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THEMATIC CARTOGRAPHY / TELEGRAPHY: Reports from Mr. Malcolm J. Brown, of the General Post Office, London, upon the Working of the French, Belgian, and Swiss Telegraphic Systems, and upon the Regulations of the Vienna Convention. Zoom

THEMATIC CARTOGRAPHY / TELEGRAPHY: Reports from Mr. Malcolm J. Brown, of the General Post Office, London, upon the Working of the French, Belgian, and Swiss Telegraphic Systems, and upon the Regulations of the Vienna Convention.


Extremely rare – one of only two known examples – an intriguing report on the nature of the French, Belgian and Swiss Telegraph Systems, based upon a fact-finding mission undertaken by Malcolm J. Brown for the General Post Office in the immediate wake of Britain’s move to nationalize its internal telegraph system – containing three excellent, large thematic maps of telegraph systems of highly advanced designs – this example seemingly intended for an important recipient, as it is lavishly bound in full red morocco.

Author: Malcolm J. BROWN.
Place and Year: London: George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, for Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1870.
Code: 67210

4°: Collation Complete - 20 pp., plus 3 large folding chromolithographed maps, bound in contemporary full red morocco with blind-stamped tooling and title in gilt to front cover (Very Good, maps bright, clean and crisp, text with some sporadic toning and some pages coming a little loose, binding with wear at extremities and some light surface abrasions, overall a lovely example).


This extremely rare and fascinating work features three investigative reports on the French, Belgian and Swiss telegraph systems as they were in 1870.  The report was written by Malcolm J. Brown, a senior official of the British General Post Office (GPO) during a fact-finding tour of the relevant countries.  The internal telegraph system of Great Britain and Ireland had been nationalized in early 1870, giving responsibility for its operations to the GPO.  Malcolm’s mandate was to evaluate these three highly respected European telegraph systems to find out what worked well and what was not so great, to better prepare the leadership of the GPO for their new mandate.  Impressively, the reports are accompanied by three excellent, large thematic maps of highly advanced designs, detailing aspects of the telegraphic systems in question.  The present example of the work is lavishly bound in full red morocco, with gilt title and tooling, suggesting that it was made for an important recipient, perhaps a Cabinet Secretary. 

The work is divided into three self-contained sections, respectively focussing on the telegraphic systems of France, Belgium and Switzerland, which were all under government control.  Each report is written in the form of letter by Brown, addressed his superior at the GPO, Frank Ives Scudamore, from the capitals of each nation, on various dates in June and July 1870.  Each section provides a careful analysis of the national telegraph system in question, noting such factors as the number of stations, the annual volume of messages, the pricing for services, annual revenues, the size of the workforce and the bureaucratic nature of the organization in relation to the traditional postal system, as well as railway networks.  Brown freely expresses his opinion of what he thinks are the strengths of each national system, as well as pointing out mistakes or inefficiencies.  He also comments on the relevance of his findings to the “Vienna Convention”, being the Second International Telegraph Conference (1868), during which Western nations agreed to revise multi-national treaties with respect to telegraphs, including matters of tariffs and regulation. 

Far from being dry, technical documents, Brown’s reports are engagingly written, packed with fascinating, and in some cases surprising, details.  Each of the three sections are illustrated by fine chromolithographic maps especially published for the reports by the London firm of Vincent, Day & Company Lithographers.  

The first section, ‘Report on French System’ (pp. 3-7), provides a detailed evaluation of France’s internal telegraph network, which served a large, modern, industrialized state of a size like that of Britain.  Brown’s basic conclusion is that the French system is bogged down by heavy bureaucracy; however, it boasts some impressive technological innovations that could perhaps be adopted in Britain to improve its system. 

The report is accompanied by a Map of the Pneumatic System of Paris (33 x 62 cm), placed before p. 3, that details one of the most amazing communication innovations of the period.  The map depicts central Paris and with the 18.5 km-long system of pneumatic tubes that ran underneath the city’s streets.  The French Post office constructed a brilliant network of ‘tubes atmospheriques’, being tubes that used air pressure to transport messages contained in brass canisters between the various stations.  The map shows the cloverleaf-shaped network, centred upon the Bourse, and which extends as far north as the Gare du Nord, as far south as the Left Bank, as far west as the Champs Elysées, and as far east as the Château d’Eau.  Impressively, the system could transport messages across the entire network in under 12 minutes!

The second section, ‘Report on Belgian System’ (pp. 8-12), evaluates a network serving a small nation, but one that was very well-run with remarkably comprehensive coverage of the country.  The accompanying Carte du Réseau télégraphique de la Belgique 1868 (65.5 x 88 cm), located between pages 8 and 9, is a stunningly impressive, highly advanced work of thematic cartography.  The map lays out Belgium’s telegraph network in a manner like the ‘motherboard’ of a modern computer.  Telegraph messaging nodes appear in different sizes related to the volume of message traffic they handled, while the ‘flow lines’ between the nodes likewise correspond to traffic volume.   The present version of the map was specially made for the Brown’s report and is copied from a version of Belgian map of the same title and design.  The first edition of the antecedent map appears to have been devised by a Monsieur J. Champfleuri and published in Brussels in 1864.  We can trace other editions, published in that city, bf the firm of F. de Raedemaker, in 1866, 1871 and 1880.  All of the Belgian editions are exceedingly rare.  The thematic design of map of the Belgian telegraph system is extremely progressive, especially when you consider that it was made during the same period as Charles Joseph Minard’s legendary ‘flow maps’.

The third section ‘Report on Swiss System’ (pp. 13-20), showcases another small, yet impressively efficient, telegraph network.  The report is illustrated by the fascinating, bilingual Carte du Réseau Télégraphique Suisse dressée par la Direction des Télégraphes. Berne. Janvier 1867. / Karte des schweizerischen Telegraphennetzes zusammengestellt von der telegraph Direction. Bern, Januar 1867 (52 x 67.5 cm), located between pages 12 and 13, and while not as dramatically progressive in its design as the Belgian map, employs a very modern form of expression showing the telegraph lines running between nodes of various sizes regulated by the level of traffic.  The present map appears to be derived by a map of the same title which first appeared in C.A. Steinheil’s Instruktion für die Telegraphisten der Schweiz (Bern, 1861).  We note different, modified versions of the map bearing the same title printed in Bern in 1874 and 1900.

The author of the reports, Malcolm J. Brown served for some years as an official at the General Port Office in London before joining the colonial service, variously based in Lagos and Singapore.

The present work was likely published in only a very small print run, reserved exclusively for internal use by senior General Post Office officials and members of the British Cabinet.  We can trace only a single institutional example worldwide, held by the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Historical Context: The State Takes Control over Britain’s Internal Telegraph System – The First Privatization in British History

Up to 1870, the internal telegraph system of Great Britain & Ireland was owned and operated by a small number of private firms.  This was consistent with the general economy of Britain, whereby traditionally almost all services, not just those involving the communications sector, were controlled by private entities, as the Crown was almost obsessively reluctant to become involved, lest it incur financial liabilities.  

Britain’s internal telegraph system was one of most advanced, comprehensive and busiest in the world, carrying over 6.8 million messages per annum.  However, by the mid-1860s, both the public and the government had become deeply dissatisfied with the service.  Five firms controlled over 95% of the internal telegraph market, led by The Electric, which controlled just over 50%.  Prices for telegrams were rising steadily, while little new investment was being made towards upgrading equipment and constructing new lines.  People were paying more and more, day by day for service that was, at best, the same as always, while in some areas it was deteriorating as old equipment wore out.  This situation angered customers, hindered economic development, and posed a problem for the Crown, for which the telegraph system played vital role in its financial and military/security interests.  

It was eventually revealed that The Electric and its supposed ‘competitors’ had long been engaged in collusion and price-fixing, which was technically a terminal violation of their royal licenses.  The government now had the legal justification to pursue bold action.

Frank Ives Scudamore, the Second Secretary to the Postmaster General, organised the lobby to privatize Britain’s internal telegraph system, the realization of which would place the system under the operational control of the GPO, not to mention benefitting Scudamore’s own authority and career advancement. 

Parliament passed The Telegraph Act 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c.110), while called for the privatization of Britain’s entire internal telegraph system within two years.  Due to its involvement in market manipulation, the outgoing telegraph providers had no legal recourse to block this unprecedented legislation.  This act, reinforced by a series of follow-up bills, marked a watershed in the economic history of Britain, as it represented the first time that the Crown had ever assumed control of an industry that was previously in private hands.  This move was considered radical, and way ahead of its time, as the nationalization of industries and companies would not become popular until the 1930s. 

While Scudamore and the GPO leadership were delighted by their coup, which promised to revolutionize their organization’s mandate, not to mention increasing its revenues, they were concious of the fact that they had no experience running a telegraph system, considered to be one of the most complex industries in the world.  To gain enlightenment, Scudamore dispatched Malcolm J. Brown, one of the GPO’s brightest officials, to the Continent to undertake a fact-finding mission, and to report his discoveries.

As Roland Wenzlhuemer wrote in his fascinating recent article on the Swiss telegraph system:

“When the British inland telegraph system was nationa­lized and put under General Post Office (GPO) administration in early 1870, Frank Ives Scudamore, Second Secretary to the Postmaster General and mastermind behind the telegraph take-over, sent Mal­colm J. Brown of the GPO on a tour through continental Europe to investigate the telegraph systems of France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The choice of countries was certainly no coincidence. France was Great Britain’s counterpart on the mainland in terms of territory, population size and, not least, imperial ambitions. Belgium and Switzerland would have been unlikely models for the United Kingdom had it not been for their exemplary domestic telegraph systems.”

Malcom’s well-written and engaging report was surely welcomed by Scudamore and his superiors at Whitehall, as it contained valuable intelligence and advice for the GPO’s management of its new telegraph monopoly moving forward.

References: OCLC: 77319738 (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign); Roland Wenzlhuemer, ‘“Supplying The Public With A Comprehensive Telegraph System”: Switzerland And Telegraphic Communication, 1860-1915’, Global Europe – Basel Papers on Europe on a Global Perspective, no. 106 (Basle: Universität Basel, 2014), esp. p. 14; The London Quarterly Review, vol. 39 (London, 1873), p. 288.  Cf. C.R. Perry, ‘The Rise and Fall of Government Telegraphy in Britain’, Business and Economic History, vol. 26, no. 2 (Winter 1997), pp. 416-25.