The Bernard S. Finn IEEE History Prize is supported by the IEEE Life Members’ Fund and administered by the Society for the History of Technology. The prize is awarded annually to the best paper in the history of electrotechnology—power, electronics, telecommunications, and computer science—published during the preceding year. The prize consists of $500 and a certificate.
Edmund Russell, Carnegie Mellon University
“Capitalism Matters: How Financial and Technological Innovations Shaped U.S. Telegraphs, 1845–60.” Technology and Culture, vol. 63, no. 1, 2022, p. 31-60.
Edmund Russell’s article represents a significant and mature work of scholarship written with exemplary clarity. His research into the early financing of telegraph networks leads him to argue that historians of technology should make capitalism, particularly its financial aspects, a major theme in writing on innovation. Russell not only introduces and unpacks a new element in user studies – the role of investors in telegraphy, but his dialectical concepts of “capital mining” and “capital foraging” are helpful tools for any scholar following the money in the course of historical change.
As a case study, the article corrects the historiography and adds greatly to our understanding of American telegraphy. It explains how the United States, despite – not because of – its immense geography, combined with its mode of private capitalist practices, “created the largest telegraph system in the world.” Russell discusses the systemic, geographic, and infrastructural exceptionalisms involved by integrating telegraphy’s technological growth with the equally exceptional American financial system in the co-construction of a “telegraphic model of finance capitalism.” He details how the networks in the formative period were “just right” in size to require capital investment, yet be affordable to investors beyond the major city banks. These merchants from the small towns that extended the telegraph’s networks did not seek profit from their stocks but instead hoped to “increase profit for their own business.” A learned and provocative call to arms based on multi-archival research, Russell indeed demonstrates that, in the history of technology, “Capitalism Matters.”