The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage


The subtitle explains:  The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers. The book begins with an image I have recounted several times now:  in 1746 a French abbot named Jean-Antoine Nollet convinced 200 monks to stand in a line, stretching over a mile, each holding a 25-foot length of iron wire connected to his neighbors' wires.  Nollet had a crude battery and he wanted to know whether electricity would go the length of the wires and if so, how quickly.  Well, it did, and very quickly.  I am imagining 200 monks knocked on their rears in the name of science.

Reactions to the telegraph, which was in full swing by the 1870s, were surprisingly similar to reactions in our time to the Internet.  Business practices were revolutionized both by the telegraph and again by the Internet; in both instances the changes have brought a dramatic increase in the amount of information to be used in decisions.  Privacy both in the telegraphic on-line world and in our own time is an issue.  As with any such change, people can find ways to use the invention for criminal purposes.  Governments tried unsuccessfully to control the telegraph and aren't too successful in our own time.  And romantic interests were served by the telegraph just as with the Internet; an on-line wedding occurred sometime before 1848 between a bride in Boston and a groom in New York to thwart disapproving parents. 

Of course the change experienced by the Victorians was much more dramatic.  News of war, disaster, diplomacy, and business information were available instantly, compared to weeks or months.  As cables were laid all over the world in the 1870s it was believed that bringing the world together would unite nations into a family and bring peace to the world.

This 1998 short history of the telegraph is a fun read.  

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