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Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications Hardcover – April 12, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Network Nation is an extraordinary feat of scholarly imagination. Richard John's sweeping history of the telecommunications industry reveals as much about the development of the American state and of the culture of technology as about the rise of a troubled monopoly. Like Alfred Chandler's The Visible Hand, it is one of few institutional studies that anyone with a serious interest in U.S. history should read. (Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan)

A foundational business history that will be an essential component of what well-educated Americans need to know about their society. (Richard White, Stanford University)

In a compact, learned-yet-lucid, and deeply informed book spanning roughly eight decades, Richard R. John provides an engrossing history of the emergence of telecommunication networks in the United States. (David A. Hounshell, Carnegie Mellon University)

The innovators who built America's telecommunication networks created more than new devices. With elegant prose and exhaustive research, Richard R. John's eagerly awaited masterwork shows how business and governmental institutions shaped the first century of the telegraph and the telephone. (Pamela Walker Laird, author of Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin)

This is a valuable book on the technological and economic trends that impacted the popularization of the telephone, one of the most profoundly significant inventions in the record of humanity. To understand the history of American telecommunications is to attend to the political economies at the time technological innovation occurred. John brilliantly articulates this context. Shifting municipal and federal sensibilities always shaped the diffusion of technologies, even in times where strong federal governmental oversight did not yet exist. The threat of federal and municipal government ownership of telecommunication systems was real, as seen in the case of the Bell system (and its failure). (Jim Hahn Library Journal)

Could it be that Americans actually like communications monopolists? Do we want dominant firms to run our world? Richard R. John's splendid book helps to answer that question by telling us just where this American affection for info-monopoly came from. John has produced a detailed study of the grand-daddies of it all: AT&T and Western Union, the first great info-monopolists, whose role in communications history is similar to that of the Allosaurus and the T. rex in the history of the animal kingdom. A work of careful history based on archival research, Network Nation begins with Samuel Morse's construction of the first electric telegraph line in 1844 and concludes with the establishment of AT&T (or Bell, a term that can be used interchangeably with AT&T) as America's regulated telephone monopoly… What Network Nation does deliver is a nuanced answer to the basic question, why monopoly? (Tim Wu New Republic 2011-06-09)

This is a richly detailed and readable book that fills an important gap in the history of communication networks. It definitively debunks palaver about mass communications as an autonomous agent of change, emphasizing how Americans constructed the telegraph and the telephone through a political process of continual negotiation and redefinition. (David E. Nye American Historical Review 2011-02-01)

[An] exceptional new history of American communications technologies from 1840 to 1920. (Steven W. Usselman Business History Review 2011-09-01)

About the Author

Richard R. John is Professor of History at Columbia University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (May 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067402429X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674024298
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,316,773 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Tim Wu on October 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book, based on new archives, presents a wealth of new information on Western Union and Bell. An invaluable resource. In particular, possibly the most useful book on Western Union yet published. The Bell sections present new information that threatens many of the existing theories of why AT&T came to rule American telecommunications as a private regulated monopoly.
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Format: Hardcover
John says "The first electrical communications media--the telegraph and the telephone--were products not only of technological imperatives and economic incentives, but also of governmental institutions and civic ideals." He points out at the outset that the telegraph was no "Victorian internet," and that even the much more popular telephone system was really only used by regular people for local calls until World War II. These tools were mostly used by elites, and the businessmen who ran them had a very narrow vision of their potential market. John mentions the concept of the "network effect," (that the value of a network expands with its user base), but suggests that historians might be wrong to project our understanding of it onto even the most forward-looking 19th century telegraph developers. He distinguishes between the skills and temperament of inventors and innovators, suggesting that like Samuel F.B. Morse himself, the people who patented the technology were often not the ideal developers of nationwide systems.

The issue of patenting, actually, turns out to be a prime example of the intersection of technology, business, and government. Morse built his historic Washington-Baltimore demonstration line with a $30,000 grant from Congress. And from 1837 through the granting of the all-important patent in 1840, and its subsequent defense and promotion, the "assistance" that patent commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth gave Morse, his friend of over thirty years, was "little short of astounding." Similarly, Postmaster General Amos Kendall actively promoted "the rapid diffusion of intelligence" through telegraphy, and then went to work for Morse defending his patents. But the patenting of technical improvements was new and controversial. "Scientist Joseph Henry...refused as a matter of principle."
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