Blast from the Past: Farmers vs. Phones - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Blast from the Past: Farmers vs. Phones

Blast from the Past: Farmers vs. Phones

Published May 18, 2017

It is a tale often recounted to illustrate the backwardness of Icelandic farmers in times past: that time they rode into Reykjavík to protest the coming of the telephone. Those weary of the ubiquity of phones today might feel that these yeomen of yore were right to try to nip this one in the bud. Sadly, the story is not entirely true.

Yes, over 200 farmers did ride to town in 1905 and were prevented from entering the Parliament building by police. However, they were not protesting the advent of the telephone, but the telegraph, a technology already becoming outdated by the early 20th century. What they wanted instead was the wireless radiotelegraph, a far more modern technology then being introduced by the Marconi Company. So, more a protest in favour of wifi and against landlines than a Luddite revolt.

The wireless radiotelegraph was not only the cheaper option, but had the added benefit of not having to go through the hated Danes, since transmissions could originate from anywhere. However, Hannes Hafstein, Minister of Iceland in the colonial Danish government, was not impressed and went ahead with plans to lay a cable from Copenhagen to Seyðisfjörður and thence overland to Reykjavík. The Danes bore most of the cost, but in return gained considerable influence over the burgeoning Icelandic phone system. The task was completed a year later, and the minister exchanged telegrams with the king in Copenhagen. The next great phone dispute in Iceland came with privatization a century later, but that is another story.

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