Information Networks and Urban Spaces: The Case of the Telegraph Messenger Boy

Here at the turn of the millennium, contrary to American historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s pronouncement of 100-some years ago, the frontier has not closed; instead, it has moved from a physical world of plains, mountains, and deserts to the virtual world of web sites, domain names, and Initial Public Offerings. But such fervent speculation in the virtual world can obscure the importance of the physical world. In this short essay, I’d like to discuss some of the particular challenges of “grounding” information networks in physical space, something that is often lost between the engrossing study of what constitutes “information” itself and the critical analysis of what value that information does or does not provide our wider society. In particular, I argue that to the degree that communications and transportation networks are largely urban phenomena, we must pay careful attention to the reciprocal relationships between such networks and urban space.

Game of the Telegraph Boy, or Merit Rewarded
Game of the Telegraph Boy, or Merit Rewarded

Many Victorian board games purported to prove the merits of “luck and pluck.” Plucky boys who delivered their messages or packages diligently, did not succumb to cigarette smoking, and saved their earnings could successfully—allegedly—climb from the messenger’s low rung on the ladder of success to company president, or the like. This deluxe version of a popular game came in a vividly chromolithographed, wood-sided box. A spinner determined the players’ luck in moving 1 7/8” metal tokens shaped like uniformed messenger boys around the board. Of course, few families that could afford such an expensive entertainment would have sent their sons out for such a rough apprenticeship in the working world. (McLoughlin Bro’s, New York, 1888)

My own information network of study is the telegraph, a network that first appeared, full of promise, around 1850 in the U. S., and lasted as a viable form of communication for about a century after that (until shortly after the second World War). Though already studied from various perspectives — business history, labor history, history of technology — the full story of the telegraph in America is still being told, and my own lens is focused on one forgotten group of actors within that tale: telegraph messenger boys.

My study of messenger boys, those uniformed teens aged anywhere from 10 to 18 who funneled telegrams into and out of the telegraph network during its entire 100-year reign, starts from a “technological systems” approach. Just as automatic senders, page printers, signal repeaters, and stock tickers were innovative technologies created within this information network, so were the messenger boys. Uniformed and numbered, with their actions scripted and their leisure time regimented, mounted on bicycles or seated on numbered slots in benches, these boys were as much a “technology” as the wires and the cables strung between cities and buildings. After all, messengers served much the same purpose as wires, transporting messages between different points in the network. For example, in the call-box system first created in 1872 and lasting well into the 20th century, an individual business or domestic customer might “ring” for a messenger (sending control signal information over an electrical wire), who would first rush to the customer’s door to pick-up a hand-written message (sending content information in printed form), and then return to the telegraph office to have the message sent cross-country (finally rendering the content of the message as an electrical signal).

But while these boys were in fact treated as technological components, they were much more as well. This can be best understood by using a second methodology, that of human geography. Sidestepping the fact that “geography” itself is still a contested term in academia, I will only say that this field begins with the notion that the parameters of space and time are fundamental to any and every social process; yet, paradoxically, these fundamental categories are not universal, but are themselves socially constructed. Whether distances are considered near or far, whether activities seem to take forever or to take no time at all, are all dependent on whom you ask, where and when you ask them, and what they are trying to accomplish. This dialectical relationship is at the heart of human geography: humans have the power to construct their own geographies.

And that is precisely what humans do when they create communications or transportation networks — or when they create “information networks” involving both communications and transportation, such as the telegraph. The telegraph enabled new spatio-temporal relationships between cities and hinterlands, between stock exchanges and remote buyers or sellers, between newspapers and reporters or readers. The human “system builders” who created both the telegraph technologies and the institutions controlling them, as well as the human consumers who responded to the new network with their dollars and their enthusiasm, were partners in creating the “telegraph speed” which would set the standard for rapid communication for decades.

The workers within the telegraph network played their part in creating the new speed of the telegraph as well. Linemen strung wires, highly-skilled Morse operators (mostly male) relayed the most urgent government and business messages, and lower-paid Automatic and telephone operators (mostly female) handled the bulk of routine or social messages. Telegraph messenger boys were also a part of this process, with their maximum speed through the city streets standing as an upper bound on the possible speed of a cross-country telegram. Similarly, the messenger’s maximum travel distance from the branch telegraph office defined the spatial extent of the telegraph network (that is, without resorting to a hand-over to the Post Office network). Thus “technology” in the telegraph network was more than electrical equipment: the telegraph managers had to worry not only about duplexing and multiplexing their senders and receivers in order to carry more messages per wire; they also worried about setting up relationships with streetcar companies so that uniformed boys could ride for free, or about arranging purchasing contracts with bicycle manufacturers so messengers could afford to buy dependable bikes and tires.

Here then is the first way that geography contributes to an understanding of the telegraph — in separating out the telegraph’s “virtual” space from its physical space, it is clear that different categories of workers were responsible for each. In general, the adult operators working the virtual system — managing the instantaneous electrical transfer of information — worked indoors under tight supervision, earned fixed wages, and could participate in unions. By contrast, the young messengers working the physical system — managing information in handwritten or printed form on physical pieces of paper — worked outdoors under no supervision, earned piece wages, and were (until late in the story) barred from union participation. Suddenly the single “technological system” of the telegraph becomes two discrete systems, an inter-city virtual system and an intra-city physical system, linked together into one technological network. Thus an understanding of the local urban spaces where telegraph companies made their homes is a prerequisite to making sense of the connection between the scales.

Turning to the particular geographies of the messenger boys themselves provides further insights. Tracking the movements of messengers through the working day finds them inhabiting several different urban spaces at different times. During the slack times which peaked at noon, the telegraph companies hid them in back rooms and basements, away from customers who might be annoyed to see the boys smoking, reading “penny dreadfuls,” or shooting craps. During their leisure times of weekends and evenings, the same messengers might be paraded before the public, showing off the military precision earned from hours of unpaid drill practice. The duties of delivery and pick-up sent them to the corporate boardrooms at the tops of skyscrapers by day, and to the basement brothels of the red-light district by night — all through the increasingly dangerous traffic of the urban streets. And the fact that they were children meant that at some point, whether before, after, or during their shifts, they were obliged to appear for some sort of formal education.

The key point linking all of these varied activities around the city is that since each was necessary to the maintenance of a pool of messenger boys, then all were necessary to the smooth operation of the telegraph network, which could not survive for long without its messengers, as periodic messenger boy strikes would dramatically demonstrate. The telegraph industry did not merely depend on capital investments in the spaces of offices, wires, and railroad rights-of-way; they also had to invest in messenger employment offices and locker rooms, messenger equipment warehouses and uniform laundries, messenger assembly halls and classrooms. Both within their own buildings, and throughout the wider city as well, creating a physical space to ground the virtual space of the telegraph meant creating physical spaces for the messenger boys.

Finally, by focusing on these spaces, we can see how messengers became more than mere components in the telegraph network. Boys who signed up for messenger work were choosing the temporality of a continuation-school schedule of 4 classroom hours a week over the full-time public school schedule of 36 hours a week — and many more boys registered for such classes than ever attended, showing that they were using the messenger job for their own ends. Boys who got to know the red-light districts in a city could not only earn handsome tips, they could act as paid escorts on the side while out on message runs, earning two bits for directing voyeuristic tourists to the places that the police didn’t raid. Alternatively, boys who became fixtures in the spaces of brokerage houses and business establishments could try to draw on personal relationships for sympathy when the telegraph companies laid them off, cut their hours, or docked their pay. Boys who “scorched” on their bikes through the city streets were breaking traffic laws and taking their lives into their own hands, but they were beating their rivals to the call-box in order to get a plum message. And the claims to discipline and order that telegraph companies made on the streets when they paraded their messengers on Thanksgiving were reversed every time messengers struck en masse, bicycling through the downtowns in uniform to keep the streets free of temporary “scabs” hired to fill their places. Thus the very spaces of the city which the telegraph tried to mold and control through the messengers were in some sense contested terrain, open to occasional and vivid control by those messengers themselves.

This essay has focused on one particular workforce in one particular information network, but the general principle of supplementing a technological systems analysis with a human geography approach is applicable to a wide range of technologies. I’m still working through this hybrid history/geography approach in my own dissertation on the telegraph messengers, but I hope that through studying these forgotten information actors from a century ago, we can learn to turn our gaze to the hidden information actors of today. Before signal can emerge from noise in the placeless world of cyberspace, wires must be fixed, software must be upgraded, hardware must be monitored, data must be entered, and countless “help” questions must be answered. And it seems to me that these activities all take place in the material world, through the hands and minds and lives of working people often situated in urban environments. Where are the hidden information spaces in the millennial city? I’d be pleased to hear the reactions of other Antenna-readers to such thoughts.

Greg Downey is completing his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University in two departments at once: History of Science, Medicine & Technology, and Geography & Environmental Engineering.
He is due to defend his dissertation, “’Uniformed Boys for Any Occasion’: Child messenger labor in the first Electromechanical
‘Internetwork,’ 1850-1950,” in April 2000.

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