“Networking Empire”

International Organizations, American Power, and the Struggle over Global Communications in the 20th Century


Here, you can find a brief overview of my research.

To create a global communications network— to allow information to flow through the world— you have to do three things.


First, you have to make sure telecom technologies are compatible.

To transmit information between two devices, you have to make sure they can “speak” to each other.

This is what European officials realized, in the mid-1800s, when they attempted to start linking their domestic telegraphy networks together.

Government and military officials had enormous incentives to interlink these networks. It allowed governments to get in immediate contact with their diplomats abroad, it enabled quicker communication between foreign battlefields and home governments, and it provided for the flow of speedier and more accurate economic and financial news.

In the 1860s, European officials founded an international organization called the International Telegraph Union: the world’s very first international organization created on the principle of one nation/one vote, with the sole purpose of creating an interconnected global telecommunications network.



Second, you have to establish common metrics for payment— to make sure every participant is paying an appropriate amount for using the international network.

State officials did this by setting their own domestic rates for how much it would cost to transmit a telegram over their domestic networks. They set taxes and tariffs, measured in the currency of Swiss francs, which countries would pay to each other when their citizens sent telegrams to foreign countries.

Third, when it comes to wireless communications, you have to regulate the “ether.”

“Ether” is what people in the past used to call “the electromagnetic spectrum.” The spectrum is like an invisible highway, which carries all wireless communications: whether the radio you listen to in your car, the GPS signal you use on your phone, or the wireless internet that connects your laptop to your router.

But the spectrum is finite.

That means there are only so many wireless signals that can be transmitted on particular wavelengths. If you try to broadcast too many signals over the same wavelength, it causes interference— which means nobody can use it.

Starting in the 1930s, then, state officials from around the world gathered in international organizations to assign who got to use which portions of the spectrum, at certain times of day, so that the airwaves could be used by all.

So, what does any of this have to do with empire, the global news industry, and “information freedom”?


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© 2021 Sarah Nelson