The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers
is a non-fiction book by Tom Standage, published in 1998. The book outlines the establishment of the world-wide telegraph system in the late 19th century and draws parallels between its use and cultural impact with the rise of the modern-day Internet.
Standage begins with an overview of the development of the telegraph as a technology, noting that early experiments with distance communication involved visual systems like Claude Chappe’s â€›visual telegraph.’ These systems required good weather, daylight, and relatively short distances in order to work and were in fact quite slow. Experiments with electricity, however, resulted in several breakthroughs that demonstrated that electrical impulses could be carried over wires across vast distances and took only seconds to transmit. This led to the first telegraph networks.
Telegraphs also had the advantage of being relatively easy and cheap to construct, but early attempts to create a universal network failed. Rival systems emerged in Europe and the United States, with William Cooke developing a system in England while Samuel Morse developed his own system in the United States. The Morse Code system ultimately became the de facto
standard because it was simple and easy to use. While telegraph pioneers dreamed of running wires under the ocean to link North America with Europe, they found governments disinterested in spending money to establish these networks.
Another challenge to the telegraph was skepticism; electricity was not well understood at the time and many refused to believe that something they could not see could be real. Morse and Cooke built large-scale telegraph networks as proofs of concept by partnering with railways to build telegraph systems along their tracks. Once these systems were built, their ability to transmit news quickly, as on the occasion of Prince Albert’s birth or the apprehension of a fugitive from justice, captured the public imagination and established the telegraph’s benefits in the popular imagination. However, this still didn’t translate into government support, and so Morse and Cook took on private investors and launched telegraph companies in order to take matters into their own hands.
The telegraph became popular, but was very expensive as the companies charged by the word and by distance. As a result, the telegraph was used sparingly by all but the rich. Similar to modern-day chat rooms and text messages, the telegraph soon developed its own shorthand and abbreviations. The first underwater telegraph line was laid across the English channel in 1851. Although the first cable connecting Europe and North America was laid in 1858, it quickly ceased to work properly. At this time a system using vacuum tubes to transmit hard copy message also rose up and became quite popular for short-distance communication, and the telegraph enjoyed improved performance thanks to ongoing technological improvements. The telegraph seemed to harken a new age of peace and prosperity because empires would no longer have to push through territory to move information, but this proved to be more of a pipe dream than a reality.
As with the current Internet, the telegraph offered criminals various ways of breaking the law, and the government found itself struggling to adapt. For example, an early stock market fraud relied on getting information about the markets before anyone else could. In order to hide their activities, criminals began developing complex codes and ciphers in order to protect their criminal communications from prying eyes. Codes were also developed to make communication more efficient and cheaper; for example, the ABC codes. However, as industries and organizations all developed their own codes, things were very confusing and fractured until the development of an official vocabulary for telegraphic messages.
People used the telegraphs to find love and even to get married, just as people use the Internet today for dating. Also like the Internet of today, the telegraph changed how business and industry was done, because of the speed of communication and the lack of physical barriers. At the same time the telegraph intensified the carnage in warfare as countries were able to direct their armies in near real-time using the technology. Also similar to today, the telegraph allowed news from all over the world to flood into newspapers, overwhelming them with information.
Standage then notes that the financial markets required even faster and more efficient, specialized communications, and so the stock ticker was invented. It was later perfected by Thomas Edison, and the profits from his improved ticker allowed him to go on to invent things that largely made the telegraph obsolete, including improvements to the telephone which allowed for instant voice communication between vast distances.
In the end, it’s common to imagine the past as a vastly different, alien place, but Standage makes the point that while the technology and its capability was very different, our reaction to the telegraph and the unexpected consequences it delivered is very similar to the Internet of the late 20th century.