When Bad Things Happen to Good Technologies: Three Phases in the Diffusion and Perception of American Telegraphy

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Abstract

The telegraph was supposed to bring about a world of good. When Samuel Finley Breese Morse tried to persuade the American government to promote his telegraph, he argued that “the greater the speed with which intelligence can be transmitted from point to point, the greater is the benefit derived to the whole community.” Few nineteenth-century Americans would have quarreled with his rationale. When Morse, forecasting the ultimate impact of his invention, invoked the image of making “one neighborhood of the whole country,” contemporaries might have suspected “the crazy painter” of exaggerating the blessings of his invention, not of pessimistically anticipating the discontents of a future mass society.1 Perceptions and evaluations of the telegraph changed radically in three distinct phases that paralleled the transformations of telegraphic technology in the process of its diffusion.