Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


As we move deeper into the information age and its various promises, we also can read new books and reports examining the information technologies of earlier eras and the precursors to our present. A recent example of this is Tom Wheeler’s Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (New York: Collins, 2006). Wheeler, a businessman and op-ed writer, provides an interesting glimpse into one early use of new telecommunications that will be of interest to those presently wrestling with how to manage e-mail. Wheeler notes that the thousand or so surviving telegrams have been well-used by historians studying Lincoln and the American Civil War, he describes them as “footnote fodder,” but he also suggests that how and why Lincoln used telegraphy has not been fully explored (p. xvii).

Wheeler focuses on several different themes. First, he argues that Lincoln had a “natural receptivity to new technology” (p. 5), a “genuine intellectual curiosity about new technology” (p. 7). Lincoln wielded, in this view, a powerful new perspective on how to stay in touch with events over a far-flung battleground. Lincoln utilized telegraphy to create an unprecedented “unified national command authority” (p. 162). Second, building on this analysis of Lincoln, Wheeler provides a somewhat different view into how Lincoln related to his generals, such as in this assessment of the use of the telegraph between Lincoln and Grant: “The president and his general brought much in common to their telegraphic metamorphosis. As a result of their backgrounds, both were relatively unencumbered by the way things ‘should be’ and, thus, were more receptive to change” (p. 145). And, third, and most prominently, Wheeler sees these 1860s telegrams as part of a great shift into a networked age, one extending down to the present. Early in the book Wheeler recounts his visit to the National Archives to see the Lincoln telegrams: “As I turned the pages in awe, my vocation as a telecommunications executive and my avocation as an amateur historian collided; I was holding in my hands the physical record of the first time a national leader had ever used telecommunications as a regular part of his leadership” (p. xv).

Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails is written to appeal to a popular audience, and is but one of many such popular histories on this and related topics appearing – such as John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (New York: Walker and Co., 2002). There are other more scholarly and comprehensive studies that one might want to read before considering Wheeler’s vignette. It should not be a surprise that in this age of the Internet that scholars are re-examining the genesis, development, and impact of telegraphy in the century before. David Paul Nickles, Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) provides an analysis of the influence of telegraphy on international diplomacy, considering how diplomats functioned before telegraphy and how their functions were transformed later in the nineteenth and twentieth century by the use of telegraphy. Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) gives us a major biography of the inventor of telegraphy and its major proponent in its first quarter-of-a-century.

The Nickles study is an interesting analysis of telegraphy’s impact on diplomacy and organizational structures as well. As Nickles observes, “telegraphy promoted hierarchical structures,” because the technology made diplomats, no matter where they were stationed, more dependent on and responsible to home advice (p. 35). Today, we tend to think that telecommunications weakens such structures, because it disperses information (and authority) more uniformly through an organization. Indeed, telegraphy seems to have added a number of strains, “by increasing the temptation to engage in hasty action and micromanagement; by estranging diplomatic officials from local or biological cycles; and by increasing the use of codes and ciphers” (p. 91). Apparently, these foreign offices were very conservative and resistant to change, even to the point of protesting a move from storing folded documents to flattened ones; it is no wonder that telegraphy was seen with suspicion. Adding to these obstacles were those of costs charged by the commercial carriers and problems presented by poor transcriptions (often because of poor handwriting) of the cables as they were received.

The Silverman biography focuses on the Morse’s life, one that was plagued by family, political, and financial problems and Morse’s unrelenting self-doubt about his achievements (a focus suggested by the sub-title of the book). There are many interesting observations about the origins and commercial development of telegraphy and some comparisons with the hype of the modern day era of telecommunications (although not as many comparisons as one might wish for). At one point, Silverman notes, “In proving the efficiency and usefulness of his invention, Morse revealed the coming into being of a remarkable new technology. His telegraph was the subject of relatively as much discussion in the newspapers and magazines of the mid-1840s as the Internet became in the mass media of the 1990s” (p. 240). Someone interested in the present information age discussions will wish for more connection between the two eras. Records professionals will be interested that there are references to Morse’s continuing use of his personal papers to make his claims to the invention and first successful applications of telegraphy, leading to the survival of “hundreds of manuscript pages. . . in which he repeatedly tried to narrate the history of his invention and define its essential originality in such a way as to make it invulnerable to attack or imitation” (p. 312).