Putting world communications on the map
How a piece of cartographic ephemera tells the story of the telegraph
8 September 2014
Nail file? Shoe horn? Letter opener? This intriguing object, manufactured by the Eastern Telegraph Company in 1892, is a new acquisition to the National Library of Australia's Maps collection. Why would the Library acquire such an object? More to the point, what was the Eastern Telegraph Company, and what was it up to in 1892?
The birth of international communications
As early as the 1850s, submarine cables were being laid to facilitate telegraphic communications between England, Ireland and France. By 1870, a cable had been laid between London and the colonial outpost of Bombay, providing a new link between East and West. Following a company merger in 1872, The Eastern Telegraph Company was born, the first global telecommunications company and arguably the most powerful company in the world at that time.
Links to Australia
The Eastern Telegraph Company continued to grow throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. The Company, keen to expand its operations into "the Australasian colonies" yet facing resistance to the prices set for such cable messages, engaged in what appears to be a decade of negotiations, as reported in the Australian press. The Launceston Examiner reports the Chairman John Pender's plea to the colonies in November 1883, while nearly ten years later, the same paper reported an impending "reduction in the cable rates to Australia", at last a win for the colonies. As we can see below, cable communications between Asia, Australia and New Zealand were within the company's purview by 1892.
Despite some resistance from the colonies, the juggernaut of the ETC rolled on into the twentieth century, with the first transatlantic wireless signal transmitted between Cornwall and Newfoundland in 1901.
Today, the Eastern Telegraph Company lives on as Cable and Wireless, still a giant of the telecommunications world. As Eric Fischer's map of world travel and communications indicates, the Eastern Telegraph Company's transatlantic cable was merely the first thread in a complex web of intercontinental conversations.
So what does this story tell us about the new object in the Library's maps collection? Not only handy for opening letters, the object pictured above was designed to turn the pages in large books of maps. As the Eastern Telegraph Company expanded into new territory around the world, so public interest in exploration and mapping exploded during the late Victorian era. The consumption of printed maps and atlases of every kind had never been greater.
Thus the map page turner, mass-produced at a time of great wealth and expansion for the Eastern Telegraph Company, was the perfect promotional gimmick to grace the desks of educated gentry. The National Library collects a range of cartographic ephemera, including educational games and pocket globes. Such objects, valuable beyond merely cartographic content, tell us stories of the rise and fall of companies, of technologies and of the gadgets and gimmicks of daily life more than a century ago.