“The Invisible Empire” by Rens Jean-Guy


The Invisible Empire: A History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada in 1846-1956 by Rens Jean-Guy and Kathe Roth.

The book attempts to create the historical skeleton of the modern information and technology cultures, dating back from the mid-19th century to the emergence of the digital age with Canada at its core. Closely captured in the trail of presentation is Canada’s contribution to the development of the established communication-intensive global community. Among the general themes captured in the presentation, the irreplaceable role of innovation and youthful minds in the developments emerge as the most constant across the various historical phases.

Additionally, economic interaction with the communication system and information culture assists the authors to develop a rare insight into the value of the corporate telecommunications players to the Canadian society. As useful and powerful policy determinants, the emergence of modern political powers as driven by communication capabilities positions the industry at the top of socioeconomic and political themes.

Additionally, the transformation of Canada as a global icon in various ways as supported by the telecommunication industry emerges clearly in the presentation. In this book review, a discussion emerges around the main themes that prop up the telecommunication industry in Canada and indeed around the world (Jean-Guy and Roth, 2001, p. 168). Themes include a strong history full of innovations and inventions incidental to communications, the emergence of military and national security as unrivaled telecommunications consumers. In addition, the emergence of corporate competition battlegrounds as a contributor to the industry, globalization and international communication prominently feature in the book.

Rich History Full of Innovations and Inventions Incidental to Telecommunications

Perhaps one of the strongest inventions of the current civilization hinges on the contribution of the communication-enabling brains in the mid-19th century. The authors accurately present several contributions, including the telegraph, telephone and radio. With a clear chronology of the contributions by various inventors, the authors transcribe the success of the telecommunications industry on the history of the rich invention. In a clear illustration of the invention phase, the authors isolate the period between 1846 and 1915 as the monumental time when several inventions incidental to communications emerged (Jean-Guy and Roth, 2001, p. 1).

The authors present a clarification to the contestable date for the invention of the telegraph, giving a chronology of names and contributions. Perhaps it is a brilliant way to veer off the controversy of the actual date and inventors since different accounts give 1794 to 1844 as an active period, during which Baron Schilling, David Alter, Sir William Fothergill Cooke, Charles Wheatstone, Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse, among others, made tremendous contributions to the emergence of the telegraph. The outstanding theme of independent telegraph innovations around the world enjoys a nexus with the historic times that the world of communication underwent (pp. 5-10).

First telecommunication companies based on the telegraph perhaps set the blueprint of corporate management of the industry, which thrived and bred other forms of communication. Sooner, Canadian newspaper industries adopted the telegraph, paving the way for interlinking between mass media and telecommunication. The telephone emergence in the equation as a vital advancement in telecommunications paved way for more efficient relaying of messages in audio form (p. 46). In a summary, the book highlights a revolution in the delivery of messages over long distances in text and audio formats acting as the foundation of modern technologies in communication.

Effectively, Canada’s interaction with the invention revolution from within and beyond emerges strongly. As keen presenters, the authors isolate Canada’s position in the revolution to illustrate how these inventions affected her rise to global prominence in telecommunications. The radio’s tremendous contribution and addition by Reginal Fessenden, a Canadian, perhaps capture modern radiotelephony and broadcasting than the world would achieve in its absence (p. 181). The authors would not develop a constant theme of Canada’s prominence in contribution to the industry in North America and around the world, without canvassing these inventions incidental to telecommunication.

Military and National Security as Unrivalled Telecommunications Consumers

Nearly from antiquity, human civilizations have invested tremendous efforts and attention to defense and national security. The position of Canada as a military powerhouse in the world translates into a relevant beneficiary of advanced defense elements through communication (p. 275). The authors capture the clear interest of the Canadian government in investment in national defense, through telecommunication technologies as expected in modern government strategy. Coincidentally, the initial contributions to the development of the telegraph by Claude Chappe related to the French military communication. Adoption of an advanced version of Chappe’s telegraph over the semaphore by the Canadian military confirms the exceptional interest that governments paid to national security (p. 7).

Perhaps one contrasting feature entails the Canadian government’s involvement in the development of the industry for purposes of military enhancement when compared with other nations. Whereas the French and the British emerge as vocal military powers in constant invention geared towards an efficient administration, Canada ranks behind them. However, cooperation between the Canadian government and the established telecommunication corporations in the 1920s paints a different position (p. 207).

Great Britain’s prowess of government administration as illustrated through Prince Edward’s position in Canadian administration comes out as a foreign impact. In the authors’ account of the active participation of the Canadian military in the advancement of telecommunications, perhaps a more militarism-oriented nation would have fitted in the illustration. However, the role of the other players such as France, Great Britain, and the USA facilitate painting the monumental position of Canada in the emerging transatlantic influence on world politics (p. 15).

The role of the telegraph, telephone, and radio in the transformation of military activities must have influenced investment priorities for governments in the emerging triad of the center of political power (p. 183). Given the authors’ recognition of North America’s contribution to global political power, the emergence of the United States in the power balance towards the end of the era in consideration (1846 to 1956) overreaches Canada’s position.

One systemic weakness in the presentation of the book touches on the role of the Canadian military in the research and development of telecommunications when compared to other prominent nations that appear. Although Canada did not emerge as a global militarist nation, insights of the role that Canada’s rather strong national security in North America must appear clearly in such a consideration.

The emergence of Corporate Competition Battlegrounds as a Contributor to the Industry

The emergence of electronic-intensive industries around the telegraph, telephone, and radio forms the foundation of the book, with clear effects illustrated throughout the presentation. The emergence of industrial institutions characterized by the need for information, coordination and networking exposed the investor community to an unavoidable focus on efficient communication systems. Accurately captured in the book, an account of the first Canadian electronic companies such as the Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara and St Catherine’s Electrical Magnetic Company stands out clearly (p. 10). The influential Montreal Telegraph Company emerged later, with its impeccable success, leading to the acquisition of the Toronto-Hamilton Company indicated the strength of the industry (p. 11).

Lack of patent rights for use of Morse’s version of the commercial telegraph machine as initially relied on by the pioneering companies opened up competition. Other companies such as the two sharing the name British North American Electric Association made their way into the market but struggled to stay afloat (p. 12). Additionally, the Grand Trunk Telegraph Company made inroads in and outside Canada with tremendous success.

Equally, the Bell Telephone near-monopoly in the telephone business earmarked market competition for telephone and telegraph communication throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries (p. 88). Entry of other telephone companies such as Dominion Telegraph, Nova Scotia Telephone, and Western Union among many more led to stiff competition for market opportunities in the growing industry (p. 87).

By the turn of the century, since the inventions began, Canada had hundreds of telephone companies competing in the market, which tremendously shaped the development of the industry. Beneficial pricing and rates among companies ensued in the 1940s, leading to the pricing definition of Bell Corporation’s strategy in the market (p. 292). The authors succeed in illustrating the penetration of the country as a leading telecommunications consumer in the entire world (p. 286). The emergence of radio technology at the end of the First World War took the telecommunications market by a surprise (p. 195).

The fascination around the ability to transmit information on electromagnetic waves and disbanding of wires did not only appeal to the market but also investors. Entry of radiotelegraphy and radio technologies in Canada, through British participation in the International Telegraph Union and International Radiotelegraph Union, opened up radio business across the country (p. 187). As seen earlier, the authors still paint Canada as a mild player in the determination of the actual contribution to telecommunication as it emerges from this illustration. Mixed fortunes in the industry culminated in the establishment of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, which equally experienced various challenges (p. 215).

Perhaps one of the strongest themes of industrial interaction with telecommunications involves the development of modern management culture. Strong industrial relations concepts emerged from the telephone industry in the early 1900s as labor-intensive telephone companies engaged with employees (p. 260). Unionism thrived in the management sector in the Canadian labor market, only when the influence of the telecommunication sector increased. As the rest of the world moved from scientific management tenets to a human resources perspective, the Canadian telecommunication sector emerged as a functional presentation of the service industry taking over.

In the depiction of the involvement of the government and the corporate sector participating in employee welfare, the theme of social responsibility in employment emerges in the book. Perhaps this presentation accounts for the incorporation of public and social sectors in the transformation of the labor relations in Canada (p. 263). Apparently, the efforts to nationalize various telecommunication corporations as identified by the authors on grounds of populism highlight the government’s involvement in protecting the citizenry (p. 92).

Globalization and International Communication

The influence of European inventions on the telecommunications industry would fail to make an impact in Canada in the absence of international interactions. In the book, the authors illustrate the phenomenon of European exploration in the Americas as a necessary event in the motivation of telecommunications contribution. Newfoundland appears as a pivotal point in the efforts of connecting America to Europe, which was only possible through cutting-edge solutions. Continued emergence and acceleration of forces of globalization in terms of political and economic interests towards the turn of the century positioned Canada’s telecommunications industry for proportionate growth. As an important aspect of coordination of international interests, the authors accurately identify the role of telecommunication (p. 75).

Throughout the book, the authors paint the image of inseparable British and Canadian historical interaction, despite the massive distance that separates the two nations. Long-distance communication facilitated the connectivity between the early governance of the Americas by the European masters (p. 15). As political concepts increasingly receded paving the way for economic ambition after the World Wars, information dissemination increasingly found its necessity in the new global order (p. 311). The formation of the Trans-Canada Telephone System brought the indications of an extensive penetration within the country, paving the way for continental and transcontinental connectivity (p. 294). Canada led in terms of telecommunication connectivity coming only second to the USA as early as 1938 (p. 303).

Among the most transcontinental connectivity demands that necessitated development in the telecommunication industry, the World Wars made tremendous motivation of connectivity and its subsequent reconstruction (p. 313). Thanks to the connectivity successes that the World Wars gave to the consumption of telecommunication services at that time, the microwaves made their way onto the innovation list (p. 314).

British and French militaries employed the emerging microwave communication technologies for their success in the World Wars. These contributions facilitated the globalization connectivity needs to be witnessed in the century, thereby acting as the breeding environment for the current digital age. Government administration, as well as a corporate activity after telecommunication, composes much of the presentation, making telecommunication vital ingredients in the creation of the global village (p. 328). The authors capture precise contributions that the telecommunications industry made to the modern world.


Jean-Guy, R., & Roth, K. (2001). The invisible empire: A history of the telecommunications industry in Canada in 1846-1956, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.