LATELY — 12 July 2009

Speed of Information Travel to London, 1798-1914

The book A Farewell to Alms is mostly about eco­nomic history, and specif­i­cally about how (in the author’s view) living stan­dards were pretty stable and con­sis­tent for much of hu­man­ity until 1800, after which living stan­dards in­creased dra­mat­i­cally in rich countries, and de­clined dra­mat­i­cally in poor countries, to the point where they are less well off than before 1800.

Anyway, part of this ar­gu­ment is a table showing how long in took for news of sig­nif­i­cant events to reach London. I thought this pretty in­ter­est­ing in itself–we’re not ac­cus­tomed to news taking days or even hours to go around the world now, and even when reading history you usually get the im­pres­sion that events were known immediately. (The dra­matic speed­ing up of news reports around 1880 was a result of the in­ven­tion and de­ploy­ment of the telegraph.)

Event Year Dis­tance (miles) Days until report S peed (m ph)
Battle of the Nile 1798 2073 62 1.4
Battle of Trafal­gar 1805 1100 17 2.7
Earthquake, Kutch, India 1819 4118 153 1.1
Treaty of Nanking 1842 5597 84 2.8
Charge of the Light Brigade, Crimea 1854 1646 17 4.0
Indian Mutiny, Delhi Mas­sacre 1857 4176 46 3.8
Treaty of Tien-Sin (China) 1858 5140 82 2.6
As­sas­si­na­tion of Lincoln 1865 3674 13 12
As­sas­si­na­tion of Arch­duke Maximilian, Mexic o 1867 5545 12 19
As­sas­si­na­tion of Alexan­der II, St. Pe­ters­ burg 18 81 1309 0.46 119
Nobi Earthquake, Japan 1891 5916 1 246