Britain and the Telecommunications Revolution (HIC3300)

StaffDr Richard Noakes - Convenor
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15
NQF Level6
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This module explores the ways that the invention and development of telecommunications technologies (the electric telegraph, telephony and wireless) depended fundamentally on a mosaic of economic, social, cultural and political contexts.  Through analysis of a range of primary sources (including government reports, cartoons, literary texts, and diaries) and a critical study of the secondary literature, students will be able to assess the extent to which telecommunications has been shaped by such factors as laissez-faire economics, international politics, military conflict, the growth of the periodical press and railways, and new relationships between work and gender.


The extraordinary growth of telegraphic networks overland, undersea and through the ether means that this module, despite its Anglo-centric title, has a transnational focus.  It uses the case of telecommunications to address wider issues in the history of technology such as technological determinism, models of technological change, and the relationship between gender and technology.

 This module will appeal to all students with interests in Victorian culture, nineteenth and twentieth century politics, and the history of science and technology.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate a detailed knowledge and understanding of the major themes in the development telecommunications in Britain and other countries from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and the ability to relate these to broader historical contexts.
  • 2. Make a close specialist evaluation of key aspects of the history of telecommunications, developed through independent study and seminar work.
  • 3. Critically evaluate the historiography of technology

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Formulate appropriate questions relating to a body of source material and utilize that material to answer these questions
  • 5. With minimum guidance, develop and sustain historical arguments in a variety of literary forms, using appropriate terminology
  • 6. Display a command of comparative perspectives
  • 7. Analyse at a close and sophisticated level original sources and assess their reliability as historical evidence
  • 8. Evaluate critically the reasoning of discourses current in the period under study

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 9. Combine independent, autonomous study with the ability to work collaboratively
  • 10. Set tasks independently and solve problems, formulating appropriate questions and marshalling relevant evidence to answer them
  • 11. With minimum guidance, digest, select and synthesise evidence and arguments to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument

Syllabus plan

Introduction and historiography of technology and telecommunications; industrialisation; communication and travel; tools of empire; heroes and villains of the telegraph; free enterprise and state control; telegraphic and telephonic history ‘from below’; global security; telegraphy and the Great War; international comparisons; conclusions

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Lectures11Provide a spine through which all students can be brought to a similar level of knowledge and through which ideas and controversies can be transmitted.
Seminars22The seminars will focus on particular aspects of the subject-matter, with a view to offering a fuller understanding than can be delivered through the lectures, allowing the students to develop their skills and knowledge more fully. Students will be expected to prepare adequately for seminars in advance by reading and evaluating and to discuss the issues raised in the seminar itself.
Guided Independent Study108Individual essay. You should spend a significant amount of time on independent research reading, planning and writing your individual essay.
Guided Independent Study88Reading for seminars. It is expected that you will spend six hours preparing for each seminar by reading.
Guided Independent Study66Reading for lectures. It is expected that you will spend three hours preparing for each lecture by reading
Guided Independent Study6Group work for presenting one of the weekly formative presentations. The distribution of this effort should be agreed by the groups

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Draft source commentaryup to 1,500 words1-8, 10-11Written and verbal comments
Draft essayup to 3,000 words1-8, 10-11Written and verbal comments
Group presentation20mins (for whole group)1-11Immediate feedback from module convenor and peers

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay502 x 1,500 words 1-8,10-11Mark, written and verbal comments.
Essay 501 x 3,000 words1-8,10-11Mark, written and verbal comments.

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay2 x 1,500 word essay1-8, 10-11Referral/deferral period
Essay1 x 3,000 word essay 1-6, 8, 10-11Referral/deferral period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading: Briggs, A. and Burke, P. (2005), A Social History of the Media from Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005. Dusek, V. (2006), The Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. Edgerton, D. (2008), The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. London: Profile Books Kieve, J. (1973), The Electric Telegraph: A Social and Economic History. Newton Abbott: David and Charles Nye, D. (2006), Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press Headrick, D. (1991), The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press Headrick, D (1991), The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1941. New York: Oxford University Press Marsden, B. and Smith, C. (2005), Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth Century Britain. London: Palgrave Macmillan Marvin, C. (1988), When Old Technologies were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press Standage, T. (1999) The Victorian Internet (London, 1999)

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

ELE – College to provide hyperlink to appropriate pages Web based and electronic resources:

Available as distance learning?


Origin date

July 2012

Last revision date


Key words search

Technology; telecommunications; history; Britain; globalisation; imperialism; nineteenth century; twentieth century