The history of the telegraph provides an illustrative example of how technology has shaped the geopolitics and geo-economics of the world in the recent past. It not only impacted the relations between nations and empires, it also shaped the outcome of at least one world war if not two.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Britain had developed a monopolistic dominance of the telegraph communications network of the world. The British Eastern Telegraph Company alone manufactured between half to two-thirds of cables in the world at that time. Of the roughly thirty ships that could lay cables around the world, twenty-four were owned by the British.

The British, strategically, encouraged other countries such as the US and Germany to lay their cables in and around Britain, with the effect that “their communications came under British control in wartime”.

The potent combination of manufacturing expertise, ownership of physical infrastructure, strategic influence over cables routes, control of essential raw materials for manufacturing cables such as latex wrap, unmatched cable-laying and cable-repair capabilities, and domination of international standards for telegraph technology, all meant that the British control of the telegraph industry was complete.

This dominance conferred at least two immensely strategic advantages on Britain. One, this “strategic backbone to the empire” helped reinforce the dominance of British military and naval forces throughout the world and secure their colonies. Two, the strategic vision and decision to control these routes proved “prescient” during the world wars that followed the escalation of the rivalry among Europe’s great powers.

In August 1914, for example, a day after Britain declared war on Germany, it cut Germany’s telegraph cables, which would then remain out of service for the remainder of the war.

The British leveraged the telegraph networks to isolate their opponents, cut off their communication with their respective militaries, and impose an economic blockage.6 In fact, during both the world wars, British dominance of the telecommunication networks would prove absolutely critical.

On the defence front, the British realised that their telegraph networks – especially those that passed through rival territory – were also prone to attack and espionage by their rivals, such as the French and the Russians. In 1866, the Select Committee of the British House of Commons concluded:

That, having regard to the magnitude of the interests, political, commercial, and social, involved in the connection between this country and India, it is not expedient that the means of intercommunication by telegraph should be dependent upon any single line, or any single system of wires, in the hands of several foreign governments, and under several distinct responsibilities, however well such services may be conducted as a whole, in time of peace.

The Select Committee decided to introduce “network resilience” and “redundancy” (the same strategies for defence continue to be utilised today). By the dawn of the twentieth century, the British government had laid an exclusive system of cables between Britain and its colonies, called the “All Red” routes, while simultaneously building an unmatched capacity to disable the cable networks of rivals.

The telegraph, much like the internet, was not initially envisioned as a geopolitical tool.

As Headrick describes, until 1850, the telegraph networks were used to “speed up the everyday interactions between peoples”, much like the internet networks of today. The rapid expansion of the telegraph network globally increased the reliance of nations (and their militaries) on the communications made possible by the telegraph.

As trade using these networks increased and great power rivalry developed, as is again happening today, the major powers of the day – Britain and France then – began to value the telegraph “as a means of projecting their will upon others”. So, in many cases, governments of nations like France and Britain would end up pushing for greater emphasis on laying telegraph lines to new places, so that they could maintain “contact with their armies on distant battlefields”.

Just as technology then was shaping geopolitics, geopolitics was also shaping technology as well. Military and economic considerations would also move Japan to push for its first telegraph cable connection with the West through the Pacific Submarine Cable in 190611 (its Korea cable had proved to be an essential strategic asset during a war with China in the 1890s).

Similarly, the US had begun to grasp the military and economic significance of these telegraph networks. Realising these networks were critical for communications between Spain and its colonies, US naval officers began to use the Caribbean telegraph stations to monitor Spanish naval movements around 1894.

Then, in 1896, when the Spanish Governor-General refused to grant the US the right to use it, Lt William W Kimball would recommend cutting the submarine cable between Manila and Hong Kong (and also the cables on the Cuban coast for good measure).

In 1900, in a speech to the US Naval War College, Capt. George O Squier of the US Army Signal Corps would state that the Spanish-American war had “for the first time demonstrated the dominating influence of submarine cable communications in the conduct of a naval war”.

The vulnerability of these lines of communication and the geopolitically risky dependence that nations such as France and Germany had “on the goodwill of Great Britain” led many of them to attempt to build and subsidise their own All Red-style exclusive telegraph networks. Unfortunately, this telegraph arms race only served to further instigate mutual suspicion and rivalry. It would even contribute to bringing the nations to the brink of war. As Headrick describes:

By 1914, instantaneous communications, far from smoothing out misunderstandings between the powers, only sharpened the jitters of nervous governments teetering on the brink of war. In the hopes of freeing themselves from their dependence on foreign cables, all the great powers helped push the infant technology of radio into an early adolescence. Telecommunications, once hailed as a miracle and later regarded as a public utility, had become a political tool in the rivalry between great powers.

The two world wars further accelerated the politicisation and weaponisation of telecommunications networks. While news, business and private messages were the critical forms of information that travelled over these networks during peace time, three other forms of information – propaganda, secrets and intelligence – would start to flow over the telegraph networks.

As the emerging power of that time, the US witnessed the adverse impact British capabilities and hegemony had on the Germans in World War I.

In 1914, the Americans had seen the British cable ship Alert cut off Germany’s five Atlantic submarine telegraph cables that linked Germany to France, Spain and the Azores, and onwards to the United States itself. In 1917, they had seen Germany retaliate by cutting a series of cables connecting Britain, Portugal and Gibraltar, using its U-Boats and submarines equipped with specialised cutting equipment.

Witnessing these events made real the “potential danger of the United States’ being isolated from places of commercial, political, or military significance”. Realising its own potential vulnerability, the US would begin the process of laying the foundation for its own strategic communications network. It would be this foundation that would, just in a few decades, “undergird the rise of the United States to global power in the mid-twentieth century”.

World War II was in many ways “a replay of World War I with more advanced technologies”. The British again used their mastery of communications – combined with skilled decryption technology this time – to penetrate Germany’s most secret codes and ciphers, even as the Americans did the same with Japan.

And the impact was equally significant. Famously, in 1945, as World War II came to a close, Winston Churchill stated that Bletchley Park (the precursor to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British intelligence agency equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA) responsible for communications decryption) had proven to be the deciding factor in the British victory.

With this historical context, it is not surprising then that today China is seeking to build its own Digital Silk Roads infrastructure as the foundation for its own emergence as a global power in the twenty-first century.

The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of Nations

Excerpted with permission from The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of Nations, Anirudh Suri, HarperCollins India.