Book Review- "The Story of Telecommunications" by George P. Oslin

Mercer University Press. Macon, Georgia. 1992
HE7631.082 1992
384 OS

Review by Gregory S. Raven
July 6, 1997

George P. Oslin was born in 1899, and he was 93 years old when his book "The Story of Telecommunications" was published. Mr. Oslin's early career included work at several newspapers as a journalist. His 35 year long career as public relations director for Western Union provided his strong ties to the communications industry which allowed him to write this incredible book. Mr. Oslin was the inventor of the "singing telegram", which originated as a publicity stunt to foster more common use of Western Union's telegram service by the general public.

If one word could be used to describe this book, it would be "comprehensive". The span of this work is just incredible, especially considering the level of detail which it contains. Mr. Oslin was born at the right time to capture firsthand an incredible period in the history of telecommunications. His career overlapped the Morse telegraph right up to satellites and widespread use of computers. His book covers telecommunications from a very strong US perspective, however, he acknowledges foreign innovators without reservation where credit is due.

As I am writing this review for my "Telegraph Lore" web page, it should be noted that Mr. Oslin's coverage of the Morse telegraph is outstanding. In fact nearly half of the book is devoted to early telegraphic efforts, including good coverage of the Atlantic cables.

Two chapters focus on the early business aspects of the telegraph industry, and as such they are reminescent of Thompson's "Wiring a Continent". This boils down to who did what to whom, and as such is not particularly interesting to a technologist like myself. It would be interesting to a researcher investigating the pure business aspects of a telecommunications industry.

Oslin's interviews with the principals of early communications is fascinating. He spoke with the last surviving pony express rider, and spent some time interviewing Thomas Edison. He was apparently on speaking terms with several US presidents.

The detail provided by Mr. Oslin is remarkable. The footnotes at the end of each chapter are quite fascinating to read in themselves. In these footnotes I found a lead on the remarkable story of Franklin L. Pope, the somewhat mysterious inventor and patent attorney who often turns up when researching the development of telegraph instruments. Also found in the footnotes is the origin of the popular expression "OK".

A fascinating chapter describes the Russian-American expedition which intended to build a telegraph line to Europe via Russian Siberia after the failure of the first transatlantic cable failed. This is an incredible story which had an enormous impact on the United States in spite of the project's abandonment after the second cable attempt was successful.

Relatively little material covers the early invention and proliferation of the telephone. This is forgivable since telephone history is covered extensively in other books while the telegraph has seen much less coverage especially in recent years. Also relatively weak is the coverage of wireless and early radio, which again is forgivable considering the volumes of material already published on this subject.

The book covers the history of modern telecommunications as it began early in the 20th century. The story is very complex and confusing at times. Oslin's book mimics the actual events, as telegraph, telephone, and radio technology was advancing at a pace equal to that of today's computer and data industry. Oslin completes the story by discussing the interaction of the companies with the US federal government, and he discusses the positive and negative outcomes of this relationship in great detail.

Facsimile was close to Mr. Oslin, as it was perfected by Western Union. He even coined the name for the first practical business facsimile machine, the "Desk Fax".

The book covers microwave and satellites. Western Union was an early adopter of both of these technlogies.

Oslin's coverage of technical subjects is remarkable for a journalist. The few errors I detected were minor. His grasp of communications technlogy right up to the computer network was remarkable, especially considering most of the material on modern computers had to be written when he was in his 90s.

A good deal of material is spent on the dissolution of Western Union and AT&T, which once again, is boring material to a technologist like myself, but it appears to be a complete coverage of a very complicated story.

This book is a must read for a person interested in either the evolution of communications technology or the impact of this technology on society. The text is thoroughly footnoted, and also include numerous fascinating photos and drawings. For Morse telegraph fans there is plenty of material, and even some photos of Vibroplex bugs in use. "The Story of Telecommunications" is an astonishing volume of information written by a man who witnessed what was perhaps the most important period in telecommunications history.

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