill a notable gap. It identifies the key concepts on which the technologies of telecommunications are based and tells its story through thumbnail biographies of the great men credited with formulating them.

Inevitably, Bray cites Mark Twain's entertaining exclusion of the inventor of the telephone from Twain's Christmas wishes for "everlasting rest and peace and bliss", but curiously not Twain's pride in his claim to have been the world's first residential telephone subscriber. Twain, who passed up his opportunity to invest in Bell's company to continue his long financial crucifixion by funding development of an automatic typesetter, had better cause than most to curse Bell, Elisha Gray, Thomas Edison and the others whose work made telephony possible. But it is another Twainism that The Communications Miracle most brings to mind; his observation that "history is one goddam thing after another".

Bray's history is a great men history (Sally Mead's honourable mention excepted) but his relentless litany of men's names points up how little the social shaping and social effects of technological innovation informs The Communications Miracle. From Samuel Morse's "What hath God wrought?" to what Bill Melody once appositely named the "Superhypeway" it is one goddam tekky thing after another. Telecommunications history has to be like this but it does not all have to be like this. For when it is, as here, much that is important is unnoticed. For example, Bray attributes the Corning Company's striking success in the manufacture of fibre-optic cable to "research carried out by dedicated individuals with a clear vision of the future, when backed by management who shared that vision, and the resources both physical and financial that a large organisation could provide".

Here, vision and research excellence are clearly identified as necessary, but not sufficient conditions for success. Corning's success came from its combination of technological innovation with other, social/organisational, conditions but these vital, nontechnological conditions are not specified and Corning's success therefore remains unexplained. Bray's delicate account of Post Office Telecommunications's disastrous introduction of electronic switching in the United Kingdom in the 1950s also leaves much unexplained - to attribute failure to technological overambition is to explain nothing. In like kind Bray hypes the UK's electronic switch, System X, as a great technological achievement. But he is silent on the problems posed by the messy linking of three rival manufacturers and BT for the development, implementation and exploitation of System X.

The Communications Miracle testifies fulsomely to the technological achievements of UK researchers but provides no basis for understanding why the firms brought into the System X consortium have ceased to be UK controlled. Submarine cable manufacturing was acquired by Alcatel and Nortel controls the remainder of STC; the largest shareholder in GPT is Siemens. Much that is important is not, and cannot, be explained in a Whig history of what the boys (and Sally Mead) thought and did.

However, stories told by enthusiasts and insiders always yield pleasure and enlightenment. Bray is certainly enthusiastic and, as director of the Post Office's and latterly British Telecom's research laboratories, he was an important insider. His lucid map of developments will be invaluable to media studies students - a pity that the landscape is so flat that The Communications Miracle occupies all the high ground - and adds some fascinating meat to familiar bones. The importance of the United States in the development of British telecommunications - subsidiaries of the Bell and Edison companies established the first UK networks and key British firms were set up by North American companies - is well known. But Bray's account of the Post Office's long, close and less well-known collaboration with Bell Labs and AT&T in numbering, network and exchange architecture, wireless and satellite communications was new to me.

Perhaps it was the strength of the Post Office's links with AT&T that led Bray to describe development of microwave telecommunications without mentioning MCI - the company that broke AT&T's American hegemony. The omission of MCI, (and its demonstration that there was nothing natural about AT&T's monopoly of long distance traffic), is characteristic of The Communications Miracle. If history is constructed as men's gradual unfolding of a teleological project of incarnation of what God wrought, then gritty commercial rivalries, regulatory conflicts, consumer resistance and technological false starts and wrong turnings necessarily remain hidden from history. But without considering matters such as these we cannot understand why the nirvana of Bray's "rational" vision of integrated end-to-end monopoly of telecommunication services is seen by many as a nightmare and why the Viewdata system, to which Bray attributes "major importance" achieved a derisory subscriber base. Bray's account of the realisation of Morse's marvellous vision thus tells a fascinating story but its usefulness is severely limited by the author's historiographical innocence.

Richard Collins is a lecturer in media and communications, London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Communications Miracle: The Telecommunications Pioneers from Morse to the Information Superhighway

Author - John Bray
ISBN - 0 306 45042 9
Publisher - Plenum
Price - £23.00
Pages - 379

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