Why the Printing Press and the Telegraph Were as Impactful as the Internet

What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.

In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:

When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.

Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.

Printing Press

Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.

Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”

Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.

Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.

This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:

More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.

Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”

The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.


Henry Ford famously said of life before the car…

WWI Centennial: Remembering The Zimmermann Telegram

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.

January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram

Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff).

In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeated depredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.

But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home.

The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance…