The People’s Network

The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

Original, impressive, and a tremendous pleasure to read. The independent telephone movement has been utterly neglected by historians; with wide-ranging research, Robert MacDougall makes a persuasive case for its significance.
— Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age

The People’s Network won the 2016 Albert B. Corey Prize, jointly awarded by the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) for the best book in the last two years on the history of Canada and the United States.

The Bell System dominated telecommunications in the United States and Canada for most of the twentieth century, but its monopoly was never inevitable. In the decades around 1900, an extraordinary movement of ordinary people built their own telephone systems. Farmers, doctors, and small-town entrepreneurs created tens of thousands of these independent telephone companies, turning the telephone into a truly popular medium. When the Bell companies fought back, a fierce battle for control of the technology was joined.

But the battles over telephony a century ago were not only commercial contests. They involved crucial questions about how the emerging corporate order would be structured, and where commerce and information should flow. Great and abstract struggles—national markets versus local economies, big business versus small, and even existential questions about social and political identity—were fought by proxy over the telephone and its wires.

I’m very proud of this book and I hope it will find its readers. It tells what I think is a fascinating story, and it makes a subtle but important argument about the way political structures shape technology and even culture. It is a work of history, so I try not to belabor the parallels between the early days of telephony and the communications revolution of our time. But those parallels are certainly there. If you care about the politics of communication, if you wonder what lessons the past might hold for us today, if you were excited once about the democratizing power of the internet but now feel that optimism slipping away—then The People’s Network was written for you.