2024 Sophie FitzMaurice (University of California, Berkeley), “The Material Telegraph: An Environmental History of the Technology that Wired America, c. 1848-1920"


In this imaginative, beautifully researched dissertation Sophie FitzMaurice has expanded our understanding of one of the modern world’s most consequential yet understudied developments. The telegraph, by liberating information from the limits of human movement, created a new economic, social and cultural environment that continues to evolve in today’s world of the internet and social media.

Some of the telegraph’s implications come readily to mind, but FitzMaurice has thoroughly explored one not so obvious—its transformative effect on the physical world, from national resources to the material tone of everyday life. In binding the continent into its copper web, its builders bit deeply into the cottonwoods and cedars of the already tree-poor plains and Great Basin, helping to disrupt fragile ecologies and to hasten the subjugation of Native peoples. Among FitzMaurice’s more striking revelations is her detailing of the telegraph’s environmental impact on the nation’s expanding cities, shown most vividly in the dense maze of wires forming the familiar canopy of urban life.

Beyond such tangible effects, FitzMaurice makes the telegraph’s story one of an emerging corporate culture whose priorities and decisions baldly sacrificed vital resources to its interests. More broadly this communication revolution was utterly essential to the mass extraction of national resources, from copper to cotton to timber, and to the unprecedented environmental convulsions that became a defining trait of the age.

Among the pleasures of reading fine history is the discovery of connections among seemingly far-distant changes. Here we learn that the telegraph’s needs led to breakthroughs in ornithology and avian biology, inspired by a classic instance of unforeseen consequences—the threat of woodpeckers to the globalizing power of wires and poles. FitzMaurice’s blending of science, economics, environmental analysis, and revolutionizing technologies makes her dissertation a welcome chapter in the modernization of the nation and the world.

FitzMaurice earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley under the direction of Professor Brian DeLay. She is now a Research Fellow, Centre for History and Economics, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge.