Katherine Stubbs’s 2004 essay “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions” uses the little-studied genre of “telegraphic fiction” to examine various cultural reactions to the introduction of telegraph technology in the late 19th century–and to shed light on similarities between that moment and our own. “Telegraphic fiction” encompasses stories written by male and female telegraph operators in the 1870s and 1880s. Though written about thirty years after the technology was first introduced, the stories, according to Stubbs, are illustrative of a moment of newness, when telegraph users were beginning to think of the technology in entirely new ways, including conceiving of a “virtual space”–removed in some fundamental way from reality–that people could occupy when talking on the wire.
A telegraphic novel, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, published in 1880 by Ella Cheever Thayer, addresses this theme. It tells the story of a young female operator named Nattie Rogers who falls in love with another operator, “C,” who turns out to be a young man named Clem who lives in the same boardinghouse as Nattie.
In order to court out of sight of their strict landlady, they set up a private telephone wire between their two rooms, allowing them to stay up late talking. While covert visits to one another’s rooms would be utterly improper in Victorian America, the novel implies that there is something different about the “virtual space” of the telegraph wire that changes the equation. For Thayer, the telegraph wire allows Nattie freedom from her female body, so policed and restricted by the society in which she lives.
Some of the other stories that Stubbs studies have different perspectives to offer on the effect of telegraphic technology on gender relations. She explains that because of a drive on the part of telegraph company Western Union to hire more female operators (they were thought to be more submissive and easier to for the company to control), many of the male authors of telegraphic fiction felt their jobs and masculinity to be threatened by a “crisis of feminization” (96). Thus, their stories featured promiscuous women operators who flirted with and misled men over the wire, or whose feminine vulnerability threatened to disrupt the operation of the technology entirely.
Stubbs argues that the telegraph raised many of the same questions about the human body and selfhood in relation to technology that users of computers and the Internet were contemplating in 2004. She points to a prominent narrative about the Internet as a virtual space in which minds could interact with each other, freed of prejudice based on the corporeal body’s color, size, or gender. That narrative, as Thayer’s novel and other stories reveal, is not new. However, Stubbs also argues that the discourse around telegraphic technology did something that the narratives around the Internet had not done in 2004: that is, interrogate the connections between the human body, the physical workings of the technology, and the virtual space that it could create. The Internet’s boosters in 2004, she argues, were too quick to accept an absolute division between “physical” and “virtual” that also served to conceal the economic realities underlying the new communications technology. While telegraph operators were expressing an awareness about the impact of economic factors on the technology they used, in 2004 few people were bringing the same critical approach to discussions about the Internet. In the twelve years since this article was written, the debate has become more realistic about the ability of the internet to eliminate prejudice. But Stubbs’s claim that more understanding of the economic realities of late capitalism is necessary for users of “new media” remains relevant.