H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

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