Dr. John Britton, long-time member of the Francis Marion University Department of History and now Professor Emeritus, had his sixth book published recently.
“Cables, Crises, and the Press: The Geopolitics of the New International Information System in the Americas, 1866-1903” has been published by the University of New Mexico Press. The rapid expansion of the internet has created much interest in communications and communications history in the last few years. Britton’s book reveals a compelling parallel in the late nineteenth century, when a new communications system based on advances in submarine cable technology, and newspaper printing brought information to an excitable mass audience with unprecedented speed.
Britton said this project began in the early 1990s when he was trying to answer an obscure question about how telegrams were sent between Nicaragua and New York in the 1920s.
He recalls, “I was surprised to find very little serious historical work on communications history in this area. Daniel Headrick of Roosevelt University of Chicago advised me to contact the archives of the Cable and Wireless Company in England, and the project took off from there.”
Britton said, over the years he has used the internet to work with a far flung group of specialists including David Paull Nickles, who is an historian with the United States Department of State; Alan McPherson of the Boren Center of the University of Oklahoma; Dwayne Winseck of the School of Communications of Carleton College in Ottawa, Canada; Eduardo Elena of the University of Miami; and Jorma Ahvenainen of the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. In fact, he and Ahvenainen co-authored an article ‘Showdown in South America, James Scrymser, John Pender, and United States-British Cable Rivalry in South America’ in the Business History Review, a publication of the Harvard University Business School.
Within the 488 pages of his new book based on this research, Britton examines the technological innovations and business operations of newspapers in the United States, the building of the international cable network, and the initial enthusiasm for these electronic means of communication to resolve international conflicts. Much to the dismay of diplomats and government leaders, the new communications system produced tension and conflict.
Focusing on United States rivalries with European nations in Latin America, he examines the Spanish American War, in which war correspondents like Richard Harding Davis fed accounts of Spanish atrocities and Cuban heroism into the American press, creating pressure on diplomats and government leaders in the United States and Spain. The new information system also played important roles in the U.S. – British confrontation in the Venezuelan boundary dispute, the building of the Panama Canal, and the establishment of the U.S. empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Britton has been active in research and publication since his arrival at FMU in 1972. He has worked on Mexican history, Latin American history in general, and the process of globalization in the Western Hemisphere with an emphasis on international communications.
Since 1992, he has been a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies and a consultant to the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. He has authored books, many scholarly articles, and numerous encyclopedia entries. His monograph, Revolution and Ideology: The Image of the Mexican Revolution in the United States (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1995) won the A. B. Thomas Award for 1996, and his article “The Disappearance and Rediscovery of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940): An Essay in the Interaction of Sociology and History” received the Sturgis M. Leavitt Award for 1995. His annotated bibliographical contribution to Volume 58 of the Handbook of Latin American Studies (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), won the FMU Research Award for 2003-04. He was president of the South Eastern Council on Latin American Studies for 1994-1996 and was one of the organizers of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association. From 2004 to 2013 he was a FMU Board of Trustees Research Scholar. In addition, he has served as a reader and consultant for several professional journals and university presses.