Speed of Information Travel to London, 1798-1914

2009-07-12

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 Speed (mph)
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, Mexico 1867 5545 12 19
Assassination of Alexander II, St. Petersburg 1881 1309 0.46 119
Nobi Earthquake, Japan 1891 5916 1 246