Review: The Victorian Internet – SMS for the Nineteenth Century

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line PioneersHave you ever seen a teenager furiously tapping away with his thumbs at the keys of his phone? Have you ever admired or even envied the dexterity and skill with which he manipulates the device to push out message after message to his friends describing his whereabouts and eating habits? Or been confused and fascinated by the seemingly complex cryptography he uses to encode such information? Okay, me neither, but there was a time when operators of similar devices were not only held in high regard, but were paid handsomely to perform such duties. Telegraph operators, according to Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, were the nineteenth century’s version of on-line communicators using a vast network and sophisticated language to relay information instantly over long distances. 

Standage doesn’t directly make the comparison between the telegraph and SMS (short message service) as text messaging didn’t become really popular until after he published his book in 1998. Rather, he compares it to the modern Internet in that it was “a worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans (that) revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information.” In fact, Standage describes modern Internet users as “the heirs of the telegraphic tradition” and explains how the “information superhighway” was preceded by the “highway of thought.” Just as the Internet today, the telegraph was used for the deployment of military troops, was instrumental in delivering news and business information and even provided a network for social interaction between friends and lovers.

The Victorian Internet is an easy, enjoyable read and Standage does a fine job introducing the characters that played huge roles in the development of the telegraph. From inventors Samuel Morse, Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke to operators such as Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie, the book is full of charming stories and amusing anecdotes of their enthusiastic ideas, initial failures and ultimate success’ that helped shrink the world and create the first global village. One particularly enjoyable story describes the efforts of Cyrus W. Field, who attempted to lay a cable across the Atlantic, thereby joining the old world with the new. Field was ignorant to telegraphy and perhaps a bit naive, leading him to hire incompetents, such as the self-taught electrical engineer Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, and endure multiple failures while trying to make a name for himself. But perseverance and a large bank account eventually won out and Field was successful, with the help of others such as Morse and William Thompson, in stretching a cable from Newfoundland to Ireland, making communication between America and Europe instantaneous and essentially laying the foundation for a global economy.

Numerous other tales, such as the first on-line marriage, the construction of  complex underground vacuum tube networks that literally sent hand written messages hurdling from office to office, and the unique social network and relationships that developed between the various operators working the multitude of telegraph offices throughout the world, keep the readers’ interest. From the rise of the telegraph as an optical messaging tool to its demise through the advancement of new technologies such as the telephone, Standage makes the case that someone from the nineteenth century might not be too impressed to learn that users of today’s Internet are able to communicate instantly with others on the opposite side of the world. Been there, done that. At any rate, Standage does a good job of convincing the reader that the telegraph was truly a miraculous invention that revolutionized the manner and speed in which the world could communicate.

Today, that teenager with his mobile device and speedy thumbs maybe chatting with his girlfriend or playing video games with his friends. He may aspire to become a social media manager at a communications company or a software developer responsible for the latest advancement in communications technology. Similarly, that same teenager, living in a major city during the 1860’s and working as a messenger boy for the telegraph company, might have used the telegraph to chat with his girlfriend or play chess with his friends all in the hopes of getting a job as a highly respected telegraph operator or becoming the inventor of the next great advancement in telegraphy technology. The similarities are striking and Standage adds, some ten years later in the book’s afterword, that “Samuel Morse would be proud (that his) defunct nineteenth-century technology has, in effect, been reincarnated in the twenty-first century. The telegram is dead. Long live the telegram.”

Of course today’s technology is way faster and more efficient than the telegraph, right? You be the judge. • – • •   – – –   • – • •  (LOL)

Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. US, Walker.

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