The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage

Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth centuryʼs on-line pioneers. New York: Walker & Company.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and none of the 19th century Feuilletons—a bastard and popular literary genre full of love, mystery, revenge and exoticism—could equal the thrilling facts that led to the invention of the—electric—telegraph and other technologies such as the telephone, the lightbulb or the teleprinter, as with the culture that flourished around the first net that communicated instantaneously the whole world.

Those were times of revenge and fatalism, when entrepreneurs and scientists forced themselves to walked hand in hand, the race for the prize—be the one who register an invention in which several are working simultaneously—becomes an anything goes competition, love hit people who spoke without ever seeing each other, and even saw how a famous inventor were denied the love of a much younger woman until he developed the technology he had promised to her father.

This is also the story of an era where technologies tried to bring peace and hope to the peoples of the world, where the information begun to flow with fluency—not only between rich people—and it became possible for the newspapers to tell what was happening thousands of miles away as the news were still warm.

And not only did the telegraph bring more peace, but also more work. I’ve personally felt overwhelmed many times with the avalanche of mails, IM, twitter, facebook and similar instant services, not being able to focus and concentrate on a particular task. It happens that many of the businessmen of the 19th century had the same feeling, becoming slaves of what was supposed to be a beneficial tool.

The british journalist and author Tom Standage tells the history of the 19th century on-line pioneers in a fun and addictive way in The Victorian Internet. Regular BBC commentator and collaborator of Wired, The New York Times or The Guardian, he developes his main work at The Economist—were he is business affairs editor—and the Technology Quarterly—as editor. Among his published books stands out An Edible History of Humanity and A History of the World in Six Glasses.

Graduate of Oxford University—in engineering and computer science—Standage says of himself that his speciality is the use of the historical analogy in science, technology and business writing. In The Victorian Internet he establishes a series of parallelisms between the way the telegraph changed the world in the 19th century and todays internet: how it makes it possible to send messages instantaneously to anyone anywhere, the attempts to control the technology by both governments and private companies, how love can happen between people who communicates through a wire, the doubts on its security and privacy, the rise of technical slang and encrypted systems, the way many users feel that the new technology brings more work and problems that those that directly solves, and even how the instant interchange of information changed journalism.

As a clever writer who tries to explain the intricacies of one of the defining periods in the history of the communication technologies to a broad audience, the author not only explains the events and developments that led to the creation of different means to send information between distant places, but turns the history of these technologies in personal stories. Here Charles Wheatstone, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell or Claude Chappe are characters in a thrilling story of competition and overcoming. Elisha Gray is the eternal silver medal winner, Francis Ronalds is the visionary with bad luck, and Thomas Edison the tireless and brilliant man who seems to be everywhere and is always right.

We also have anonymous heroes & villains: from the telegraph operators who organized themselves to be more efficient at work to the sly insurance company worker who—by means of code—transformed a 45 word message in an eight word one, saving money to his company, through the ones that tried to get horse racing results beforehand to bet. Is a story of how this technologies changed the life of those—few if we compare it with today’s internet—that were in direct contact with the telegraph.

Is also a story of milestones, both in the evolution of the communications technologies and the world history: the optical telegraph was key in the military success of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the electric one was also protagonist of the railroad expansion in EE.UU. The transatlantic cable between Ireland and the States first enabled the instant communication between North America and Europe, and a telegraph message had a main role in the ‘Dreyfus affair’ in France.

Following his analogy between the electrical telegraph and today’s communications—basically the internet, but also the mobile phone and its SMS messages—Standage remarks in the last chapter how the journey of an e-mail message, as it jumps from one server to another, resembles the passage of a telegram from one telegraph office to another until it reaches its destination. He also talks about the importance of both technologies for business, the anecdotal marriages that have been conducted on the telegraph and online, and the crash between inexperienced users and those who already have internalized the uses, jargon and code of the new medium. And the comparison is so detailed that the only choice is to surrender.

The book is structured in a first part—the six first chapters—focused on the main names and the chronological developments, a second—from seven to ten—where he analyzes the implications and repercussions of the technology, and finally an allusion to how the telephone overcome the telegraph and a kind of conclusion.

Light, educational, and entertaining, The Victorian Internet is perfect for anyone interested in discover how the telegraph was born, the way it changed the world and its communications and learn some tips on how to read into the maybe not so drastic changes that the internet is causing today. Because history is a loop and analogy a powerful tool to solve problems. Mission accomplished.

Xx

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One Response to “The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage”

  1. Book Reviews « evolution and trends in digital media technologies Says:

    […] Xurxo – The Victorian Internet […]

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