The Victorian Internet

ISBN: 0425171698
ISBN 13: 9780425171691
By: Tom Standage

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For centuries people communicated across distances only as quickly as the fastest ship or horse could travel. Generations of innovators tried and failed to develop speedier messaging devices. But in the mid-1800s, a few extraordinary pioneers at last succeeded. Their invention--the electric telegraph--shrank the world more quickly than ever before.A colorful tale of scientific discovery and technological cunning, The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it. By 1865 telegraph cables spanned continents and oceans, revolutionizing the ways countries dealt with one another. The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by its skeptics. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought. The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Its saga offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time--and is a fascinating episode in the history of technology.

Reader's Thoughts

John Dodds

A gripping story of invention and innovation in the 19th century. Two things particularly struck me: (a) that the initial experiments with the electric telegraph were much earlier than I had imagined and well before Faraday's theory of electricity explained what lay behind it all; (b) the long, 30 year, gestation then the incredible explosion of take up of the telegraph (650,000 miles of cable in just a few years) and the pace (within a decade) within which the key undersea cables were laid. Breathless stuff.


I actually name dropped this book in one of my law school admission essays, it intrigued me so much. Ok. So the telegraph, boring, right? I thought so too, until I realized what a milestone it was for the people in the 1800's. Most people didn't really know what it was or how it even worked. Some folks actually thought messages weren't sent electronically, but through high powered pistons that pumped air and shot folded-up pieces of paper through a telegraph wire over hundreds of miles. And of course there was a new class of criminals who took advantage of the new technology---all of the parallels sounds exactly like the problems experienced in today's world with the advent of the Internet(i can still hear my grandma echoing "But how does the letter get INSIDE the computer?") It was an interesting read, and I think another step of getting inside the head of ordinary people in the 19th century, which is one of my passions in life. I think most of the world look at the everyday denizens of the past as boring, stark black-and-white characters. The kinda people who didn't make love or play with dogs or laugh at the tripping of clumsy people. I love it.


On-line wedding are old news. They were first done via electrical telegraph. This is one of the many parallel between the internet and one of the oldest telecommunications technologies. The changes wrought by the electrical telegraph were greater than those brought about by the internet, because the telegraph was developed in societies that lacked an already existing, near-instantaneous means of communications. In the decades prior to the electrical telegraph, a number of European countries had developed optical telegraphs, basically a network of semaphore stations. France was the first to develop a system in the 1790s and other countries copied the idea if not the exact set up. Optical telegraphs required a large amount of labor to staff semaphore sites, and nobody figured out a satisfactory way of using them at night.Besides discussing Samuel Morse’s work in the 1830s and 1840s to develop an electrical telegraph, Standage also describes the near simultaneous development of an electrical telegraph in Great Britain. William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph that indicated letters by means of rotating needles. The Morse system won out, because it required only one wire. Morse, Cooke, and Wheatstone were not the first people to think of an electrical telegraph, but they were the first to get systems into common use.After a brief period in which business was slack, owing to the public's lack of imagination about the possible uses of the telegraph, business took off and insufficient capacity became a problem. In general telegraph systems were arranged in a hub and spoke system, like many airlines, with local offices feeding messages into a central office which would transmit messages to distant locations. Only messsages along between two stations on the same wire would be transmitted directly. Messages were written down before transmission; after transmission the message was written down again, and the written message delivered to the recipient. Adding more operators was not an efficient solution, as for most local stations periods of high activity were fitfull. It took several decades for useful technologies for increasing the capacity of the telegraph system itself to be implemented.One work-around to effectively increase capacity was effectively was the use of pneumatic tubes, which sound like they resembled the apparatus used in drive-through bank to transmit your checks to the teller, to connect nearby small telegraph offices to a larger, central office. Several written messages could be sent to the central office at once this way. Pneumatic tubes were especially useful in connecting high traffic sources, such as stock markets, to a central telegraph office.The telegraph had numerous effects on society. News could be delivered long distances quickly, rather than arriving days to months after the event had occurred. This particular development had two important consequences. One consequence was that it was worthwhile for newspapers to have foreign correspondents; previously most newspapers had mostly covered local developments. The wire services developed as a way for newspapers to share the expense of these correspondents. Second, for the first time it became more important to not publicize such military developments as troop movements, because now this interesting information could reach the enemy well before the troops did. The Crimean War, the first major war in which the telegraph was readily available, saw governments struggle with how to deal with the implications of the new technology.The telegraph changed commerce, by making possible transactions that were previously impossible. It also increased the pace of business, from the slow pace that had prevailed when news as well as goods arrived only as fast as a sailing ship. Specialized forms of telegraphic communication, such as the stock ticker, were developed for business needs.Issues of privacy arose, just as with the internet. The solution was the same for both technologies; codes. As with the internet, most governments resisted the use of codes by private individuals (codes for governments were of course quite all right). Codes were also used to compress messages and thus save on communication costs. It took some decades for European governments to concede that private individuals could legally use codes. Western Union, a firm which acquired a near-monopoly on telegraph service in the United States, devised an effective code for money transfers.Also like the internet, the telegraph made possible new forms of crime, generally based on an information asymmetry - information that was known in one place but not another. For example, with some connivance it might be possible to place a bet on a horse race, whose outcome you knew, in a place where the outcome was not yet generally known.The telegraph may also have affected women's job opportunities. Apparently about a third of the telegraph operators in the New York office of Western Union were women. Female telegraphers were also common in Britain. Many of the utopian ideas expressed about newer technologies were first expressed in relation to the telegraph. Like the internet, the telegraph was predicted to bring world peace and understanding among different cultures (the author notes the ironic example of a British telegrapher in Persia who found the telegraph an excellent way to avoid interacting with the locals).De-skilling in the telegraph industry got serious in the 1880s, when ways to automate the process and deliver more than one message at a time along a line became commonly used. Charles Wheatstone (that man again!) developed an automatic sender in 1858 that could send messages in Morse code, messages that had first been punched onto a tape, at the rate of 400 words per minute. As the equipment was compatible with standard Morse telegraph equipment, and as inexpensive workers punching tape could replace expensive skilled telegraph operators, and as means of printing Morse code already existed, these machines were widely used, especially for newspapers. I wish the author had explained how the duplex and multiplex (systems that could send two or multiple messages down a single wire) telegraphs worked. The book was interesting on the social history of the telegraph, but I would have liked to learned a bit more about the technology.


The Victorian Age had its own Internet, with packet switching, domain names, encryption for secure communication, payload compression and error correction. It was called the electrical telegraph. It was invented in the 1830s by several inventors in Europe and the United States, the most important of whom was Samuel F. Morse. Telegraph lines made a world-wide web; laying the lines made a company making insulated cables from copper and gutta-percha, the resin of a tree from the Malay Peninsula, very rich. The skilled telegraph operators had a distinctive subculture with a slang; when the traffic volume was low, they chatted and played chess with each other over the wires. People were married over the telegraph; they committed fraud over the wire; visionaries thought that the new technology would bring world peace. When Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for treason, the Italian military attaché in Paris sent an encrypted telegram to his superiors saying that he was not aware of Dreyfus spying for anybody; the telegram was intercepted and decrypted using a codebook filched from the hotel room of the lover of an Italian count; French cryptanalysts broke the code aided by the fact that the plaintext must contain the word "DREYFUS"; yet the text of the telegram was withheld from the trial. The invention and perfection of the automatic telegraph, which allowed amateurs to punch messages into a paper tape before the transmission, and print them out at the other end, as well as the invention of the telephone by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, spelled the end of the telegraph operator's profession, though the technology survived well into the 20th century; its story was largely repeated by the Internet a century later.


A short, but thorough look at the history of the telegraph, as well as its sociological effects. Standage starts in the 1790's, with the development of the optical telegraph in France. An alternate design was developed in England, which in some ways, foreshadowed the 8-bit binary language of modern computing. The electrical telegraph had many different people participating in its development; with Samuel Morse being not only the first to put the pieces together most successfully, but also the one to develop a code that was relatively easy to learn and transmit. Like most new developments, Standage goes into the resistance this new communication system faced, both in Europe and America; in the Old World, the system was government-owned and controlled; while in the United States, free enterprise eventually saw the utility of the telegraph. The difficulty in establishing a trans-oceanic cable is covered in detail; as were the social aspects of the telegraph (particularly the meritocracy of the operators), albeit a little less thoroughly. The comparisons between the world of the telegraph operators and that of early Internet users is uncanny at times. He addresses the development of the pneumatic tube as a supplemental communications tool, and Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell appear in their adjunct roles. The writing is entertaining and informative; however, more detail might have been useful in certain sections. Standage provides a Sources list; some of which may be worth following up on. A worthwhile read for those interested in technology from the Victorian age. I'd recently read Time and Again by Jack Finney and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett and this work helped me put some pieces together from both of those novels.

Mary Catelli

All about the telegraph. Starting with the optical telegraph, widely used in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth -- mostly by government.The French invention was parallel to the French Revolution -- at one point the inventors were mobbed on the theory they were signalling to royal prisoners -- and widely used for governmental purposes. The British gave up improving it when the war was over. It had its limits, needing skilled operators in line-of-sight and being limited by darkness and fog.Lots of people tried to invent an electrical one, until two of them nearly simultaneously succeeded. Both of them took a while to prove their usefulness, even when they had done such things as announce the birth of Queen Victoria's second son -- and let the Duke of Wellington send for his suit, left in London, for the dinner -- and enable the capture of criminals by telegraphing descriptions. But then it started to take off, with miles upon miles of wire being laid. Messenger boys brought the telegram to the addresses -- which job Carnegie remembered with great fondness. Abbreviations came into use quickly. It describes the myths: the belief that the papers were shot down the wires, or a messenger boy ran along them like a tightrope walker, or that the humming -- actually an Aeolian harp effect from the wind -- was actually the sound of the messagers whooshing along. One woman tried to send her son soup over the telegraph, arguing that the French had sent soldiers to the front by telegraph. Another refused to believe a telegraph because it, taken down in the office, was not in her son's handwriting.International linkage were quick, but the art of underwater cables was tricker. (Gutta-percha, the appropriate substance, was suddenly a goldmine.) The Atlantic cable took two tries, in which the first, producing general rejoicing, failed after a small handful of messages -- one of which covered the cost, since a general was ordered not to send troops to India after all, because the Mutiny had been subdued without them.Soon had troubles with its own volume. The pneumatic tube was first invented to faciliate it before taking on its own life. Its use in crime and love and international relations and business. The codes, often public, that were used to compress the message, and the continuing battle of the telegraph companies to make them easier to be transmitted. Getting married over the telegraph and how the operators could fall in love. The British government finding that releasing information about troop movements put it in enemy hands within hours. The hampering of elopments by parents' ability to wire ahead and stop the wedding. Business men often found it troublesome because it could mean they had to drop everything and act now. The Gold Ticker first displayed the price of gold outside the Exchange, and then was delivered to the place of business of subscribers. Edison, a marvelous telegraph operator, really got his start by working there and figuring out and fixing the ticker when it broke, and telling his boss he had ways to help keep it from breaking down; his boss put him on salary for it. The Stock Ticker -- you've probably seen it, scrolling along on the bottom of a screen, but it was first a tape put through a telegraphic transmission.Automated systems helped speed it up, with duplex and quadraplex. The attempts to develop the harmonic telegraph, sending multiple messages at once, led to the telephone, which rapidly supplanted it.The final chapter discusses the many parallels between the telegraph and the Internet and warns that many of the more vivid predications were made then, too, and proved false. A remarkable sober and able discussion of the parallels.Excellent book. Many vivid ancedotes to enliven it.

Phil Scovis

Hackers and Chat-rooms? Well, some people committed crimes with the telegraph, and operators made small talk in their spare time. I suspect that telegraph really did bring about all sorts of hacking and cyber-crime and online community. But if so, this book explores it poorly. As a straightforward history of the telegraph,the book is comprehensive and detailed, while still being a breezy read. It especially illuminates the radical changes to society and worldview that the telegraph brought about. While stressing the apparent similarities between the telegraph and the internet, the author fails to note the continuity between the two technologies, as though the internet were a reinvention of a 19th century idea, rather than a continuation of it.

Randy Mcdonald

Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, a historical survey of the telegraph from its origins in the optical telegraph of Revolutionary France to the beginning of its eclipse by the telephone in the 1880s, makes a superficially convincing argument that the telegraph fostered a tight-knit culture among mid-19th century telegraphists comparable to contemporary Internet culture. Before the invention of the teleprinter, telegraph operators did constitute a highly-skilled class of information workers with sufficient leisure time as workers to develop a geographically dispersed culture, online relationships resulting in everything from stock market fraud to marriages. Though Standage's analogy stumbles in that telegraph operators always formed a rather smaller minority of the general population than Internet users even in the late 1990s, used critically it does help the reader get a grasp on the way that instantaneous global communications transformed the 19th century world. It's always comforting, somehow, to find out that the new in fact has a tradition somewhere.

Eric Goldman

The book discusses the history of the telegraph. The book explains the technologies preceding the telegraph, the battles between the inventors of the telegraph, the telegraph's role in spawning new technological innovations (and creating enormous wealth for some of those folks) and the ways that the telegraph did--and did not--change society.Its thesis is that many phenomena we associate with a global electronic network first occurred in the 19th century, not the 20th, which has made our celebration of the Internet's novelty (a topic at its zenith in 1998 when the book was published) ahistorical. The book thoroughly delivers on this thesis. One particular anecdote really hammered this point home. The book talks about a telegraph-mediated "online wedding" that first occurred...before 1848. (Indeed, the book "Wired Love" was published in 1879 and an article "The Dangers of Wired Love" ran in 1886). Yet, numerous newspaper articles from the mid-1990s marveled at Internet-mediated weddings as if they were completely unprecedented.More generally, the book broadly makes the case that some things never change. For example, the book describes the arms race between telegraph companies establishing pricing schemes to curb attempts to send more information at a lower cost, just to have telegraph senders coming up with new gaming strategies. The book discussed the paranoia of major institutions in response to telegraphy, including governments that sought to control the use of cryptography in telegraphy and newspapers that assumed that the telegraph would destroy their business. (In the latter case, the newspapers adapted and thrived in response to telegraphy). The book also described how the telegraph contributed to feelings of information overload.The book ends on a bittersweet note. It observes that people thought that the borderless telegraph communication network would contribute to world peace by breaking down barriers to communication. It didn't. If anything, the telegraph played an important role in 19th century imperialism and contributed to some of the bloodiest wars in history. Similarly, 150 years later, many similarly romanticize how the Internet can make the world a better place. Perhaps the Internet is truly different from the telegraph in this respect, or perhaps, we are just ahistorically proclaiming the latest technology innovation as our savior. As the book says, "That the telegraph was so widely seen as a panacea is perhaps understandable. The fact that we are still making the same mistake today is less so."From my perspective, the only thing "missing" from this pithy and efficient book was a more thorough discussion of how lawmakers reacted to the rise of the telegraph. I would like to know more about how 19th century regulators coped with--or, more likely, freaked out about--the technological assumptions changed by the telegraph.It seems safe to assume that some legislators misunderstood the technological underpinnings of telegraphy. The book gives numerous examples of how people didn't understand that the telegraph sent only electronic signals and wasn't a teleportation technology, such as the story of a woman in 1870 who sought to "telegraph" sauerkraut to her son. Again, some things never change; in 2003, a member of the House of Lords had a similar misunderstanding about spam. [the exact quote: "Will the Minister explain how it is that an inedible tinned food can become an unsolicited email, bearing in mind that some of us wish to be protected from having an email?"]In this vein, the book offered one possible explanation for Sen. Stevens' explanation that the Internet is a "series of tubes." [the exact quote from Wired: "the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."] Many telegraph operators built out a network of pneumatic tubes to move messages over short distances because this was quicker and more accurate for those messages. So perhaps Sen. Stevens was thinking of the telegraph when he referred to the "series of tubes."The book was published before Western Union sent its last telegram. At the time I knew this represented the end of an important era, but after reading this book I better understand the significance of that event. Some day, someone will send the very last TCP/IP enabled http event that will also probably pass with a whimper, not a bang.

Matt Hines

I just finished this wonderful little volume which chronicles the rise and fall of "The Victorian Intenet," the telegraph. Like many others, I knew about Samuel Morse and the Morse Code, of the laying of the Atlantic cable and how the telegraph laid the groundwork for modern communications unlike anything else in history. But what I didn't know is how very much alike it was to our Internet. They had "chat rooms" of sorts, they had their hackers and identity theives. Mr. Standage also tells a few fascinating stories of how some people found love on the wires. One story stands out about a young army telegrapher in remote New Mexico who married his fiance at the fort, while the minister and the bride's father were 650 miles away in San Diego. He tells of how bored telegraph operators played chess, exchanged jokes and recipes, and got to know people outside their hometown that without the device would not have been possible. The telegraph had much more of an impact on that generation than most other technologies have on this one. Before Morse and the other pioneers of telegraphy, news was limited to an area that might be no more than a few days ride away. News of foreign wars, trade regulations, and even news from the far corners of our far flung republic could be weeks old by the time it reached decision makers. One wonders if the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 would have been fought, as a peace treaty was signed weeks before this famous battle was waged. Between 1844, when Morse sent his famous phrase over the wires, to Alexander Bell's utterances on his new telephone, the world changed drastically because of the twin catalysts of telegraphy and the railroad. Messages could now be sent from London, and it would reach it's destination in Bombay four minutes later. A New York merchant could receive an order to export flour to London, and in turn issue orders to his warehouse in San Francisco to send it eastward to help fulfill the order. During the American Civil War, President Lincoln knew the events unfolding in far away battles almost as soon as they occurred- something that had never happened in previous conflicts. And just like we had a dot com boom, where the opportunities were online, so they had a telegraph boom, where a man could make something of himself in this new fangled world. I have read widely in history, and every once in a while a book crosses my path which excites my intellect. This book entertains, informs, and demonstrates once again that indeed "there is nothing new under the sun." It just is updated.

Doc Kinne

The book was good, and largely lived up to its billing, but in the end I liked "The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States" better. While the thrust of the book - that the telegraph was the Victorian equiv. of the Internet - can be supported, truthfully that supposition is somewhat elementary since both are fundamental communication devices. So the subject of the book is somewhat of a, "Duh!"What was more interesting was the very, very end when specific parallels were made with regard to both the societal expectations of the telegraph and later the Internet were made, how they didn't turn out to be true in the late 1800s with the telegraph and how they are still not true, despite hopes, in the late 1900s with the Internet. In some ways, despite technology, and what it brings, people are as dumb as ever.

Ginger Monette

In researching to write a WW1 novel involving telegraphy, I read this book seeking information on how telegraph worked--not what morse code is, or the science of electricity that made it possible, but how did a message get from one place to another? Was it like a telephone where you could connect directly with whom you were seeking? Or did the message have to be rekeyed and sent over and over like a letter stopping at various post offices along the way? Although I would have liked much more detail, this book FINALLY answered the question and, as I suspected, it was more like the post office analogy.But, in searching for that answer, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the book. I assumed the title was figurative, but indeed it was more literal than I anticipated. Truly the telegraph was the first sort of internet: Inter--meaning among/between; net meaning networked--a network between us. And that is exactly what the telegraph was.I am now curious why telegraph played a vital role in WW1 in spite of the fact that clearly, by 1914, telephones had a firm foothold.The Victorian Internet is a quick read, satisfying to anyone interested in the evolution of communications technology.

Harris Bin Munawar

"I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word 'Yes' is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak it, she might have found it harder”-Thomas Edison


Utterly fascinating history of the invention, development, spread, ubiquitous use, and decline of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet is a very important global read - this invention was truly one of the most important our species has ever created. The phone, fax, internet, and satellite systems were all just continuations of this idea. A connected planet, exchanging information in real-time. Standage, just as in his "A History of the World in Six Glasses," manages to communicate a subject tat could be convoluted, dry, and inaccessible in an extremely clear and entertaining fashion. Couldn't put it down. Quick notes - because an in-depth summary would be silly for a book of this nature:Samuel Morse essentially invents the electric telegraph (after the French and the British try to make use of the optical telegraph - which is essentially an elaborate windmill whose arms you can manipulate). He manages to invent Morse Code at the same time. He has the darndest time getting anyone to think it's anything more useful than a funny trick.Thomas Edison not only invented the lightbulb, but he got his start running messages back and forth in complex telegraph stations (as did Andrew Carnegie), became an excellent Morse Code operator, and then revolutionized the existing technology behind the telegraph. Smart guy.It took a lot of false starts to lay down the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, but the process essentially involved dumping miles and miles of reinforced cable out of a boat and chugging to the other side. Because you paid by the word, people developed elaborate code systems to communicate by long nonsense words that required a codebook to translate. Highly recommended.


An excellent overview of the challenges of communication only recently overcome - as the author points out, both Julius Caesar and George Washington, despite living centuries apart, were limited by the speed at which news could travel - only as fast as a horse or a ship could carry it. There are some historians who believe the War of 1812 may have been avoidable with faster communication, although this is highly speculative. However there's no question but that fast communication, which we now take for granted, was a bit of a pipe dream even in the 18th century. Even in my own lifetime, the idea of a cell phone, much less a video phone, was something you saw on The Jetsons or Star Trek but never actually expected to be real. But if you imagine how we feel about a crisis that affects loved ones in faraway places - for example, Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese earthquake the destruction of the WTC, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing - and how desperately we want news to be sure that the people we love are safe - how every minute we wait for news seems intolerable - now imagine waiting months for the same news to arrive. That was one of the motivations for building telegraph systems, although, as it turned out, military, diplomatic, and commercial interests ended up using it far more often than individuals. Nonetheless, for a brief time, the telegraph was the marvel of the 19th century, and telegraph operators who could quickly transcribe Morse code were highly in demand. This is a fascinating tale about the march of progress - the years between 1800 and 1960 arguably saw the greatest technological developments in the Western world. If you consider the young Samuel Seymour witnessing President Lincoln's assisination in 1865, and then, towards the end of his life, being interviewed on CBS television in 1956, you can imagine the astonishing speed at which the technological developments changed the world. This is a must-read for anyone entranced with this marvel of the "march of progress" in the Western world.

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