The Victorian Internet – A review of Tom Standage’s classic

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. Tom Standage. New York: Walker & Company, 1998. 217 pp.

Just when you think the Internet revolutionized new ways to communicate, lie, cheat, find love and disrupt society – think again. The electric telegraph in the 1800s had already been the instigator of this some 150 years ago and author Tom Standage does an exceptional job painting us metaphorically in his book The Victorian Internet. The similarities between it (telegraph) and the modern day Internet are too remarkable to ignore. In this quick review of the book, I’ll touch on those similarities that jumped out at me as I read it.

To start, Standage writes in a simple fashion. The book isn’t thick by any means, and it’s written in a way that many non-technical, non-engineering types can comprehend. The book starts off with the optical telegraph, which predates the electric telegraph. Claude Chappe, a Frenchman, coined the word télégraphe, or telegraph translated in English to mean “far writer” – in 1791.  This first telegrams were with limitation though as they couldn’t be sent in the dark and required building towers to be in sight of one another and so on.

Much of the book is centered on our American hero Samuel Morse. Morse, we learn, didn’t quite invent the electric telegraph – but he perfected it and would later be known as the Father of the Telegraph. Yes, it’s his name that “Morse Code” is derived. Standage writes: “He had visions of a wired world, with countries bound together by a global network of interconnected telegraph networks.” (p.40) At this point in his book, the tone is aptly set for the comparison of the electric telegraph and today’s Internet.

Like today’s Internet, the telegraph network was “explosive” in growth. (p.57) Standage helps us picture a time, in the 1850s, where dozens of companies were scrambling to get their terminals set up. Sound familiar? In order to engage with the telegraph network, one had to be plugged into it – like a modern computer plugged into the Internet. Once the network was expansive enough and was regularly in use, Standage begins to point out similarities with today’s Internet use and behavior.

We’ve used LOL and WTF-type acronyms for the past 15 years, but those using the telegraph also had their own code and shortened way of communicating. Tweets? Yes – each telegram sent was more or less a 140-character (or less) tweet. After all, it was expensive and you were billed for every word. Hackers and those out to abuse the telegraph system for their own gain were also in abundance. Standage’s accounts of individuals who cheated on horse race betting and stock purchasing seemed like modern day computer hackers. It wasn’t all bad, there was also love.

Chapter nine’s “Love Over The Wires” struck a personal chord and really made a telegraph believer out of me. In this chapter, Standage tells us a story of a couple who got married on opposite ends of the wire – the bride in one city, the groom in another. He also cites multiple accounts of people flirting with one another via telegrams, later meeting each other in real life and getting married. Does this not sound like online dating? I met my wife online, and while we still get slightly embarrassed when telling our story to certain people, online dating seems far less extraordinary now that I know of its analog history over a hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps one of Standage’s most important analyses on the history of the telegraph came in the book where he describes its disruption on journalism. Once such example, the January 9th 1845 edition of the Times, had stories published in it that were up to two months old! (p.147) With the telegrams, communicating important news in an expedited fashion was now made possible. It also allowed journalists to focus on more hyperlocal stories in their regions and neighborhoods. Many of the newspapers began a “developing story” section which was a relatively new idea at the time.

With this new immediacy of information, disruption also came in the form of work life balance. Before the telegraph, merchants dealt with international commerce once or twice a month. After the telegraph, businessmen became addicted and obsessed with information. One such account tells us of a guy who goes home to eat with his family, then receives a telegram from London and has to rush back to work to send a message to California in time to make a purchase for his business. The telegraph had now officially entered our lives on all fronts.

Throughout the book, Standage entertains us with these very personal stories. It’s these stories that we can relate to that make this book so digestible. It’s also these stories that help educate us historically in a simple fashion. If you consider yourself an Internet junkie like I do, this book is for you. You’ll be fascinated by how much history repeats itself – trust me.

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3 thoughts on “The Victorian Internet – A review of Tom Standage’s classic

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews « COM546 : Evolutions

  2. Pingback: week 6 – From Mass Communication To Customized Information « COM546 : Evolutions

  3. Pingback: Week 7 : Frameworks and Theories « COM546 : Evolutions

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