Abstract: Iron Horses Versus Lightning Wires: The Managerial Response to Telegraphy and Telephony on America's Railroads, 1844-1920

Benjamin Schwantes


Contrary to Alfred Chandler's assertion that "the railroad and the telegraph marched across the continent in unison" during the nineteenth century, this study presents a far more complex and nuanced perspective on the interplay between railroads and telecommunications technologies in the United States. Railroad officials and managers resisted embracing the telegraph as a necessary tool for overseeing railroad operations. Instead of gradually fading away, managerial resistance, even on technologically progressive railroads like the Erie and the Pennsylvania, continued until decades after the Civil War. The proceedings of the Telegraph Committee of the Pennsylvania Railroad offer an illuminating case study of how one railroad's managers responded to technological change in the final years of the nineteenth century. The Telegraph Committee's organizational response to telegraphy, and later to telephony, rationalized the Pennsylvania Railroad's disorganized telecommunications system. Through research and experimentation, the Committee gradually overcame the Pennsylvania's institutional resistance to systematizing communications technologies and in the process set an example for the managers of less technologically progressive railroad companies.