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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire broke physical information and communication technologies at the very moment that people wanted to connect with loved ones using the telegraph – the quickest way to send messages. Sending telegrams was one means by which people connected with each other, but the telegraphic infrastructure, like much of the physical infrastructure, was badly damaged. Telegraph operators labored long hours to repair the telecommunications infrastructures or to enact workarounds. The telegraph companies credited employees with taking great personal risk to ensure that the world knew about the disaster -- these operators and engineers were called “heroes.” However, even as these employees worked in exceptional circumstances and were celebrated for their heroic actions, they were reproducing the “normal” ordering of information infrastructures. Telegraph companies were taking money from people to ostensibly deliver telegrams via speedy but broken telegraphic infrastructure when in reality often sending the telegrams through the mail. These heroic telegraphers went on strike less than a year after the earthquake and fire when Western Union refused their requests for temporary raises to accommodate the cost-of-living increases in the damaged San Francisco area. While the capitalists running the telegraphic infrastructure publicly celebrated the improvisational work of their employees as heroic, the telegraph did not do what its clients paid for and swindled them. After 89 days the strikers went back to work with no gain. It was a moment of extraordinary upheaval and creative repair which nevertheless seemed to reinforce ordinary political economic ordering.