The Telegraph: A Catalyst for an Improved Standard of Living

The "Special Century" is a name given by historians to the period of time starting in 1870 and ending in 1970.  This century launched an astounding variety of innovations and inventions, plus supported a historic rise in the standard of living for much of the world.  Never before in history had so many far reaching history-shaping developments happened in such a relatively short period of time.  

Why 1870?  What about the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age?  Why was 1870 the date when innovations and inventions came together to dramatically raise the "standard of living" for many?

I propose the telegraph is a key part of that answer.  It was a keystone invention that not only enabled economic growth in ways never before possible, but it also played an important role in making all of our lives better. 

The most direct impact of the telegraph was the revolution in time and communication. The telegraph obliterated the time barriers that hindered information transfer, transforming it into an instantaneous process. This had a profound influence on many aspects of life and industry.  

The telegraph also contributed significantly to economic development. Rapid exchanges of information facilitated trust and prompt business decisions enabling companies to adapt swiftly to market conditions. This efficiency led to the creation of new wealth and indirectly improved living standards. 

The telegraph also enabled the rise of modern financial markets as real-time communication of stock prices made it feasible for a wider audience to participate in financial exchanges and wealth creation, thus contributing to broader economic growth.

The geographic expansion of businesses were directly fueled by the telegraph. Telegraphs allowed companies to manage far-flung operations efficiently. Information from distant markets could be gathered and processed almost instantaneously, leading to better decision-making. Moreover, the telegraph enabled effective coordination of supply chains. Businesses could manage deliveries and inventory across vast geographical areas, driving down costs and driving up efficiency. 

The telegraph also played a vital role in the early stages of globalization. It linked continents and made international communication convenient and swift. This gave businesses access to global markets, making it feasible to sell products and source raw materials internationally. The ease of international communication also meant that diplomatic discussions could be sped up, smoothing the path for global trade agreements and fostering international cooperation. 

Furthermore, the telegraph revolutionized the financial world by enabling telegraphic transfers. This allowed money to be transferred quickly over large distances, facilitating global trade and investment. Telegraphic transfers allowed businesses to expand into new regions, fueling the process of globalization.

The telegraph was a pivotal innovation in human history. Its contributions to societal communication and business processes profoundly shaped the trajectory of the developed world. By enabling faster and broader communication, the telegraph allowed businesses to reduce information blind spots in operations, expand and globalize. This invention laid the foundation for subsequent communication technologies and set the course for the interconnected world we live in today. 

This is not, however, the whole story.  The account, so far, has been largely about how the telegraph enabled businesses to expand, and the economy to grow.  Our standard of living, however, is something different.  It involves things like clothing, food, health, transportation, home, energy, communications, information and work.  Our rising standard of living during this time in history didn't just happen by accident.  It took many people from around the world with a shared purpose to improve the human condition.  This ambitious global movement, known as the progressives, required a new kind of communication strategy to help it all work together.  The telegraph was a timely solution.

The Progressive Era, (1880s to 1920s), was a period of broad social and political change.  Progressive movements at the time aimed to address problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.  The organizers of these movements were fast learners and utilized the telegraph to their advantage in organizing activities, campaigns, legislation and voters.  The telegraph was essential for them to coordinate their activities across large geographic areas in near real-time. This new kind of communication strategy was used successfully to organize a national convention of women's clubs in 1889, a national strike of railroad workers in 1892, and a national campaign against child labor in 1900 to name a few.

The opponents of the progressive movements were slower at adopting these new kinds of global, near real-time and mass communication strategies powered by the telegraph, and as a result the progressive movement was able to achieve many of their goals, such as passing child labor laws, establishing the Pure Food and Drug Act, and winning women's suffrage all of which enhanced the standard of living for millions.

The telegraph was also a key component in the growth of the press during the Progressive Era.  Organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters were called wire services because of their connection with the telegraph.  These telegraph based news wire services were instrumental in exposing corruption and promoting social and political change during this time. It was a symbiotic relationship between the telegraph, the progressive movement and news wire services that influenced many social changes that broadly improved our standard of living.

The telegraph represented a revolution in communications rivaling both the printing press and the Internet, plus it was instrumental in helping improve the standard of living for ultimately billions of people.

Kevin Benedict
Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.

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