Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857 - 1900

22 September 2013

Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857 - 1900

Between 1857 and 1866 the Victorian public’s attention was caught by the drama of repeated attempts to lay a submarine cable across the Atlantic for the transmission of telegraphic messages.

Much like the Internet, from the moment of its inception the transatlantic telegraph became the focus of hyperbole, inspiring visions of perfect communication across vast distances. However, over subsequent decades it became apparent that this technology faced a range of technical constraints. Paradoxically, the telegraph was imagined as a perfect form of communication, whilst at the same time rendering up incomprehensible and damaged messages.

Starting in October 2013, this project will be led by Prof. Clare Pettitt from the English Department at King’s College London. It investigates the hypothesis that this ‘scrambling’ of messages was as significant for Victorian culture at large as the sending of flawless messages. Historical and literary analyses by researchers on this project show that the emergence of this new, imperfect technology happened at the same time as the development of new cultural forms in art and literature that are, on the one hand, heedlessly technophilic, and yet also show an uneasy recognition of recalcitrant materiality. This project investigates whether new technologies like the telegraph are the cause of these broader cultural changes, or whether they simply make visible existent fissures in the social imagination.

This research project also pays close attention to the specifics of the materials and objects that were needed for scientific telegraphic experimentation. In particular, Prof. Mark Miodownik will contribute to an understanding of the crucial role played by materials like rubber, gutta percha, copper and hessian in the development of telegraphic technologies. This focus on the specifics of the technology will enable the project’s investigators to move away from the assumption that new technologies inevitably transform any given society, allowing for a more materially-grounded understanding of the impact of particular technologies on the cultural imagination. 

Listen to a podcast about the project here.