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Sustaining the Nervous System of the World: An Environmental History of Submarine Cable Telegraphy, Circa 1880-1940

   PhD Opportunities

  , Dr Cassie Newland, Prof Gareth Parry  Monday, January 24, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Bristol United Kingdom British And Irish History Economic History History History Of Science Military History Modern History Communication & Media Studies World History

About the Project

Start your application here: https://www.sww-ahdtp.ac.uk/prospective-students/apply/ 

The HEI supervisors are historians of telecommunications with much experience supervising PhD students collaborating with heritage organisations on projects transforming understanding of our electrically-connected world. Noakes has published on the history of cable telegraphy and is currently supervising three AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral projects with BT Archives. In 2009-10 he was PI on the £289k AHRC-funded Connecting Cornwall: Telecommunications, Locality and Work in West Britain, 1870-1918, a collaborative research project with PK Porthcurno that produced a new exhibition, academic publications and online resources for specialist researchers and schools. Newland is an expert on industrial archaeology who worked on the AHRC-funded project Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary, 1857-1900, curated London Guildhall’s Victorians Decoded exhibition, and is currently finishing an academic monograph on submarine cables and environmentalism prior to the period of this project. The PK Porthcurno supervisor, Emeritus Professor Gareth Parry, combines experience supervising PhD students with public engagement work in science and engineering, and expertise in the history of submarine cable communication.

‘Sustaining the Nervous System of the World’ is a systematic study of the environmental strategies, broadly conceived, of the world’s leading submarine telegraph cable manufacturers between 1880 and 1940, the period when the business peaked. First laid in the 1840s and extending to over half a million kilometres by the 1920s, submarine telegraphs were powerful drivers of nineteenth and twentieth century globalisation and laid the foundations of our information age. Cable making was dominated by a handful of British-based private firms, notably the Telegraphic Construction and Maintenance Company, W. T. Henley’s Telegraphic Works, and the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraphic Works Company, whose long-term success depended on tackling critical environmental issues affecting the supply of the materials used in cables. For example, cable manufacturers had to create plantations in South-East Asia for gutta-percha trees from which a critically important electrically-insulating plastic substance was extracted, develop synthetic plastic alternatives to the depleting gutta-percha stocks, and recycle materials from moribund cables. However, these business/environmental strategies have not received the attention they deserve from historians. Using the underexplored archives of cable makers at PK Porthcurno and elsewhere, this project will significantly enrich historical understanding of the way the telecommunications industry has coped with its environmental impacts and this will underpin new critical perspectives on modern problems of reducing cable waste in our oceans. We’re increasingly anxious about the problem of plastic waste, especially in our rivers and oceans, and this project is a powerful lens through which we can better understand the historical roots of the problem.

This project represents an exciting alignment of the research objectives of the HEI supervisors and PK Porthcurno. Located in what was for much of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the world’s largest cable station, PK Porthcurno is one of the largest museums of its kind and holds more archive materials and objects relating to submarine cable telegraphy than anywhere else. The project will help PK Porthcurno better understand and exhibit materials in its collections relating to cable making, including archival documents and objects from Telcon, Henley’s and similar British firms. It will also help PK Porthcurno develop public understanding of the environmental impacts of telecommunications, past and present.

This project requires the student to closely study a wide range of published and unpublished source material, including business records, company magazines, technical reports, maps and objects. The interpretations and critical approaches to this material will draw on the recent historiography of technology, economics, imperialism and colonialism, and environmentalism, as well as Science and Technology Studies. The research questions focus on issues relating to cable making and environmentalism and might include the following:

How did Telcon and other cable manufacturers manage the flow and depletion of gutta-percha and other natural materials used in submarine telegraph cables?

To what extent did plantation-building, recycling and research into alternative natural and synthetic materials feature in their business strategies?

What were the attitudes of cable manufacturers towards their environmental impacts, both above and under the sea?

What can the study of recovered cable fragments tell us about their environmental impacts?

How can the study of cable manufacturers help PK enhance public understanding of telecommunications and environmental issues?

There will be ample scope for the student to develop, in consultation with the supervisors, questions and approaches based on their own research strengths and interests. For example, they could focus more on questions of recycling than plantations or synthetic plastics; they could explore the impact of cables on marine life; or they could examine a period later than 1940 when, owing partly to the development of submarine cable telephony, environmental questions about synthetic plastics used in cables become more important than in earlier periods.

Academic historical studies of submarine cable telegraphy have been dominated by analyses of its technical development and of its significance in national/global politics, commerce, media and in the exact sciences. Typically, these studies have focused on cable operation, whereas historiographically more sophisticated studies of cable manufacturing, are thin on the ground. Helen Godfrey, Cassie Newland, John Tully are among several scholars who have recently begun to plug this gap by analysing the devastating environmental impacts of the late nineteenth-century global trade in gutta-percha and other natural materials used in cables. This project builds on and moves well beyond this literature in two significant ways. First, it focuses much more on the cable manufacturers rather than indigenous peoples involved in extracting cable materials (well covered in Helen Godfrey’s Submarine Telegraphy and the Hunt for Gutta-Percha: Challenge and Opportunity in a Global Trade (2018)) and second, it covers a later (mainly twentieth century) period when cable-making faced new environmental challenges with the use of synthetic plastic insulators, magnetic alloys and other new materials in cable designs. Revisionist historical perspectives on submarine cable making have never been more urgent given the rising awareness of today’s communication and power cable makers of their environmental responsibilities (see, for example, the work of the British Approvals Service for Cables).

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