RogerBW's Blog

The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage 16 October 2017

1998 non-fiction, an informal history of the age of the telegraph.

This is, appropriately, quite a short book; and even at this length it stretches back to the Abbé Nollet's experiment of 1746 demonstrating the propagation speed of an electrical impulse, and forward to the parallels between the societal effects of telegraphy and those of the early days of the popular Internet. This means that there isn't always as much detail as one might like about the actual telegraphy, and Standage concentrates on the sensational whether in the technical or the personal realms.

There are lovely tidbits here: the complete misdesign of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable (which failed irretrievably after a month); Baudot's invention of time-division multiplexing (not named as such here); the slowness of French adoption of the electric telegraph because they already had large sunk costs in semaphore networks; the way this new job of telegraph-operator admitted women because nobody knew yet what its status should be (paralleling the early histories of typewriters and computing, though that's not mentioned); the multiple and inevitably doomed attempts of the ITU to prevent people from sending telegrams in code; and the way that telegraphy (with its human operators) could still be out-competed by pneumatic tubes at least over short distances. They mostly are tidbits, though, with some figures like Wheatstone and Edison recurring, rather than forming a consistent narrative.

For example, it's suggested that automatic telegraphs (i.e. using something like a keyboard or punched-tape rather than morse code) started the demise of the telegraph operator as a skilled technical job (before the accidental invention of the telephone really did for it); but the first automatic telegraphs came in just about the same time as the first electric telegraphs of any kind, so there's clearly more to the story than that.

I think the Internet analogies are now rather dated; perhaps at the time of writing it was reasonable to point out to the optimists that the idea of rapid communication bringing inevitable peace had been tried before and found wanting, but this is now the most obvious and heavy-handed part of the book. Standage clearly wanted to make his pop-history book seem modern and relevant in 1998, but the actual history is much more interesting than the parallels which vaguely alert readers can easily find for themselves.

Even so, it's an enjoyable introduction to the subject and there are unexpected pleasures to be found here. Recommended by Clare Chippindale.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:25am on 16 October 2017

    Also good, although rather heavier reading, Headrick's The Invisible Weapon, about the political impact of telegraphy.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:31am on 16 October 2017

    A heavier book on this subject is just what I've been looking for.

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