The British Journal for the History of Science

A special issue

‘The nervous system of Britain’: space, time and the electric telegraph in the Victorian age

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.