All Our Telegraphs Are…a Mistake?

In the late 19th century Americans were getting nervous. Could the telegraph have been one of its causes?

Previously, this blog has featured articles about how Americans were anxiously commenting on the pace of life speeding up. You’ve also read here about how critics complained about the telegraph and how it was being misused to deceive, prank, swindle, and con unsuspecting victims. According to many, the manipulation and proliferation of technologies like the telegraph contributed to society’s ills and a major cause for concern.

Puck Physician
“The Physician of the Period,” Puck, December 1897. “That tired feeling” and “neurasthenia” (nervousness) are included in his list of ailments. Library of Congress.

But perhaps the telegraph contributed to nervousness and strain in American society even when it was being used the way it was intended too.

In 1881 New York neurologist Charles Beard published an influential book on the subject: “American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences.” In it, he blamed nervousness (also known as neurasthenia) on five causes: steam power, the periodical press, the sciences, the “mental activity of women,” and the telegraph. These were the vanguards of modern civilization, driving the pace of society to an unbearable rate and crushing the life out anyone who couldn’t adapt quickly. “Civilization is the one constant factor without which there can be little or no nervousness,” he argued, “and under which in its modern form nervousness in its many varieties must arise inevitably.”

Beard mentions the telegraph frequently in the book, often along with the train. These two inventions had their origins in the early 1800s and by the mid century were changing how Americans communicated and were making the world a much smaller place.

Beard published this “Evolution of Nervousness” chart in American Nervousness.

Beard believed these inventions overwhelmed society. They quickly carried news to every corner of the country and compelled people to move about and complete tasks in less and less time. “A nervous man cannot take out his watch and look at it when the time for an appointment or train is near, without affecting his pulse.” To put it simply, he wrote, “punctuality is a greater thief of nervous force than is procrastination of time.”

The telegraph seemed to epitomize these changes wrought by technology: its ever-growing network of wires were bringing the news of modernity and the world into every community and home.

Here’s my favorite passage from “American Nervousness” about the telegraph:

The telegraph is a cause of nervousness the potency of which is little understood. Before the days of Morse and his rivals, merchants were far less worried than now, and less business was transacted in a given time; prices fluctuated far less rapidly, and the fluctuations which now are transmitted instantaneously over the world were only known then by the slow communication of sailing vessels or steamships; hence we might wait for weeks or months for a cargo of tea from China, trusting for profit to prices that should follow their arrival; whereas, now, prices at each port are known at once all over the globe. This continual fluctuations of values, and the constant knowledge of those fluctuations in every part of the world, are the scourges of business men, the tyrants of trade- every cut in prices in wholesale liens in the smallest of any of the Western cities, becomes known in less than an hour and all over the Union; thus competition is both diffused and intensified. Within but thirty years the telegraphs of the world have grown to half a million miles of line, and over a million miles of wire- or more than forty times the circuit of the globe. In the United States there were, in 1880, 170,103 miles of line, and in that year 33,155,9991 messages were sent over them.

Even at its best, Beard believed the telegraph would bring the symptoms of nervousness he had seen in many patients firsthand. Fatigue, anxiety, depression, and full-on nervous breakdowns were all not worth any benefits the telegraph brought to society. “All our civilization is a mistake; every mile of advance into the domain of ideas, brings a conflict that knows no rest, and all conquests are to be paid for, before delivery often, in blood and nerve and life.”

What do you think? Is anxiety and nervousness a bug or a feature of technology and modern society? If Beard were around today would he think any of our 21st century technology were cause for widespread anxiety?


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