‘The nervous system of Britain’: space, time and the electric telegraph in the Victorian age
IWAN RHYS MORUS a1 a1 School of Anthropological Studies, Queen's University, Belfast, BT7 1NN, Northern Ireland
From its inception, Victorian commentators on the telegraph appeared fascinated by its
apparent capacity to break down barriers of space and time. They waxed lyrical over the ways
in which the telegraph would bring nations closer together, break down boundaries and foster
commerce. They also eulogized the ways in which the telegraph could be used as a seemingly
effortless instrument of discipline. A great deal of work was needed to uphold such fantasies and
make the telegraph work. This paper highlights efforts to establish a telegraphic time signal from
Greenwich as an example of the labour and management required to sustain such rhetoric.
Finally, the paper focuses on the increasingly common metaphor linking the telegraph network
and the nervous system. It suggests that the metaphor worked for the Victorians because both
systems were held to operate through the instantaneous transmission of intelligence as a means
of maintaining bodily and social discipline.