From the Telegraph to the Internet: Project Reflection

My digital history paper makes use of currently available digital Corpora to explore how people reacted to and interacted with the telegraph as a means of communication and it used these findings to examine the parallels that can be drawn between the introduction of the telegraph and the widespread adoption of email, cellphones, and other modern methods of instant communication. Using digital tools such as the New York Times – Historical, Mike Davies’ Online Corpus of Time Magazine, the Corpus of Historical American English, and Google N-Grams, it is easy to compare public reactions to the introduction of new communications technologies and analyze what concerns and issues weighed on their minds at the time.

The Corpora allowed me to search words and phrases to see when they first appeared, how and when they have increased or decreased in frequency, how they have changed in meaning over time, and how the correlate with other words. Using the corpora allows historians to quickly search, isolate, and identify certain historical trends which has opened up avenues of research that were simply impossible in the past. For this project I used various corpora coupled with the NYT database to show that people had very similar reactions to the introduction of the telegraph as they did to more recent communications technologies.

To give just one interesting example, I discovered that people had uncannily similar reactions to the introduction of the telegraph and the BlackBerry as a work device. The information supplied by the telegraph was like a drug to businessmen, who swiftly became addicted. Despite their information addiction, many complained about the fact that they were always connected and instantly reachable impacted their family life and leisure time. “The merchant goes home after a hard day of work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London… the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send his message to California.”  This same information addiction is well-documented in the modern day. One woman commented regarding always being connected to work via email, “I quit smoking 28 years ago, and that was easier than being without my BlackBerry.” Today, we debate whether there is even a distinction anymore between work life and leisure when we are expected to answer emails that arrive long after we have clocked-out of work.

The most important finding, however, has been the demonstration of how new digital methods like the corpora have affected the study of history. Tools like the various corpora examined in this paper have changed the way historians can look at the past. The use of the corpora have opened up avenues of research that were simply impossible in the past, and as  Patrick Leary argues, has allowed us to conceptualize and study history in ways that were simply not possible even a decade ago.

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