Network Neutrality

Switzerland’s role in the genesis of the Telegraph Union, 1855–1875

by Gabriele Balbi (Author) Simone Fari (Author) Giuseppe Richeri (Author) Spartaco Calvo (Author)
©2014 Monographs 227 Pages


This book uses new sources to indepth the early history of the Telegraph Union (today the International Telecommunication Union) and focuses on the key role – political, diplomatic, economic and technical – Switzerland played in promoting its birth and managing its structures during the ten years preceding and following its creation (1855–1875). The history of the ITU tends to be neglected in telecommunication history and the role of Switzerland in its formation and management has been largely overlooked. This is surprising for three reasons: first, it was (and still is) the seat of the Bureau; second, until World War Two the secretary was a Swiss national; finally, the Bureau was under the direct control of the Swiss government. The main statement of this book is that the political economy of Switzerland, based on neutrality, diplomacy, internationalism and technical expertise, exerted a decisive influence over the origins of the ITU.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Cite
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 – Switzerland takes on Telecommunications. The Politics, Economics, Technology and Society of the Period
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 The beginnings of telecommunications in Switzerland
  • 1.2 Federalism and democracy
  • 1.3 Neutrality and defence
  • 1.4 Geography and international relations
  • 1.5 Liberalism and telecommunications
  • 1.6 Foreign trade
  • 1.7 Radicalism and telecommunications
  • 1.8 Know-how and technical elite
  • 1.9 National and international interests
  • Chapter 2 – “Bringing Together the Two Large Electric Currents Dividing Europe” (1849–1865)
  • Introduction
  • 2.1 Bilateral conventions
  • 2.2 The Austro-German Union
  • 2.3 The Western European Union
  • 2.4 En route to convergence
  • 2.5 Paris 1855: the birth of WETU
  • 2.6 Turin 1857: the invite to Austria
  • 2.7 Stuttgart 1857 and Brussels 1858
  • 2.8 Berne 1858: an attempt to clone Stuttgart
  • 2.9 Friedrichshafen 1858: Switzerland holding the balance
  • 2.10 Bregenz 1863: a European Union in view
  • 2.11 Switzerland’s solutions
  • 2.12 Diplomacy and imbroglio in the 1850s and 1860s
  • Chapter 3 – The Birth of the Telegraph Union: the 1865 Paris Conference
  • Introduction
  • 3.1 Austria’s presence
  • 3.2 The Federal Council calls the tune
  • 3.3 Louis Curchod emerging
  • 3.4 Switzerland scores
  • 3.5 Switzerland beefs up
  • Chapter 4 – The 1868 Vienna Conference
  • Introduction
  • 4.1 A special agent for international telegraphy
  • 4.2 Challet-Venel decodes Curchod
  • 4.3 The anti-dumping regulation
  • 4.4 The debate over the Bureau
  • 4.5 Swiss reactions
  • 4.6 Organization and ambiguity
  • Chapter 5 – Towards Rome Conference: Moves and Counter-moves (1868–1872)
  • Introduction
  • 5.1 Replacing Curchod
  • 5.2 The Bureau as a peacemaker
  • 5.3 Briefing the Swiss delegate(s) for Rome
  • 5.4 The German move to snaffle the Bureau
  • 5.5 The Germans at work
  • 5.6 The Bureau left in Swiss hands
  • 5.7 Swiss reactions
  • Chapter 6 – The Bureau cratisation of the Telegraph Union: St Petersburg (1875)
  • Introduction
  • 6.1 Continuity and change
  • 6.2 Curchod mentoring the Russian delegate
  • 6.3 The Bureau-cratic system
  • 6.4 The separation of the ways
  • 6.5 The Bureau as a Swiss body
  • Conclusions
  • References


Over the years in which we have been involved working on such a specific, complicated and complex research we have collected many debts of both an intellectual and material level. We would like to thank in particular Verdiana Grossi, Andrea Giuntini, Jakob Tanner, David Gugerli, all the scholars on the panel at the SHOT Conference in Cleveland 2011 (Richard R. John, Peter A. Shulman, Heidi J. S. Tworek, Andrew J. Butrica and Graeme J. N. Gooday) and in a workshop held at Maastricht in 2012 (especially Andreas Fickers and Pascal Griset) for their precious advice. Without the help and readiness of kind archivists this book would perhaps be different – and we feel worse. We have debts with Ronny Trachsel, Madeleine Burri and Heike Bazak of the Historic Archives and Library of the PTT, Juri Jaquemet of the Museum für Kommunikation in Berne, Christine Lauener of the Swiss Federal Archives, Heather Heywood of the ITU Archives and all the personnel of the Biblioteca Universitaria di Lugano. Particular thanks to Rita Deiana Brügger, for her attentive bio-bibliographical research on some of the main figures in the research. Always in Lugano, we would like to thank the Research Service USI-SUPSI, in the phase preceding the writing of the project and for their help in submitting it. Our greatest debt is to the Swiss National Fund, which financed our project right from the beginning. Without its help and backing this research would certainly never have seen the light. ← 9 | 10 →


← 10 | 11 →



The long-term project

In 2009 a research group at the Institute of Media and Journalism of the Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, set up a long-term project entitled “The Swiss Influence in the ITU’s decision-making process 1865–1914”. As the title suggests, the aim was to analyze the role played by Switzerland in the creation, early years of development and decision-making processes of the Telegraph Union (nowadays known as the International Telecommunication Union), bringing together political, economic, technical and cultural points of view. The first years of research carried out by the closely-knit team composed of Gabriele Balbi, Simone Fari, Giuseppe Richeri and Spartaco Calvo resulted in the presentation of numerous papers at conferences and publication in scientific journals1. The rationale of the present volume is partly to collect all these experiences into an organic whole while at the same time drawing on the debates and discussions coming out of the various conferences, suggestions for changes from various peer reviews, as well as the support of a considerable amount of inedited material. ← 11 | 12 →

Methodology and main sources

The main methodology backing our approach is multifocal, i.e. it holds that in order to understand fully the social construction of the media and telecommunications, equal consideration must be given to the political, economic, technical and social features contributing to the formation of the object in study. A methodology like this is particularly appropriate when analysing telecommunications, complex structures calling for careful and multiform reflection by all the social components that regulate, realize and use them2. It needs to be said, too, that the reference discipline governing this volume is the political economy of communication, which analyses how the structuring presence of the state influences business strategies or, in other words, how constitutive choices made by politics influence media development (Starr 2004, John 2010). The political economy of communication tends to be associated with national politics because states often have different ideas about the ways in which they want to control, develop or limit communications.

This project aims to interface a political economy background with international politics and identify European constitutive choices concerning telecommunications. We hypothesize that Switzerland carried out a decisive role in stimulating and guiding established objectives, i.e. the creation of an international organization able to regulate telecommunications traffic – or in our period essentially electric telegraphy – on a continental level.

The historical analysis was carried out on both primary and secondary sources. A fundamental role was indeed played by the correspondence and commissions set up by the Swiss Federal Council, ← 12 | 13 → whose federal papers we consulted with care3. Also important were the Swiss government and parliament documents on the international conferences and reunions on telegraphy which took place in various seats between the mid-1850s and mid-1870s, now available in the Swiss Federal Archives, Bern4; documents of the Swiss Post and Telegraph Department conserved in the PTT History Archive and Library in Bern5; lastly the minutes of the international telegraph conferences and correspondence among the representatives of the Telegraph Union, conserved at the ITU Library and Archives in Geneva6.

Next to the primary sources guiding our reconstruction of the story of the telegraph, we quite naturally turned to secondary sources. However, with the exception of two articles by Verdiana Grossi7, Switzerland’s role in the process of creation and institutionalization of the Union has been almost ignored and therefore there little help was forthcoming. However, there are works which have investigated the role that other nations played in the international organization of telecommunications, most particularly France and the United States8. This book is therefore a ← 13 | 14 → first attempt to collocate Switzerland – then a new starter – at the centre of an analysis of the origins of the first international organization.

Reference literature

Besides filling a scientific gap in evaluating Switzerland’s influence on the Telegraph Union, this volume also intends to contribute to a wider-reaching scientific literature dealing principally with the history of European communications and institutions regulating them.

Firstly, our research marks a further step towards the creation of a European media history and seeks to integrate in some ways with recent researches on European television history9. Though European media history is an emerging field of studies10, years ago the crucial role of communication infrastructures in “Networking Europe” was placed at the heart of the matter by a group of technology historians, gravitating around the “Tensions of Europe Association”11. In particular, this work ← 14 | 15 → group sees telecommunications not only as an infrastructure network but also as a decisive tool in developing the so-called “hidden integration” process12 which some hold to have begun in Europe back in the nineteenth century, way back therefore before the idea of any European Union came to the fore. Among the material structures influencing the practices and definitions of Europe, telecommunications and particularly the telegraph hold indeed an important position, while the Telegraphic Union is recognized as the first institution to conceive the idea of a European space. Investigating the origins of this institution means therefore tracing the idea of European integration via communication, which as this volume shows, is contained in a Swiss project of the early 1850s.

Other authors in “Networking Europe” see a fundamental role of smaller nations as linking agents in Europe, not only in the realm of communications, especially because of the recognized experience of their technical cadres13. Our book in a certain sense offers a backing to this viewpoint, reflecting over the importance and excellence of the Swiss technocrats, especially Louis Curchod, who became the first head of the International Bureau of the Telegraph Administration, the managing body of the International Telegraph Union.

Linked again with the “Tensions of Europe” tradition, there is a second field of research which this book aims to be part of – the transnational approach. The term “transnational” has a long, complex ← 15 | 16 → and contested history in many political and academic contexts14, not excluding the history of technology15. A transnational approach to the study of infrastructures such as communication networks deals with flows over national borders, the international institutions regulating them, supranational economic powers, the circulation of ideas and people through media that cannot be circumscribed by national spaces. Our text aims at reconstructing an unprecedented history of the first transnational institution dealing with regulating communication between various nations and also showing the masterly way the Swiss regulated and ran these flows of transnational communication.

A third developing strand of research into which our text can be drawn is that of the history of international organizations16, in particular in their functions as political/economic coordinators and technological/social standardisers. Here our focus is on non-governmental institutional players capable of guiding political bodies like national governments or economic ones like big companies. Though the Telegraph Union was the first ever international organization, it has had scarce mention in this field. There are indeed the works of a commemorative nature published by the Union itself, but historical objectivity often takes a back seat to the self-celebratory reconstruction of events17. The most important ← 16 | 17 → scientific studies on the Telegraph Union are, instead, by law and political sciences scholars focusing above all on the internal functioning of the Union itself18. Only in more recent times has the attention of scholars turned to the institutions of the Union, its functions and more importantly for our discourse the international regulation of telecommunications19. Achieving technical, regulatory and tariff standardization, was indeed a major accomplishment, with economic, social and technical effects which so far scholars have all but ignored. Our book hopes to redress at least in part this situation by studying Switzerland’s role in creating a transnational institution capable of regulating communications on a European and then world level. ← 17 | 18 →

The contents of the book

The book contains six chapters. Chapter 1 analyses the Swiss approach to telecommunications during the nineteenth century, highlighting features of political economy, economics and the technological background as well as the Swiss promotion of the system of telecommunications on a national level. Chapter 2 examines the ten years leading up to the creation of the Telegraph Union, the early need to communicate on an international level and the formation of the two unions, which thanks to Swiss mediation converged and merged into the Telegraph Union. It was right in the mid-fifties that the Federal Council and some top telegraph managers thought up the idea of a common European space. Chapter 3 tells of the foundation of the TU at the 1865 Paris International Conference and the leading role Switzerland obtained within the new body thanks to the skills of Louis Curchod, its delegate. Chapter 4 focuses on the 1868 Vienna International Conference which approved the Curchod/Swiss government project for the creation of an international bureau to regulate the Telegraph Union. Since the Bureau was set up at Bern, on Swiss soil, and placed under the Swiss Postal Department, it was tantamount to being under the Swiss government. And the first head was, as can be imagined, Curchod. Chapter 5 reviews the debates at the 1872 Rome Conference, particularly the attempt to snatch control of the Bureau which not only failed, but strengthened the Federal Council’s hold. Chapter 6 focuses principally on the 1875 St Petersburg Conference and illustrates to perfection how the Bureau was able to influence international communications and decide the dynamics of its regulations. The conclusion rounds off the discourse with Swiss specialisms and other features of a political, economic and technical nature which all contributed to taking the country to the head of such an important institutional body. ← 18 | 19 →


  1   G. Balbi et al., “Swiss specialties: Switzerland’s role in the genesis of the Telegraph Union, 1855–1875,” Journal of European Integration History, 19/2 (2013); G. Balbi et al., “Specialità svizzere. L’influenza della Confederazione elvetica sull’origini dell’Unione Telegrafica, 1855–1875,” Tst: Transportes, Servicios y telecomunicaciones, 25(2013); S. Calvo et al., “La voie suisse aux télécommunications. Politique, économie, technologie et société (1850–1915),” Revue Suisse d’Histoire 61/4 (2011); G. Balbi et al., “‘Bringing together the two large electric currents that divide Europe’: Switzerland’s Role in Promoting the Creation of a Common European Telegraph Space, 1849–1865,” ICON 15 (2009).

  2   N. Rosenberg, Exploring the black box: technology, economics, and history (Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); C. Sterling, P. Bernt and M. B. H. Weiss, Shaping American telecommunications: a history of technology, policy and economics (Mahwah, New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006); G. Balbi, “Studying the Social History of Telecommunications. Between Anglophone and Continental Tradition,” Media History, 15/1, 2009.

  3   See <http://www.amtsdruckschriften.bar.admin.ch/setLanguage.do?lang=FR&currWebPage=searchHome>, last access 3 November 2013.

  4   See <http://www.bar.admin.ch/index.html?lang=en>, last access 3 November 2013.

  5   See <http://www.mfk.ch/pttarchivbibliothek.html?&L=2>, last access 3 November 2013.

  6   See <http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/LibraryAndArchives.aspx>. For the typologies of documents kept in this archive see a note by Gabriele Balbi and Simone Fari available on <http://unhistoryproject.org/research/research_experiences-balbi.html>, last access 3 November 2013.

  7   See V. Grossi, “Le rôle international de personnalités suisses du XIXe siècle dans le domaine des télégraphes,” Hispo, Octobre 1984 and “Technologie et diplomatie suisse au XIXe Siècle,” Relations internationales 39 (1984).

  8   In the case of France see L. Laborie (La France, l’Europe et l’ordre International des communications, 1865–1959, Thèse pour le Doctorat en histoire contemporaine, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, 2006), while the works of M. L. B. Feldman (The United States in the International Telecommunication Union and in Pre-ITU conferences: Submarine Cables, Overland Telegraph, Sea and Land Radio, Telecommunications (Baton Rouge: printed autonomously, 1974) and A. Rutkowski & W. P. Dizard (“The International Telecommunication Union and the United States: partners of rivals?” In International Telecommunications and information Policy. Washington: Communications Pr., 1984) witness the American contribution, especially after WWII.

  9   See for example J. Bignell and A. Fickers (eds.), A European television history (Malden MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); J. Bourdon, Du service public à la télé-réalité. Une histoire culturelle des télévisions européennes, 1950–2010 (Paris: INA Éd. 2011).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
history political economy diplomacy influence
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 227 pp., num. fig.

Biographical notes

Gabriele Balbi (Author) Simone Fari (Author) Giuseppe Richeri (Author) Spartaco Calvo (Author)

Gabriele Balbi is Assistant Professor at the Università della Svizzera italiana (Switzerland); Simone Fari is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Granada (Spain); Giuseppe Richeri is Full Professor at the Università della Svizzera italiana; Spartaco Calvo works at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI).


Title: Network Neutrality
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