It is often said that a modern information environment came into being in the mid-nineteenth century. The virtually instantaneous communication of brief messages via the electric telegraph was paralleled by developments in printing technology which allowed the creation of massively increased volumes of printed materials, disseminated through newly established universal postal systems.
A vital, and sometimes underestimated, part in the communications revolution was played by steam trains and stream ships, which allowed much more rapid and reliable conveying of printed documentation. And not merely heavy and bulky newspapers, magazines and books; in the decades between the introduction of the telegraph and its development into a fully international network, ships played a vital part in carrying messages between telegraph stations, as well as in carrying the printed news and other reports of which brief synopses could be sent by telegraph. Ben Wilson’s new book on the 1850s decade, which shows how much the physical and electronic transmission of information went hand-in-hand in transforming the world’s communication systems, gives several examples of this. Most striking was the system in operation before the first successful trans-Atlantic cable was laid in 1866. News headlines and market information would be carried from London on ships bound for North American ports. The messages would be put into a airtight metal canister, fitted with a flag and phosphorus flare for visibility, and put into the sea off Cape Race, Newfoundland, retrieved by small boats and carried to the easternmost telegraph station in the Americas, for onward transmission saving several days in getting the news. A similar system operated in the other direction, with American news headlines dropped into the sea of the southern tip of Ireland from eastbound vessels. News from India was carried to Britain during the 1850s in a series of stages alternating the telegraph with the mail steamer.
So, steam ships were an important part of the information chain, and of the foundation of the modern information world. As is well-knowm, this year (2016) marks the 150th anniversary of the laying of the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, an earlier attempt in 1858 having failed to operate successfully. But this year also marks another anniversary; a major advance in the capabilities of steam ships; as information transfer agents as much as anything else. This was the first voyage from Britain to China of the steamship Agamemnon, of Alfred Holt’s Ocean Steam Ship Company.
By 1865, steam ships were challenging sailing vessels on many routes, having advantages of speed, and in particular of reliability, not being dependent on wind conditions. But the steam engines of the time were very inefficient, so that on long-distance routes the need for constant refuelling negated their advantages, and the amount of coal needed reduced the space available for cargo. This was the problem addressed by Alfred Holt (1829-1911), a marine engineer from Liverpool, and proprietor of the Ocean Steam Ship Company, later known as the Blue Funnel Line. [I am old enough to recall, from my childhood on Merseyside, the ubiquitous blue funnels of the Holt Line’s ships, in their last decades of operation.]
Holt designed a new form of ‘compound’ steam engine, which re-used the steam and hence worked much more efficiently, and incorporated it into a series of vessels, again of his own design, intended for the trade routes between Britain and China. These could steam for over 8,000 miles on their initial coal supply, enabling them to get to China with only one stop for refuelling. The first of these ships, Agamemnon, left Liverpool on the 19th of April 1866, and arrived in Hong Kong 65 days later, clipping 12 days off the previous fastest passage.
Compound-engined ships enabled fast and reliable steam-powered travel across all the oceans of the world, promoting not merely trade in goods, but equally importantly dissemination of information: mail, news, business information, government materials, and much more. People around the world were, as Ben Wilson puts it, “bound to each other by new, invisible and often unsettling networks of information exchange” (p.411).
Alfred Holt would not have thought of himself as a pioneer of the information age, nor of his Agamemnon as a device of information dissemination; but in a very real sense, he and his ship have a place in information history.