How Long Until They Knew Who Won The Battles?
June 20, 2015 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in better understanding the rate at which data transmission has increased through human history. I would like to graph this to understand better how to compare ancient events with modern based on how long it would take an idea to filter through a population at a given time. I know this is a tall order, and so I've settled on one variable that I think will be useful for me: the speed at which the results of a battle were relayed back to the relevant parties.

The classic example is, of course, the legend of Pheidippides reporting the Battle of Marathon to Athens. But in the recent movie Lincoln, for example, the President waits beside a telegraph machine to learn of an important outcome. That makes for a cool little comparison, I think.

I recognize there are flaws in this method, and that historical accounts aren't necessarily accurate. This question is not about methodology, just data points.

So, if you know of any similar stories to what I'm describing, I would be delighted to hear them!
posted by jefficator to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Battle of Waterloo was fought 18 June 1815. News arrived in London in the late evening of 21 June 1815. It was published and semaphored the next day, becoming generally known in London by midday.
posted by Thing at 2:59 PM on June 20, 2015

-- The atomic bombing of Hiroshima took about 3 hours to be confirmed by the Japanese military, and ~20 minutes to hear of it in the first place - link. A counterpoint might be how long it took for Truman, then Stalin and Churchill, to hear of the bombing.

-Another interesting data point would be that many viewers all over the world were able to watch the second plane hit the World Trade Center live, and subsequently watch the collapse; it's also known how long it took Bush to be told.

--Although it's not a "who won the battle" and more of a "should the battle have been fought in the first place", a famous example regarding timing of communication is the Battle of New Orleans (actually a series of battles), which commenced the very day the peace treaty ending the war itself was signed* in Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814, and didn't end until mid January 1815 when the British forces retreated; the British were preparing to attack Mobile in February when they finally heard of the peace treaty. There's some historical details questioning how "needless" the battle actually was, but as a data point for information transfer it works.

*Although not yet ratified by by the US gov't. until February, it did call for cessation of hostilities.
posted by barchan at 3:00 PM on June 20, 2015

The battle of Trafalgar occurred on Oct 21st 1805. A series of dispatches to London followed, giving various levels of detail but news reached the Admiralty in London on November 6th, supposedly at the same time from two different sources - a rider who had come ashore at Falmouth, Cornwall and who rode to London in 37 hours (21 horses, pretty quick at the time), and one who had come ashore further up the Channel. Look up Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere if you are interested in more details.

One issue with your methodology is distance from the battle to the 'significant' recipient of the news (and their identity). Also, what factors start to emerge as you get to the point of near instantaneous transmission?
posted by biffa at 4:21 PM on June 20, 2015

Paul Revere's Midnight Ride occurred at the speed of horseback ride.
posted by andoatnp at 6:03 PM on June 20, 2015

The east coast of the United States is six hours ahead of Hawaii. The Pearl Harbor attack occurred early in the morning on Sunday, December 7. While most people heard the news via radio reports, by the time the news had spread, some newspapers' morning editions had already been put to bed. The NY Times didn't get its coverage going until the "late city" p.m. edition for Dec. 8, which means it was the very last print run for that day. And, as you can read from the coverage, they don't have much detail from the scene. For example, only the battleship Oklahoma is mentioned to be on fire, when actually four battleships were sunk and four more damaged. Loss of life in the attack turned out to be 30x greater than this first report. And, in the second paragraph, there's an erroneous report that German forces were involved.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:34 PM on June 20, 2015

The answer will vary a lot depending not only on communications technologies available but their geographical extent and density. In his lengthy book Im Zeichen des Merkur. Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der frühen Neuzeit (2003; there's an English synopsis by the author in German History, vol. 24, no. 3, 2006), the German historian Wolfgang Behringer argues that the period from c. 1500-1800 saw a significant communications revolution in western and central Europe that saw, first, the establishment of a permanent system of postal routes in the territories controlled by the Habsburg dynasty; second, the creation of similar networks by other European powers; and third, the creation of networks of post coaches beginning around the middle of the 17th century. If you lived close to those networks, ordinary news could go from place to place in a week or two. But if you lived far from them, it might take many more weeks.

In his classic book on the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel offered a map of how long it took letters to reach various places, starting in Venice, in the early modern period. While not as thorough as Behringer's work, Braudel's figures showed that major cities like Paris and London were, in terms of communication, a lot closer to Venice than some places only half as far away as the crow flies.

The same is true elsewhere. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, praised the Persian system of post carriers and roads for its swiftness; imperial China had similar systems, as did the Roman empire with its cursus publicus. However, these ancient systems were reserved for official use, whereas the early modern European post, and the modern postal systems that developed out of it, were open to anyone who could afford postage (initially charged by weight and distance, and paid in most cases by the recipient, not the sender, until the penny post was introduced in England in 1840).

Basically, the major technological improvements in speed before the 20th century involved (1) regular post networks with horses and stables available for riders to change; (2) better roads, intended for coaches, that also allowed riders on horseback to go faster; (3) semaphores and light telegraphs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; (4) railroads, from the 1830s; (5) land-based telegraphy from the 1830s; and (6) underwater and transoceanic telegraphy from the 1850s (short distances) and 1860s (transatlantic). You could add clipper ships and steam-powered ships, too, since due to the expense, the telegraph network was not very dense outside of Europe and the east coast of the US.

I realize this isn't a direct answer to the question that you posed, but I think it gets at the larger question. I don't think that the outcome of battles is necessarily the best metric for the larger question, because belligerents have a lot invested in military outcomes and are willing to spend a lot (relatively speaking) for quick information. Then there's the issue of how news disseminates beyond the recipients—by word of mouth, broadsheet flyers, or (from the 18th century) newspapers, when it isn't censored by the recipient, that is.

More generally speaking, too many general accounts of the history of technology don't spend enough time on its geographical spread, and the limits to it, which are increasingly important as technologies become large interconnected systems. I can take my iPhone out of my pocket and make calls halfway around the world—as long as I'm close to a cell tower and have access to electricity to keep the phone charged, and the person I'm calling is in the same situation.

But a couple of anecdotes. The late medieval French chronicler Jean Froissart mentions the story of one French king who wrote with a companion from the south of France to Paris in four days, which was considered phenomenal.

When Charles Darwin was on the west coast of South America in the late 1830s, and then in Australia, letters between him and his sisters in Shropshire took about 5 months each way.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:34 PM on June 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Brianogilvie, you've hit upon some great points. I arbitrarily chose the data point that I did because of your precise point: belligerents had enough at stake that they would have transmitted information in the fastest form possible.

I can make a phone call to Beijing and have. That collapses distances in an unprecedented way. I think we don't even notice "distance" as a variable in certain equations any longer, and I feel that will only grow. (If I can download and "print" a spare part for a tractor and no longer have to wait for the object to reach me from a factory, then I've taken distance out of another equation for all practical purposes.
posted by jefficator at 8:47 AM on June 22, 2015

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