The Victorian Internet, A Book Review

Imagine your daughter lives in another country, and she gives birth to your first grandchild, or a relative becomes ill.  The only way to send word is by ship, which could take weeks or months.  With the instantaneous communication we all take for granted today, it is difficult to fathom the dilemmas of communication before the mid 19th Century.  The Victorian Internet, written by London journalist and author Tom Standage, is a book about the origins of the telegraph, its substantial impact on society, and the comparison of yesterday’s “online” communication through the capabilities of the telegraph with today’s information highway network.  The subtitle of the book, “The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers”, offers the first indication of the author’s premise.  One can not deny the Morse code “dots” and “dashes” does quite parallel the “ones” and “zeros” of binary code.

This book was an enjoyable and easy read.  It not only teaches the history of the telegraph, along with a bit of technical theory, but tells a true to life story of the struggles and triumphs, the visions and concepts behind the ideas, and why the various inventors believed that a certain piece of equipment or tool would perform the way they had predicted.  Nearly everyone equates the Morse Code with Samuel B. Morse, and lends him credit for the invention of the telegraph.  It is true, Morse was very instrumental in the development of the telegraph here in the United States; what many people do not know is that the same technology was being tested at the very same time in Great Britain by another team, both unaware of the other’s activities.

The book’s descriptive style manifests images of the laying of the Atlantic telegraph line across the vast ocean and the sheer magnitude of the efforts put forth, along with the failures, which led to eventual success.  It is a wonder they did not give up.  From the unethical behavior and incompetence of Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, to the personal rivalry between William Fothergill Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone, this story contained just the necessary amount of humor and personal adventures that prevented the book from resembling a dry historical textbook.  Mr. Sandage whisks the audience back to the late 1700’s to mid 1800’s and transports them in time up until the arrival of the telephone.

Comparisons of the telegraph to the 21st Century internet are subtle. The Victorian Internet reads like a historical drama, as Sandage does not force his theories on his audience, given that each chapter transitions to chronologically build upon the previous. The book suggests that the telegraph was the origin of the internet.  The excitement generated in that day by this new technology manifested unrequited high hopes of peace between nations, and new ways of doing business, good and bad alike.  The “first” wiring of the world was certainly influential in the advancement of the dotcom escalation of the 1990’s, because the internet, as it is today, would not be in existence were it not for the telegraph technology.  Nonetheless, the difference is that a skilled operator was required at each telegraph station to receive and send messages, which was extremely labor intensive.  Subsequently, although the internet and the telegraph have many similarities, the communicative culture derived from the internet today is drastically different in the sense that there is a machine, not another body, standing between our communications with each other.  Up until 25-30 years ago, a person, Mr. Mailman, had to send your messages for you, unless you simply made a phone call.  Moreover, the capability of today’s internet to reach massive populations as compared to the telegraph is profoundly dissimilar.

As his website states, Tom Standage is a self proclaimed “specialist in the use of historical analogy in science, technology and business writing”. (1)  This journalist is the business affairs editor for the periodical The Economist, a weekly news and international affairs publication owned by The Economist Newspaper Ltd. in the City of Westminster, London.  Standage describes the activity surrounding the telegraph asout on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself”. (1)   On his blog page, the author defends his work to scholars by announcing that he is not an academic historian, and that his book is a popular works, not a textbook.  This approach enables the reader to embrace the book as a storytelling vehicle, yet also allows the audience to take away an era of history.

In the whole scheme of things, the telegraph and every piece of technology that has since followed is all in its infancy within the past 150 or so years.  But humans have walked this earth for many more thousands of years prior, so the telegraph really was one of the single most remarkable inventions that has affected our society.  The onset of the “second” internet further advanced the original wired technology by leaps and bounds within only the past twenty years or so, and who knows where or how we can progress from here.

Any person who is interested in history would enjoy The Victorian Internet, and it was an excellent choice as supplemental material for a Communications Technology course.  This book would also be beneficial for anyone who is studying History or Information Technology, as it offers a basic understanding of the origins of wired technology, even if you do not agree with Standage’s comparison to the internet today.

Works Cited

1.  standage, tom. “The Victorian Internet”. 3/4/10.


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