Media Technology and Society

A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet

By Brian Winston

Routledge, London: 1998

Reviewed by

Mitchell Stephens


The history books tell us that Samuel Morse "invented" the

electronic telegraph in 1844. That was, Brian Winston

explains, four years after a message announcing that Queen

Victoria had given birth traveled on a telegraph wire from

Windsor into London. It was nineteen years after a Russian

diplomat in Germany, Baron Pawel Schilling, had designed an

electric means for sending messages over wires. And Morse's

"What hath God wrought" was sent twenty-eight years after

Francis Ronalds succeeded in transmitting information

electronically along the eight miles of wire he had wound

around his London garden.

One of Winston's goals in his information-rich new book,

[ital]Media Technology and Society,[ital] is to place the

word "invented" within quotation marks -- at considerable

cost to the reputation of gentlemen like Marconi, Bell and

Morse. Another is to demonstrate that societies shape their

technologies more than technologies shape societies. He

argues that societal (particularly economic) forces

determine the effects, uses, acceptance and even the

arrival of new forms of communication. Ronalds' prototype

of the telegraph, for instance, was rejected by the British

Admiralty as "wholly unnecessary" and therefore went

nowhere. The "supervening necessity" -- the societal force

-- that would eventually allow the telegraph to be

"invented" was the need, Winston maintains, to safely

coordinate railroad trains on single tracks.

All this leads to a larger and more controversial point. If

society is the horse, technology merely the cart, then

communications technologies can hardly be pulling us in

radical new directions. Winston, who is head of the School

of Communication, Design and Media at the University of

Westminster, not only has a go at that old [ital]bete

noir[ital] technological determinism; he dismisses the

whole notion that we are undergoing an information or

communications revolution.

"There is nothing in the histories of electrical and

electronic communication systems," he writes, "to indicate

that significant major changes have not been accommodated

by preexisting social formations." In other words, forget

those fears about television or those hopes for the

Internet. "Western civilization over the past three

centuries," Winston contends, "has displayed, despite

enormous changes in detail, fundamental continuity -- continues to do so."

For those of us who have read Winston's stimulating 1986

book, Misunderstanding Media, these are mostly familiar

arguments. In this substantial new work he clarifies and

expands them. A detailed model of historical change in

technology is presented, beginning with scientific

developments and working its way through prototypes,

ideation, "invention" and diffusion -- with society

intervening to stimulate or, more frequently, repress at a

couple of crucial stages.

Such repression of dangerous new inventions was the major

theme of [ital]Misunderstanding Media[ital]. Here Winston's

"law of the suppression of radical potential," his most

memorable contribution in that book, stands guard over the

transition between "invention" and diffusion. Winston

argues, for example, that the spread of television was

delayed -- "suppressed" -- in part because it threatened

the film and radio industries.

His arguments are buttressed in this new book by a more

thorough recounting of the history of electronic

communications. Indeed, this is the most comprehensive

history of these events -- the development of the

telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the computer and

the Internet -- that I have seen in one book.

Occasionally an error pops up among the information on

scientists, inventors and media companies Winston has

collected from Britain, the United States, Germany, Russia

and other countries: David Sarnoff, for example, for all

his importance in the history of RCA, was not "the founder

of the Radio Corporation of America." Still, Winston

manages to present a solid and extremely useful history of

many of the most significant technological developments of

the past two centuries -- a history well grounded in an

understanding of science and of the workings of those


Winston's arguments can be useful too, but sometimes they

are less solid. Certainly, the notion of the lone inventor,

inspired only by inexplicable flashes of insight, deserves

the sustained assault he levels against it. And certainly

societal factors can spur and retard both the process of

invention and the process of realizing the potential of an

invention. Those of us who isolate the development of new

technologies in an attempt to ponder the impact of new

technologies need to be reminded of this. Winston forces us

to note the connections, to face the complications.

But this extended effort to demonstrate that technological

development is almost entirely beholden to concrete

societal forces too often requires some stretches. Are we

really to believe that without single-track railroads the

telegraph would not have been "invented"? (Yes, Morse's

first line was strung alongside a railroad, but its first

messages had nothing to do with train traffic.) And would

television really have failed to overcome "the brake" of

established entertainment industries, as Winston asserts,

if it had not been for the need to find uses for electronic

manufacturing capacity after the end of World War II?

The wonder, the power, the magic, of these communications

technologies is rarely acknowledged in this book. The best

Winston can do for television is to concede that public

"addictions to realism and narrative" were "background

supervening necessities" in its dissemination. For were he

to admit that people hungered to have this sweet stream of

moving images enter their homes he would have to admit that

a technology can have its own independent power; he would

have to admit that technologies sometimes (often?) do pull

the cart.

Another stretch: Winston implies that electronically

scanned television was delayed - suppressed? -- for forty

years, from 1911 until the mid-1950s. What happened in

1911? A Russian experimenter, Bosis Rozing, had managed to

send the image of four hazy lines through the air. In a

world more open to "radical potential" would all the best

engineers have instantly anointed Rozing the next Gutenberg

and joined together to perfect television? There seems

insufficient room in Winston's model for natural human

hesitation, inattention, stumbling and misunderstanding.

Hindsight seems too frequently to intrude.

Winston contends, with more merit, that a full-scale

commercial television system could have been introduced in

the United States as early as 1936. Such a system was

introduced eleven years later. Is that really such a

shocking delay, particularly given the fact that a war

intervened and the technology was still improving? Is it

sufficient to prove that a "law of suppression of radical

potential" was in operation? There is another way this

"law" that Winston sees governing the diffusion of new

media might be phrased: "It takes a little while."

And it takes a long while for the effects of new forms of

communication to become clear; that is one reason Winston

fails to spot them. Communications revolutions, as I

understand them, take place over centuries not over the

decades upon which he focuses.

Case in point: the European letter press. Its early

development fits Winston's model fairly well. Prototypes

existed in block printing and, of course, in Chinese and

Korean printing systems. Others besides Johannes Gutenberg

were certainly experimenting with a letter press in Europe

in the fifteenth century, and it is not at all clear that

his experiments were the first to succeed. Entrenched

forces often resisted the press's development. Conservative

forces often took control of it. And a century and a half

passed before the two forms most associated with printing -

- the printed newspaper and the novel -- arrived.

Nevertheless, a series of fairly radical developments --

from the spread of Luther's Reformation to the scientific

revolution to the Enlightenment to the American and French

Revolutions -- were, over the centuries, aided and abetted

by the printing press.

A similar argument could be made for writing, which worked

its revolution in philosophy, politics, science, history

and religion over millennia. Writing and printing are two

technologies that have been around long enough for us to

see that their effects were not in the end "accommodated by

preexisting social formations." Societies changed.

The radical potential of television and the Internet, or of

electronic communication in general, will likely express

itself, over the centuries, in new and different ways --

ways you or I or Brian Winston may have difficulty

accepting or even noticing. These technologies will

certainly not accomplish what they accomplish

independently; many other forces will be involved. The

media corporations may not shatter. The poor may not

overtake the rich. But societies likely will change once

again. Indeed, most of us believe that our societies have

already begun to change. A few years or decades of

hesitation, stumbling or even opposition as these media

technologies are getting started will mean little in the


What is so valuable about Brian Winston's new book is the

close and detailed examination he provides of the early

development of electronic communication. What is most

disappointing about his arguments is his failure to step

back and see that this is but one stage in a longer



Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the Department of

Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University.

His most recent book, [ital]the rise of the image the fall

of the word[ital] is published by Oxford University Press.

He is also the author of A History of News.