Review of ‘The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers’

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers
Tom Standage

One worldwide web, spreading news, messages and information faster and more freely than ever before. Fortunes made in trading start-up company stocks, and lost in the next market crash. A global community, linked by rapidly evolving electronic wizardry managed by highly paid electronic magicians. Incompatible systems, online romances, and vociferous debates about government control and the impact of the new technology. The title of Tom Standage's richly detailed and immensely entertaining social history reminds us that, as revolutionary as the Internet may seem, it has all happened before.

In fact, the advent of telegraphic communication in the mid-19th century did more to change society, argues Standage, than the development of today's Internet. We were getting up-to-the-minute news by television and radio before the emerging online services opened a pipeline to personal computers. We could talk to friends and families with a telephone and get stock prices by calling a broker before e-mail was invented. But in the America of the 1840s, messages moved by boat, train or horseback.

Instantaneous electrical communication seemed so miraculous that Samuel Morse's first message on his telegraph line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, sent on May 24, 1844, asked, "What Hath God Wrought." Yet the practical benefits of the invention, reports Standage, were hardly obscure. The second message on that line, sent immediately after the words that had been so carefully composed for the historical record, was "Have you any news?"

Tom Standage, a British science writer, makes it clear that electric telegraphy didn't arrive like a bolt from the blue. Two French brothers, Claude and Ren Chappe, had built an optical/mechanical telegraph in 1791 and used it to send a message across ten miles in four minutes. Their invention was the basis for the semaphore systems — lines of towers signaling one another with movable arms or alternating black and white panels — that were built across France and England during the next few decades. But these systems were expensive to build and operate, they didn't work in the dark and their transmissions could be read by anyone along the line of sight.

Over the course of the 19th century this primitive network of flapping, clanking machines evolved into a global communication system. Independently invented in England and the United States, the electric telegraph soon crisscrossed continents with copper wire and linked them with underwater cables. Nimble-fingered operators sent, received and retransmitted messages day and night. Webs of pneumatic tubes moved printed copies of messages between nearby stations and, in Paris and other major cities, throughout the urban center. And cadres of messengers ran telegrams from the end of the transmission line directly to the recipient's home or office. "By the early 1870s," Standage writes, "the Victorian Internet had taken shape...."

The story of telegraphy is vast and complex, and Standage could easily have written a book three or four times as long as The Victorian Internet. Wisely, he didn't. Nor does he feel compelled to point out each and every similarity that obtains between the telegraphic internet and its computer counterpart of today. Instead, he moves swiftly from highlight to highlight, using succinct summaries and memorable details to tell his story, and letting readers apprehend the parallels between the two technologies for themselves.

This is not the book for readers who want in-depth accounts of the lives of scientist-inventors like Thomas Edison or Charles Wheatstone, detailed financial histories of companies like Western Union, or technical treatments of subjects like the development of semaphore systems and undersea cables. But while Standage's history may be telegraphic, his writing is colorful, smooth and wonderfully engaging. The Victorian Internet is a delightful book.

John R. Alden, an anthropologist and archaeologist, has long been fascinated by 19th-century social history.

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