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

   by Tom Standage

    Berkley Publishing Group
    01 October, 1999


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Editorial description(s):
Imagine an almost instantaneous communication system that would allow people and governments all over the world to send and receive messages about politics, war, illness, and family events. The government has tried and failed to control it, and its revolutionary nature is trumpeted loudly by its backers. The Internet? Nope, the humble telegraph fit this bill way back in the 1800s. The parallels between the now-ubiquitous Internet and the telegraph are amazing, offering insight into the ways new technologies can change the very fabric of society within a single generation. In The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage examines the history of the telegraph, beginning with a horrifically funny story of a mile-long line of monks holding a wire and getting simultaneous shocks in the interest of investigating electricity, and ending with the advent of the telephone. All the early "online" pioneers are here: Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and a seemingly endless parade of code-makers, entrepreneurs, and spies who helped ensure the success of this communications revolution. Fans of
will enjoy another story of the human side of dramatic technological developments, complete with personal rivalry, vicious competition, and agonizing failures. --Therese Littleton --This text r" to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly
A lively, short history of the development and rapid growth a century and a half ago of the first electronic network, the telegraph, Standage's book debut is also a cautionary tale in how new technologies inspire unrealistic hopes for universal understanding and peace, and then are themselves blamed when those hopes are disappointed. The telegraph developed almost simultaneously in America and Britain in the 1840s. Standage, a British journalist, effectively traces the different sources and false starts of an invention that had many claims on its patents. In 1842, Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee rooms of the Capitol, and Congress reluctantly voted $30,000 for an experimental line to Baltimore?89 to 83, with 70 abstaining "to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand." By 1850 there were 12,000 miles of telegraph line in the U.S., and twice that two years later. Standage does a good job sorting through a complicated and often contentious history, showing the dramatic changes the telegraph brought to how business was conducted, news was reported and humanity viewed its world. The parallels he draws to today's Internet are catchy, but they sometimes overshadow his portrayal of the unique culture and sense of excitement the telegraph engendered?what one contemporary poet called "the thrill electric." News of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 led to predictions of world peace and an end to old prejudices and hostilities. Soon enough, however, Standage reports, criminal guile, government misinformation and that old human sport of romance found their way onto the wires. 18 illustrations. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club alternates.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
--This text refers to the

From Library Journal
In his first book, British science journalist Standage gives an engaging and readable account of the invention, growth, and decline of the telegraph. In the preface and epilog, Standage claims that by understanding the social changes brought about by the telegraph we can better understand the contemporary sociology of the Internet; however, he only seriously addresses their similarities in the final chapter. Instead, most of the book is a historical account, peppered with biographical, sociological, and technological anecdotes. Annteresa Lubrano's The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change (Garland, 1997) investigates the same subject but takes a much more academic tone. This lay reader's history of telegraphy is recommended for public and academic libraries.?Wade Lee, Univ. of Toledo Libs., OH
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
--This text refers to the

The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Kenneth Silverman
The book's retelling of the invention of telegraphy is racy and popularized but reliable. Its author, the British science journalist Tom Standage, presents no original research or new information. But he treats familiar persons and events from the less familiar perspective of the Internet.... The Victorian Internet does not ask to be taken for more than History Lite, and makes an entertaining primer on a complex subject of increasing interest. --This text refers to the

On the surface, it is a flimsy comparison to make between the Internet of today and the telegraph of its golden age, 1840^-76. But this lively, anecdote-filled history reveals that the telegraph changed the world forever--from a hand-carried-message world to an instantaneous one. And with any groundbreaking system, there are the larger-than-life personalities: the last of the gentlemen amateur scientists, Samuel F. B. Morse, who devised the first truly working telegraph and developed its message code; Charles Wheatstone, perpetually irascible British academic, and his partner, experimenter William Cooke, who were working on the telegraph on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Thomas Edison himself was a crack telegraph operator, and his expertise allowed him to raise the funds to begin his groundbreaking inventions. Standage has it all here, including the role the telegraph played in war (Crimea), spying (the Dreyfus affair, in which Captain Dreyfus was first betrayed and then saved by a telegram), and even love (sort of the first chat rooms, to use an Internet term). Joe Collins --This text r" to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews
The telegraph, which now seems a curious relic, was once cutting-edge technology, every bit as hot, Standage reminds us, as today's Internet. Rapid delivery of messages to distant places was a wild dream for most of history; only on the eve of the French Revolution did a workable system come into existence. That first mechanical telegraph used visual signals relayed along a series of towers; but already scientists had experimented with signaling with electricity, which was thought to travel instantaneously. By the 1830s, Samuel Morse in the US and William Cooke in England had independently developed workable electric telegraphs. Curiously, neither had much initial luck finding backers. Morse's first demonstration of his device to Congress drew no support; even after a second demonstration won him funding, many congressmen believed they had seen a conjuring trick. Despite some dramatic successesas when British police wired ahead of felons escaping by train and had them arrested in a distant cityit was some time before the telegraph was more than a high-tech toy. But by the mid-1840s, both British and American telegraphy companies were showing profits, and by the end of that decade, growth was explosive. And by then, the elaborate culture of the telegraph system was taking shape. Telegraph operators and messenger boys became familiar parts of the social landscape. There was a growth industry in telegraph-based jokes, anecdotes, scams, and even superstitions. The charge per word transmitted made messages terse; the expense made most people use them only to report deaths in the family or other grave news. Technical improvementsnotably in the laying of submarine cableseventually led to a worldwide network. Standage, most recently (and suitably) editor of the London Daily Telegraphs technology section, competently relates all this, and the eventual erosion of the telegraph's power by the telephonewhich was at first seen merely as an improvement in the telegraph. A fascinating overview of a once world-shaking invention and its impact on society. Recommended to fans of scientific history. (b&w illustrations) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the

William Gibson, author of All Tomorrow's Parties
"An inspired and utterly topical rediscovery of the emergence of the earliest modern communications technology. I recommend it highly."

About the Author
Tom Standage is a journalist who has written about science and technology for many newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, and Wired. Former deputy editor of the technology section of The Daily Telegraph, he is now a science writer at The Economist in London. This is his first book. He lives in Greenwich, England.

Book Description
"A fascinating walk through a pivotal period in human history."--USA Today

For many people, the Internet is the epitome of cutting-edge technology. But in the nineteenth century, the first online communications network was already in place--the telegraph. And at the time, it was just as perplexing, controversial, and revolutionary as the Internet is today.

The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it. With the invention of the telegraph, the world of communications was forever changed. The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over its wires. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought. The saga of the telegraph offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time, and is a remarkable episode in the history of technology.

* Illustrated throughout
* A masterful, lively blend of science and history, in the bestselling tradition of Longitude

"Fascinating...If you've ever hankered for a perspective on media Net hype, this book is for you."--Wired


"Essential reading for those caught up in our own information revolution."--Christian Science Monitor

Reader review(s):

There's nothing new about the new economy, December 29, 1999
Very easy book to read (did it in a long night). Book makes premise that in the whirlwind of Internet hype and how it's revolutionizing our world, this all first happened a hundred years ago when the Telegraph was invented.

Ironically, Morse had a hard time convincing the initial trials. It was also first seen as a play toy, an oddity. However soon applications came to be and governments, news, business, and personal lives were changed by this first major advance in communications in hundreds of years (likely since the printing press).

When reading about the chapter on how commerce was changed because cross-atlantic orders could be transmitted in a day rather than weeks. Business people became obsessed with keeping up with the new demands for fear of competition(They lived in "Internet Time"). How the first major application in business was transmitting stock quotes (this sound familiar?).

The book makes the premise that in this 'new internet age', we've seen it all before. To that it does a good job in a quick entertaining read.

two hours of fun, fun, fun, April 8, 2001
In the story of the world-wide telegraph system, built from the 1840s until 1900 when the telephone rose to supplant it, Standage develops fascinating parallels with the rise of the Internet. Western Union "insisted that its monopoly [on US telegraphy] was in everyone's interest, even if it was unpopular, because it would encourage standardization." Today's high-pressure startups have nothing on Thomas Edison who "locked his workforce in the workshop until they had finished building a large order of stock tickers." As with the Web, the true inventor, Samuel Morse, made "a respectable sum, though less than the fortunes amassed by the entrepreneurs who built empires on the back of his invention." Standage pairs modern pundits such as Nicholas Negroponte predicting that the Internet will bring about world peace with their 19th century equivalents predicting that the telegraph will enable a perfect understanding between governments and peoples and bring an end to wars. If you made big bucks in the dotcom world of the 1990s, page 205 may cause you a moment's reflection:

"The heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker was over; telegraphers' brief tenure as members of an elite community with master over a miraculous, cutting-edge technology had come to an end. As the twentieth century dawned, the telegraph's inventors had died, its community had crumbled, and its golden age had ended."

Past and future..., May 30, 2003
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Prior to this, communication was notoriously slow, particularly as even postal communications were subject to many difficulties and could take months for delivery (and we complain today of the 'allow five days' statements on our credit cards billings!).

The parallels between the Victorian Internet and the present computerised internet are remarkable. Information about current events became relatively instantaneous (relative, that is, to the usual weeks or months that it once took to receive such information). There were skeptics who were convinced that this new mode of communication was a passing phase that would never take on (and, in a strict sense, they were right, not of course realising that the demise of the telegraph system was not due to the reinvigoration of written correspondence but due to that new invention, the telephone). There were hackers, people who tried to disrupt communications, those who tried to get on-line free illegally, and, near the end of the high age of telegraphing, a noticeable slow-down in information due to information overload (how long is this page going to take to download?? isn't such a new feeling after all).

The most interesting chapter to me is that entitled 'Love over the Wires' which begins with an account of an on-line wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York. This event was reported in a small book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, published in London in 1848, which stated that this was 'a story which throws into the shade all the feats that have been performed by our British telegraph.' This story is really one of love and adventure, as the bride's father had sent the young groom away for being unworthy to marry his daughter, but on a stop-over on his way to England, he managed to get a magistrate and telegraph operator to arrange the wedding. The marriage was deemed to be legally binding.

A very interesting and remarkable story that perhaps would have been forgotten by history had history not set out to repeat itself with our modern internet.

A must read for every high-tech Product Manager, February 1, 2000
The most effective way to demonstrate a parallelism is to describe the unfamiliar in such a way that its similarity to the familiar is obvious. Standage's short but effective history of the telegraph's initial period of rapid growth resonates with anyone even casually familiar with the Internet. Only in his concluding two-page epilogue does he feel the need to explicitly draw a parallel between the telegraph and the Internet.

This would still be a fascinating and thought-provoking book even without the implicit comparison to today's expanding Internet infrastructure. The first use of electricity and wire for instantaneous communication represented a quantum change in society, affecting the media, government, and individuals. Everything since then has just been a refinement to that first revolution. A less significant but amusing factoid was that the young Tom Edison lived on huge amounts of weak coffee and apple pie when pulling all-nighters to invent. Its easy for the reader to envision him as an early hacker, endangering his health with the 19th century equivalent of Jolt Cola and Twinkies.

This book is equally enjoyable to anyone who enjoys the history of technology, and those who have a more specific interest in the Internet and want to learn what lessons a historical high-tech boom can offer.

Wired for sound, December 16, 1999
The Victorian invention of the Telegraph, and the amazing similarities to today's Internet phenomenon. No one sends telegrams today, and the telegraph is something we know about from watching westerns; but not very long ago these comprised the first ever electric communications revolution. The world became wired in the middle years of Victoria's reign and the information age was born. There are some interesting facts in this book; for instance the first Atlantic cables were coated in a rubbery gum material called gutta-percha. The company of the same name made a fortune in the 1850's and 1860's coating literally thousands of miles of wire. Today the Gutta-Percha Company is better known as Cable & Wireless. Reading this book you get the strange feeling of things repeating themselves, especially our reactions to new inventions. The hyperbole and thrill which greeted the first transatlantic message from England to America in 1858, on a badly-designed cable which worked for just four weeks before failing, appears no different to the present hysteria surroundong the web. In fact this was a connected world long before we were all born!

Could have been a great story., September 20, 2002
The author missed what could have been a great story in this journalistic (in the worst sense of the word) story of this fascinating invention. The hook which attempts to link the telegraph with the internet is a strained metaphor -- an attempt to make the book relevant.

Missed or lightly touched on is how the telegraphy truly changed the world -- how wars were fought, how business is conducted. Instead we get a lot of the fluffy stories of people getting married by telegraph etc.

Also glossed over are any real technical details about how the various gadgets worked. The author obviously doesn't know the difference between a volt and jolt and assumes the readers are equally ignorant.

Pity because the relationship between invention and history is a great story and the telegraph is a great way of telling this story. This book just skims the surface.

This book shows how history does, at times, repeats itself., April 27, 1999
Review of "The Victorian Internet"

A terrific melding of the effects of the Telegraph and the Internet on the societies they served. A Comparison of the Telegraph and the Internet is not a subject one is normally prompted to consider and this is one reason that makes Tom Standage's account of the far reaching effects of these two medium of communication on their times is all the more enjoyable.

On first consideration one is prompted to ask"how can two technical achievements so far removed in time and technology possibly be compared".? But Standage answers the question superbly ,and gives the reader damn good read in the process.

Not only are the Telegraph and the Internet compared but we gat a good history of man's struggle to improve the speed by which information is Transmitted. From the Foot Messenger to the Telegraph and the Internet , including all the weird and wonderful attempts in between , the reader is taken, painlessly, on a trip through the history of Information Transmission

This is a great book and should be read both for enjoyment and for a close look at how history seems to, at times anyway, repeat itself.

Parallels Galore, January 24, 2004
The idea of this book is that the telegraph had much the same effect for the Victorians, as the internet has on our own times. The world got smaller: markets became more efficient and larger and diplomats had to respond to crises in real time. Journalists had to adapt and organize syndicates for gathering and sharing information. Codes and ciphers increased in importance and commercial value while governments futilely tried to control and restrict their use. All of these things are as familiar to us, as it was to the Victorians.

Sandage has done a credible job in researching the parallels and tells the story with plenty of amusing asides and anecdotes, making for an easy read. The stories about how the telegraph was used in affairs of the heart, and the ingenuity of criminals to find innovative methods of practicing their craft shows one more time that there is little really new under the sun.

History Repeats Itself, October 7, 2003
Tom Standage is onto something. It seems that everything we know about the Internet today, we've already done before. The turn of this century was a lot like the turn of the last century.

"The Victorian Internet" is all about our world and the invention of the Telegraph. As cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson once pointed out, the telegraph was the world's first global digital network. It's when we started trying to push voice down the copper lines that we mucked things up.

In this book, you'll find technological wizardry, geek pioneers, global aspirations, long-distance romances, and online scams. You'll discover what 19th-Century chat was like. There are growing pains. We see fear for the future and fear of moral decline. The Telegraph represented a sudden, massive interconnection of people thousands of miles apart, and the effects of this overnight deluge of information is clear in reading. You have to remember that these were people used to feeling safe in their own homes, blissfully unaware of each other, and only vaguely informed of events going on in other countries.

Standage does a nice job of hitting on the hottest topics of our time, without hitting the reader over the head to make a point. Cybergeeks will love his stops at Cryptography, code, and the other programming-like solutions people came up with to solve their problems. Fans of history will be amused by the parallels between life then and now as "old media" learns to stop worrying and embrace "new media".

In a narrative style that resembles the British TV series "Connections", Standage shows us what each side of the Atlantic was up to, the race to connect the world, and the sheer determination and boundless optimism that made it all happen. There are also interesting tidbits along the way: we get facts about Samuel Morse and Thomas Edison that most history books ignore. There are anecdotes from 19th-century daily life that we can easily identify with today. All of it combines in a way that is easy to read, decently-paced, and fun to think about and discuss with others.

I give this book 5 stars for being clever with presentation and for keeping the various threads together without seeming fragmented. Tom Standage moves us through history without jumping around, and references earlier sections to remind us of where things are going. If you like history, technology, or even the geekier topics of machine logic, programming, and cryptography, this book makes an excellent read.

An entertaining historical account, October 9, 2001
Standage's "Victorian Internet," stands of one of the more entertaining non-fiction reads that I've read in recent months. It's clearly intended as a light read, not a deep scholarely work. The writing style is light and informative.

Standage's thesis in the book is that the Telegraph was very much like the internet is today. I think that in many ways, he was able to prove that thesis. It was the beginning of instant mass communications, and it opened the world in ways that few other inventions have since. There were even a few "Online romances" and marriages connected with the telegraph.

The book follows the developement of the telegraph from it's very early beginnings in the form of optical telegraphs, to the development of machine enhanced, and harmonic telegpahs, then lastly, the telephone. As the book progresses, the development of the telegraph is interspaced with many interesting anecdotes that makes the book even more entertaining.

The only downside I can see for this book is the lack of decent endnotes or something similar. I'm a fan of them, even if the book is intended as a light read.

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