Putting world communications on the map

Putting world communications on the map
How a piece of cartographic ephemera tells the story of the telegraph
8 September 2014

 

map page turner showing partial world map and calendar for the year 1893

The Eastern Telegraph Company, Limited, the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, Limited, 50 & 11, Old Broad Street, London, E.C, [The Eastern Telegraph Company wooden map page turner, with calendar for 1893], 1892, http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-rm4764.

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. 

map page turner showing cable routes to Australia and calendar for the year 1893

The Eastern Telegraph Company, Limited, the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, Limited, 50 & 11, Old Broad Street, London, E.C, [The Eastern Telegraph Company wooden map page turner, with calendar for 1893], 1892, http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-rm4764

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.

World map showing eastern Telegraph Company cables, 1901

Eastern Telegraph Co.’s System and its General Connections, 1901. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Eric Fischer world map showing travel and communications, as recorded by Twitter, 2011

“World travel and communications recorded on Twitter”, Eric Fischer, 2011. Green represents physical movement from place to place; purple is replies from someone in one location to someone in another; combining to white where there is both. Data from the Twitter streaming API through September 1, 2011. Continent shapes from Natural Earth.

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.

Comment: 
I hold one of these rulers from my Great Great Grandfather . The ruler shows the date of 1898 on the handle
Comment: 
My 1893 version was obviously used frequently by my Great Grandfather in Melbourne as it is quite worn in places.