Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

by Tom Standage
Walker, 2007.
256 pages.

The Victorian Internet, surprisingly, details the 19th century development of the telegraph. You wouldn't expect the telegraph to be compared to the Internet, but Tom Standage makes the connection make sense. For people in the Victorian era, used to a slow pace of life and news that literally took months to cross the world, the telegraph changed the way they lived.

Standage provides the background you'd expect about just how the telegraph developed. He tells you about how successive inventors built on each others' work ultimately culminating in Samuel Morse's telegraph that took over most of the world, and quite a different version that became popular in England. He explains the successes, the failures and the personal rivalries that led to the rise and fall of this instrument of communication.

More interestingly, Standage shows how people reacted to the telegraph. This new technology brought news in from around the world in a way that was nearly instantaneous. People were amazed by the ability to find out about the rest of the world, and predicted that as we got to know our far away neighbors, a sense of brotherhood and communion would develop. The sharing of information, it was predicted, would end war and usher in a new era of prosperity. As you know, none of this happened, but these same predictions were also made about jumbo jets that allowed us to cross the world in a hurry, and, more recently, about the Internet,

This need to attribute world changing powers to inventions is a curious thing, and, unfortunately, Standage spends little time on it. Ultimately, it likely reflects a need to believe in something bigger and more incredible than ourselves, and, as a society, we've lost a belief in someone who has the control we lack.

Though the telegraph has gone away - in the U.S. Western Union ended telegraph service in 2006 - the author suggests in the afterword that it has a successor, the text message. The quick, short and snappy communication that the telegraph provided is still needed - or at least desired - much as it was before however the format has changed considerably.

If you want to know about how society reacted to change then, and continues to do so today, you'll want to read this book.

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