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Connections, Communications, and Technological Change across the British Empire, 1780-1914 (HI2D8-15)

Unknown artist. Sikh Railway Train. ca. 1870. Woodcut print on paper. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Convenor: Callie Wilkinson

Office: H3.46 (Humanities Building, Third Flour)

Office Hours: Thursdays 12-2pm and on appointment


Seminar Time and Location: Fridays 3-5pm, H0.44

Module Description

This 15 CATS second-year option module investigates the history of global connections through the lens of the nineteenth-century British Empire. At its height, the British Empire encompassed nearly a quarter of the world's land surface, its reach extending from Calcutta to Cape Town, from Montreal to Melbourne. The flow of people, goods, and ideas between these distant places was seemingly facilitated by the introduction of steamships, railways, and the electric telegraph, alongside important reforms in the postal service and the emergence of international news agencies. Yet, how far did these innovations live up to their promise? Who profited from these new infrastructures, and who lost out? How were relationships between people and places affected by the media through which information circulated? In short, how connected was the nineteenth-century world really?

With these questions in mind, the first half of the module will focus on changing technologies of transportation and communication. We will explore the possibilities and limitations of nineteenth-century technologies, as well as the forms of labour on which they relied and the sites of interaction which they created or sustained. The second half of the module will focus on the material forms in which information circulated, using artefacts such as letters, newspapers, and photographs to reflect on how transregional connections were shaped by media and material culture.

Throughout the module, we will critically examine narratives of modernization, technological determinism, and globalization, as well as engaging with prevailing historiographical trends which conceive of the British Empire as a web or network. We will be concerned as much with identifying frictions or disconnections as we will be with understanding how transregional linkages were established or maintained. These insights are just as applicable to the twenty-first century as they are to the nineteenth, and may help us to view our own 'Information Age' in a new light.