Read Recently — October 2014 — The past is another country; they do things exactly the same

The Victorian Internet: the remarkable story of the telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s online pioneers by Tom Standage

This is a 2007 reissue of a 1997 original, with an afterword discussing how little things have changed in the interim (Standage notes how useful it is to be writing about tech over a century out of date when it comes to discussing progress).

Telegraphs began with optical signals; great big towers that flailed arms around to send signals to another tower in the line of sight, and so on (the similarity of the Discworld’s “clacks” towers is not coincidental). They were invented first in France in the 18th century; telegraphe means “far writer”. They were used at first mostly for military purposes, and because of the requirement for line of sight didn’t work so well in bad weather, etc.

The main problem with getting the electric telegraph, the one we’re all familiar with, started was getting the signal to travel any distance through the wire. No, seriously, that was a real problem. Fortunately, it was an easy one to solve, and once Samuel Morse came up with a commercially viable method, it was on to the next problem: how to convince the average person on the street they wanted to use it? For those of us who grew up in ages of instant communication (and, I mean, I doubt if there’s anyone using the internet who predates TV, never mind radio and telephone) it can be hard to imagine not wanting to be able to hear from the far side of the country in less than weeks, never mind the far side of the world. Standage does a good job throughout the book of putting the communication difficulties of the pre-telegraph world into perspective; even news as we know it didn’t exist then and it took a while to catch on. And once that was done, the next problem awaited: submarine cables, particularely the trans-Atlantic cable, brought different engineering problems than you might expect.

In an interesting twist, the telephone emerged as the result of an attempt to create an audio telegraph and that was basically the end of the telegraph itself, though as noted in the afterword, Western Union only shut down their telegraphs in 2006.

The book is well-written and I found it fascinating, and the comparisons to the Internet are apt. Recommended.


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