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Mobile Masts, Twitter, and the Victorians

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The fascinating BBC Radio Four series, The People’s Post, a history of the Post Office broadcast in the run up to Christmas, described telegraph poles as the ‘mobile phone masts of the 1870s’.

That isn’t just because the electric telegraph – the mechanism for sending telegrams - was the high-tech, high speed communications medium of the age, but also because of some of the opposition faced by the Post Office when extending the system across the country. Edmund Yeats, who was in charge of extending the network, reported that he had to “dissipate the fears of ladies that the telegraph wires would import ‘electric fluids’ into their bedrooms”. That sounds exactly like some of the concerns expressed about mobile phone technology today.

That isn’t to ridicule those with honestly-held concerns about new technology: that’s a common human reaction, and no doubt has the same basis as the caution that stopped our fur-clad ancestors being gobbled up when first they came across a sabre-toothed tiger. However, if my recollection of my undergraduate social history serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure that there is no evidence of Victorians being laid low by ‘electric fluids’; rather that they tended to succumb to such things as typhoid, tuberculosis, childbirth, or being run over by a horse-drawn carriage.

Concern about the alleged health effects of new technology isn’t the only parallel between the Nineteenth century electric telegraph and today’s mobile phone masts. Frank Scudamore, Secretary to the Post Office and Yeats’ boss, reckoned that telegrams of five or six words should be sufficient for most messages that most people would want to send. So it looks as though the art of encapsulating our thoughts in into 140 characters (with spaces) or fewer, as we now do on Twitter, isn’t such a modern idea, but is yet another Victorian era invention.

One thing that has changed, however, is price. Before the Post office took over the electric telegraph system in 1870, it cost the equivalent of £80 in today’s money to send a 10-word telegram. What would the Victorians have made of mobile phone contracts offering unlimited text messaging, I wonder?

John Cooke

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