Presentation by Richard R. John (Columbia University).
Today it is a truism to contend that networks become more useful as they expand. We even have a phrase for it: “network effects.” The early history of the telegraph and telephone network in the United States raises questions about this common assertion. In the period before 1900, telegraph and telephone managers had good reason to keep their networks small and to define access narrowly. In his presentation, communications historian Richard R. John explains why telegraph and telephone managers changed their minds, hastening the popularization of the electrical communications networks that have become a hallmark of modernity. To document this transformation, John analyzes a variety of oft-neglected visual materials that includes satirical cartoons, newspaper advertisements, and magazine covers. His presentation re-envisions from the standpoint of media theory certain themes that he explored in his prize-winning monograph, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010).
Richard R. John is professor at the Columbia Journalism School at Columbia University, where he teaches the history of communications in Columbia’s Ph. D. program in communications. He is the author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995) and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010).