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A history of violence?

Cooke and Wheatstone

The electric telegraph was invented in 1839, by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. They built on research done by earlier scientists such as Alessandro Volta, André-Marie Ampere and Georg Ohm. Messages could be sent using Morse code, by switching off and on the current in a very long cable. The potential of telegraphy for commercial use was immediately obvious.

The Crimean War (1854-56) fought between Imperial Russia and alliance of France, the United Kingdom, and the Ottoman Empire was the first use of the electric telegraph in a war environment. Telegraph communications were fast, giving an army great advantages on the battlefield, in the same way that satellite communications do today. Wires buzzed with information about provisions, military intelligence, military orders and reports to commanders.

A year later, the British almost lost control of India during an uprising that became known as the 1857 Mutiny. Poor communications meant that British forces were slow to respond and put down the uprising before it spread widely across north India. Immediately after order had been restored, the British government backed construction of a telegraph cable to run from Suez to Aden, under the Red Sea, and across the Arabian Sea to Karachi.  However, the Red Sea and the first Atlantic cables failed. 

In 1864 another cable was successfully laid across the Persian Gulf connecting to an overland telegraph cable through Turkey, Mesopotamia and Pakistan. Britain was thereafter linked to India. This encouraged another go at the much longer and more challenging transatlantic cable. It needed the help of physicists George Stokes & William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) to solve the technical problems in laying the cable.

The cables soon became 'the nerves of Empire', enabling Britain to deploy military and naval forces effectively and keep control of an Empire on which ‘the sun never set’.

Question: This technology was not designed for war, but it soon served military purposes. Do scientists have a social responsibility for their inventions? Explain your answer.

JD Bernal - war critic


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1891 map of world telegraph routes - Click to enlarge

Wikipedia article on the Telegraph