Telegraphy’s Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs

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Jean-Michel Johnston joined the project in October 2017. He researches the impact of telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe.

The better-known story of electrical telegraphy narrates the triumphant onward march of a revolutionary new means of communication during the nineteenth century. It begins with the experiments in electro-magnetism conducted by Samuel Morse, Charles Wheatstone and Werner Siemens, among others, whose inventions led governments and the private sector to build telegraph lines across Europe and North America during the 1850s. In 1866, the first fully operational submarine telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic, and soon these ‘tentacles of progress’ were extending across the globe.[1] Governments, companies and the general public became avid users of an expanding worldwide network of communication, intensifying and accelerating a process of unrelenting globalisation which continues to this day.

My research aims to uncover the lesser-known twists and turns in this narrative, to explore both the hopes and the frustrations, the anxieties as well as the excitement which were associated with telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe. ‘Distance exists no more!’ a German illustrated periodical declared in 1853, echoing the public perception in Europe that the speed of telegraphic communication would ‘annihilate’ space and time.[2] But others were soon more sceptical. In 1869, the American neurologist George Miller Beard held the technology partly responsible for the crisis of ‘neurasthenia’, of anxiety, fatigue, and depression which was gripping society. By the turn of the twentieth century, denunciations of the stresses caused by modern communication and transport technologies competed with calls for ever faster, ever more pervasive network connections.

How did this ‘tempo virus’, this insatiable need for speed, spread through European society during the nineteenth century?[3] Was it a new phenomenon, or did it draw on existing desires and concerns? To answer these questions, it is important to compare the expectations which Europeans placed in telegraphy with their experience in using the technology. Communication between Paris and St Petersburg might take place in a matter of minutes, but this could make the 20-minute trek down to the local telegraph office seem all the more onerous. The speed of business transactions between stock exchanges was greatly enhanced by the technology, and they were based upon increasingly reliable and up-to-date sources of information. All the more concern, then, when weather conditions, wars, or technical faults interrupted or delayed these exchanges. At the same time, as networks expanded the social and economic gap between the telegraphically-endowed and those who remained beyond its reach continued to grow.

Telegraphy also introduced a host of new sights, sounds, and practices which stimulated the European imagination. The wires connecting towns and villages began to carve out the urban and rural landscape. ‘In windy weather’, wrote one British contemporary, ‘the electric wires form an Eolian harp, which occasionally emits most unearthly music’.[4] In Austria, as Amelia Bonea has discovered, these sounds inspired the compositions of Johann Strauss II. The habit of formulating concise, cost-efficient dispatches, meanwhile, produced a new ‘telegraphic’ writing style. ‘It is a very curious fact’, our earlier British witness opined, ‘that a lawyer under the [Electric Telegraph] Company’s galvanic influence, is suddenly gifted with a description of clairvoyance which enables him to write on any subject in a laconic style, which in his chambers he would consider… to be utterly impracticable!’.[5]

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Telephone, telegraph, and power lines over the streets of New York City, 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But the same transformations were also the source of new anxieties. Was the electricity conducted by telegraph wires a public danger? Would it permeate the ground beneath them, where crops were being cultivated? What to make of the many birds which, it was reported, were regularly discovered, lying decapitated under these telegraphic gallows?[6] Not to mention that the strange tones emanating from the ‘Eolian harp’ could also be considered an unwelcome intrusion into the peaceful soundscape of rural Europe. And as Otto von Bismarck demonstrated in his careful editing of the Ems Dispatch in 1870, the curtness of the new telegraphic writing style could have devastating consequences…

We hear echoes of this blend of enthusiasm and concern in present-day attitudes to communications technologies. New media repeatedly promise to bring us ‘closer together’, but then find themselves under attack for their role in polarising public opinion. The internet and smartphones are blamed for breaking down the barrier between work and leisure time, yet obtaining greater bandwidth and faster, uninterrupted connections remains a pressing concern for many users. The consequences of brevity in communication, meanwhile, remain the subject of debate, as recent changes to Twitter’s 140-character limit demonstrated. Investigating both the expectations and the realities of telegraphic communication will help uncover the historical background to this ambiguous experience of modern life.

[1] D. R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford, 1988).

[2] Die Gartenlaube (1853), p. 74.

[3] P. Borscheid, Das Tempo-Virus: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Beschleunigung (Frankfurt, 2004).

[4] F. B. Head, Stokers and Pokers, 3rd edn. (London, 1849), p. 126.

[5] ibid., p. 114.

[6] ibid., p. 126.

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Not Having Sex in the Victorian Period

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Sarah Green joined the project in October 2017. Her work looks at sexual continence in the literature of the British Aesthetic and Decadent Movements.

If you don’t have sex, you will be better at something else.

My research is not, of course, concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of this premise (no, woman I sat next to on a train, I don’t know quite how one would ‘prove’ it, and no, man in the coffee queue, it isn’t how I wrote my doctoral thesis). I’m interested in its wide and continuing popularity as an idea; in the very different models of bodily function that have been used to justified it, in the range of political agendas that it has been made to serve, and in the surprisingly numerous groups that have adopted it in so many times and places, from athletes to yogis, psychoanalysts, and pornography addicts, to name just a few.

In the nineteenth century, this idea could be found in a wide variety of writing that dealt, however tangentially, with sexual health and well-being. My current work looks at its perhaps unexpected presence in Aesthetic and Decadent writing about the artistic or aesthetic life, and especially its association there with anxieties about how to be healthy and productive in an increasingly challenging modern environment, one full of distinctly un-artistic and potentially unhealthy dirt, noise, crowding, hurry, pressure and degeneration.

In the astonishingly varied and often contradictory world of Victorian sexual health, the question of whether not having sex was good or bad for you was especially fraught. There were plenty of voices ready to claim that celibacy was damaging to both physical and mental health, with grisly consequences like atrophy of the sexual organs and permanent impotence.

But proponents of the opposite view often drew on centuries of thinking about the body to claim that not having sex was not only harmless, but could actually be actively good for you. Their reasons were not always compatible or consistent: some stuck to the ancient Greek belief that semen (both male and female), if not evacuated, would be reabsorbed by the body and become nourishing, while others thought that the energy taken to make more semen took vital energy from other bodily functions. Still others pointed, as the Greeks had also, to the stress on nerves and the brain caused by orgasm.

Whatever the ostensible reason, the underlying logic was the same, that not having sex allowed one to reserve resources for some other purpose, whether simple physical health or more mental functions such as scholarly or artistic work. And formal medical writing was not the only place that this idea could be found. Towards the end of the century it could be found in quack pamphlets and adverts, advice books for young men, feminist writing, and literature of all kinds. It was an idea that popped up in the most surprising of places, like the training regimes of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate rowers.

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In the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge rowers are said to have included sexual abstinence as part of their training regime.

When, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis claims that ‘a high degree of energy, whether in athletics or in intellect or in sexual activity, is unfavourable to the display of energy in other directions’; when Baden-Powell says that a man’s retained semen ‘gives the vigour of manhood to his frame, and it builds up his nerves and courage’; and when Walter Pater writes that ‘a passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief’, they share a structure of thought even while their understandings of bodily function vary.

And it certainly hasn’t disappeared now, either; think of Dr Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and his strange obsession with ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘loss of essence’. In today’s world, not having sex is as contentious as ever, as abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and purity rings rub shoulders with a growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is increasingly important that the history of not having sex is shown to be as variegated, rich, and complex as the history of having it.

Sound Talking – A One Day Event at the London Science Museum

An interdisciplinary workshop on ‘language describing sound / sound emulating language’

Friday, 3rd November 2017

Dana Research Centre, London Science Museum

Sound Talking is a one-day event at the London Science Museum that seeks to explore the complex relationships between language and sound, both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the perspectives and methodologies of current research in the ever-widening field of sound studies, and to locate productive interactions between disciplines.

Bringing together audio engineers, psychiatrists, linguists, musicologists, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about sound as a point of linguistic engagement. We will consider the terminology used to discuss sound, the invention of words that capture sonic experience, and the use and manipulation of sound to emulate linguistic descriptions. Talks will address singing voice research, the history of onomatopoeias, new music production tools, auditory neuroscience, sounds in literature, and the sounds of the insane asylum.

Speakers:

– Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey)

– Melissa Dickson (University of Oxford)

– Jonathan Andrews (Newcastle University)

– Maria Chait (UCL Ear Institute)

– David Howard (Royal Holloway University of London)

– Brecht De Man (Queen Mary University of London)

– Mandy Parnell (Black Saloon Studios)

– Trevor Cox (Salford University)

Tickets for the event can be booked here.

For more information, please visit the event website, or contact the workshop chairs:

Melissa Dickson <melissa.dickson@ell.ox.ac.uk>

Brecht De Man <b.deman@qmul.ac.uk>

Songs, Cakes, and Games: Thoughts on Performing, Baking, and Playing Our Research at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival

On 29th September 2017, Oxford hosted the Curiosity Carnival – a city-wide public engagement event as part of European Researcher’s night. With talks, stalls, performances, plays, and activities in broad street and in venues such as the Ashmolean, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum, it proved hugely popular, and many travelled from far and wide to see what the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes’s academics had to offer. The Diseases of Modern Life team and its sister project Constructing Scientific Communities were excited to contribute their own research in innovative and unusual forms – a cake, a game, and a song and dance!

Dr Melissa Dickson  – Baking Sound 

I have long enjoyed baking as a form of respite from intense bouts of research and writing. Undoubtedly, procrastination baking, or “Procrastibaking”, can easily become a dangerous and time-consuming addiction. But there is nothing more soothing than sifting flour in the small hours of the morning, and there is nothing more satisfying than the kind of immediate, delicious results that can be produced in the kitchen after a long day working at a five year research project. Baking, according to some psychological studies, can even cultivate mindfulness, improve focus, and reduce stress. When the opportunity arose to present my research in the form of a baked good as part of the Curiosity Carnival’s Great Research Bake-Off, I was intrigued. Was there a way to use baking not as a means of academic procrastination, but as a new way of thinking about what I do? Was it possible to conceptualise and communicate my work in the form of a cake?

Taking up this challenge, I began to consider both the medium and the message. VictorianSoundI am a
literary historian of the Victorian period, so a Victoria Sandwich seemed an obvious choice. Structurally, I divide my work on Victorian soundscapes into four main areas: literature, science, medicine, and popular culture. This might be signified by 4 tiers to the cake. Sound itself, I might represent by way of popping candy, spread in between the tiers of the cake and along the top. Just as popping candy is something that you can see, hear, and feel pop, sound in this period was not just something audible; it was also something that could be seen, graphed, and measured for the first time, and something that could be felt as vibrations passing through the body and atmosphere. This led to the invention of new technologies, like the telegraph, telephone, microphone, gramophone, and phonograph. Cream horns, I reflected, might represent these new devices for capturing and amplifying sound and relaying it across time and space in different mediums.

ResearchBake-OffAs I spent the week baking sponge cakes, experimenting with butter creams, and working out how to mould cream horns, I found that my friends and family, though bemused, began to show genuine interest not only in offering their services as taste-testers, but in the research questions that I posed. At the Bake-Off itself, as the public wandered through our marquis, I found that the researchers’ cakes functioned as easily grasped, material props from which to begin intriguing conversations. An edible medium seemed to enhance the conversation, literally making the concepts easier to digest. And once I’d wandered the stalls and eaten a few cupcake tumours, pondered the role of language with the aid of a swiss roll, and tasted the earth’s atmosphere depicted in icing, I realised that the associated touch, taste, and sight of the cakes also made their lessons more memorable. All my hours of procrastibaking, it seems, had not been such a waste of time after all.


Dr Sally Frampton – Playing Science 

“Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious individual will revive them”…

Current medical theory? An obsolete practice? Or entirely made-up?

This was just one of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who came to visit our Mind-Boggling Medical History stall at the Curiosity Carnival. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game we’re developing (funded by the AHRC) which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys to brain size to transplanted heads, we challenged visitors to decide which statements were about current medical practice, which were based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we had…well….just made up entirely. As we’ve found on previous occasions, the game sparks fascinating conversations about how medical ideas come in and out of fashion and how the truth of medicine is often stranger than fiction. Statements relating to phrenology, for example, (the nineteenth-century theory that skull shape could tell you about brain shape and this in turn could tell you about a person’s personality) generated conversations about modern day neuroscience and the use of imaging to connect behaviour to brain structure. While other statements about gender and anatomy provoked debate and discussion about the different ways in which both men and women’s bodies and minds have been understood. The day was great fun for us, and we got to learn more about what aspects of health and medicine really fascinate people. One of the most enjoyable parts was being challenged on the way we categorised statements: not everyone agreed with our decisions about what was historical and what was contemporary, and how we determine what scientific ‘truth’ is. This is what we hope the game will do: get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward!

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Mind-Boggling Medical History at the Curiosity Carnival was hosted by Daniel Burt, Sarah Chaney, Molly Fennelly and Sally Frampton.


Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown – Performing Digestive Health

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity, along with five researchers from across the University of Oxford, to work with the multi-talented musician and song-writer Jonny Berliner, as a part of the carnival called Musical Abstracts. We each worked with Jonny to turn our research into a song for a popular audience. For mine, I chose what we would now call the ‘gut-brain axis’, and what the Victorian’s knew as the dynamic relationship between stomach and mind. I give a brief explanation of my thought process in the following video, but what I wanted to highlight with the song was the attention that many writers in the nineteenth century paid to the interconnections between gastrointestinal and psychiatric health, and how this was constructed across disciplines and genres. The title and recurring refrain is taken from an advertisement for Holman’s Liver Pad in 1893, which stated: ‘The Stomach is the Absolute Monarch of Humanity. Supreme is its rule! Neglect it and punishment is certain! Injure it and its vengeance is premature death!’

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From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 154 (Dec 1893) 938 p.10.

Working with Jonny on the lyrics really helped me to think in different ways about my research and forced me to reflect on the central ‘message’ without the opportunity of disclaimers or footnotes.

Magnificently, Jonny managed to compose it as swing music, so I was able to combine the project with my favourite hobby and choreographed a lindy hop routine to accompany the song, which was performed four times throughout the carnival at various locations around Oxford.

 

Watch the video of the performance below!

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