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Cyrus Field in Rome (1871)

Introduction: In 1871 Cyrus Field was invited to speak at the International Telegraphic Conference in Rome, where he presented his views on nationalization and globalization of the telegraph system. Below is the text of his speech, reproduced from a document in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. See also Field's 1886 article on Government Telegraphy.
--Bill Burns

Remarks of Mr CYRUS W. FIELD, at the International
Telegraphic Conference. Rome December 28th 1871.

Mr President & Gentlemen,

In attending this Conference on the invitation of the Italian Government, I cannot forget that it was an immortal Genoese who forged a link between Italy and America which can never be broken; and also, that, in meeting the Representatives of a re-united Italy in the ancient Capital of the world, an American naturally feels that Rome is no longer "the lone mother of Empires," but is the majestic source whence light and freedom are diffused through all the provinces of the kingdom. So much perhaps an American citizen may be permitted to say, before entering upon a few of the practical points which I desire to propose for the consideration of this Conference.

1. The neutrality of Telegraphs in time of war is one of those problems which cannot be settled either by philanthropy or by sentiment - probably every civilized Government has felt that, whatever, from an abstract point of view, it might desire to do, imperious necessity (as in the American Civil war and in the late European war) may override every other consideration. It must therefore be admitted that when unhappily a state of war arises, Government will exercise the power to deal with Telegraphs as with steam-boats and railways. But surely this power of interference may be limited by certain well defined restrictions. The destruction of Telegraphic Cables should be condemned as an act of barbarism and be strictly prohibited by the law of nations. On the other hand a belligerent under the plea of military necessity will not forgo the right, to control the Telegraphs in his own or in the enemy's country. But at the same time, the transmission of private messages which are in themselves not dangerous is a privilege that may safely be conceded under proper regulations. In civilized warfare, thanks to enlightened statesmen like the lamented Cobden, the duty of exhibiting as much humanity and forbearance towards private Citizens as possible is now generally recognized, although unfortunately this principle heretofore has been only imperfectly applied. But manifestly private messages, if they contain nothing to which a belligerent need object, may safely enjoy immunity at the hands of the military authorities. Moreover a Convention between the powers should secure, so far as human compacts or agreements can secure anything, the absolute safety of every Telegraph whether on the land above or in the sea beneath. A hundred arguments might be advanced in support of this proposition, but I need only mention the powerful one that a Telegraph may be the means of making or accelerating the making of peace between the combatants. In a treaty between Italy and the United States, the ratification of which was exchanged at Washington last month, the principle of inviolability of private property on the high seas in time of war was for the first time consecrated in an Official International Act.

2. The exclusive right to lay a cable between two Foreign Countries should not be given without the joint consent of the respective Governments. It is a mere truism to say that a Government cannot impart rights which it does not itself possess. In other words, it is impossible for a State to grant to private persons privileges which it would never dream of exercising in its Sovereign capacity. It is absurd to suppose that A has a right to connect its territories with those of B, still less to connect them though the agency of C without the full consent of B and on such terms as the latter may be willing to agree to.

The president of the United States in his message to Congress on the 4th of this month used the following language: "especially do I recommend favorable consideration of the plan for uniting the telegraph system of the United States with the postal system. It is believed that by such a course the cost of telegraphing could be much reduced, and the service as well, if not better, rendered. It would secure the further advantage of extending the telegraph through portions of the country where private enterprise will not construct it. Commerce, trade, and above all the efforts to bring a people widely separated into community of interest, are always benefited by a rapid inter-communication."

Excepting in the United States, the principal land lines of the world are the property of the State and are worked for the benefit of the state, i.e. the benefit of the great body of the people, whose interests are thus effectually secured. A Telegraphic monopoly in the hands of the State is held for the advantage of the entire community and is therefore not exposed to those fluctuations and vicissitudes which are inseparable from the management of a private speculative enterprise. If it is desirable that land lines should not he held by private persons, it is not the less desirable that submarine Cables should be vested in the Governments whose territories are thus electrically united, and perhaps the day is not distant when the work of providing and maintaining International Telegraphs will be no more left to private enterprise than the ordinary postal arrangements between foreign Countries, and when, moreover, it will be seen that this method combines the elements of efficiency and cheapness.

So long however as the world is dependent on private enterprise for submarine communication, it is important that the utmost liberty should be given to the management of the Companies.

3. There is another point which is entirely within the province of this Conference and which demands serious attention. It is unnecessary to bring forward illustrations, the fact being notorious that on the continent of Europe the transmission of messages between two adjoining Kingdoms or States is made the subject of an extra tax wholly disproportioned to the charge levied on messages sent between different parts of the. same country. In fact an arbitrary charge is imposed on the message because it happens to pass from the limits of one country into those of another, whereas the only sound principle is that the International charge should be at all events no more than the local tariffs of the two Countries. Thus for example: if a message is sent from France to Switzerland, the ordinary French and Swiss rates should be charged but no additional levy should be, made. All experience shews that the establishment of a uniform rate, instead of being injurious, is highly, beneficial to the revenue. The present system is costly and vexatious to the public without being remunerative to the countries which are supposed to profit by it. The tariffs should lie as low as is possible consistent with keeping all the lines in perfect order, having the business performed in the most efficient and accurate manner, laying aside annually a sufficient sum to rebuild the land lines or relay the cables, and pay a fair interest on the capital invested.

4. As I have good reason to hope that before this Conference meets again the Telegraphic circuit of the Globe will have been completed by the laying of a cable between the United States, Japan, the Eastern provinces of the Russian Empire, and China, I am naturally the more anxious to submit to the Conference my views on these important International questions.

5. Lastly, I would express the earnest hope that the Conference will recommend to the various Governments which it represents the desirability of embodying the first and second proposals I have had the honor to make, in an International treaty. If this be done I believe another step will have been taken in the onward march of Civilization.


The original document, courtesy of Library of Congress,
Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Copyright © 2007 FTL Design

Last revised: 30 November, 2008

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