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


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.


You know you want to read all about how the telegraph ushered in the information age, "wired love" and all! It's fun to follow the trail of inventive genius and the resulting cultural shockwaves. The things humans can do! Loved that every time I had difficulty picturing the mechanisms of one contraption or another, I turned the page only to find a helpful historical diagram! The comparisons with our modern internet are still apt 10 years on. Maybe more so, from our vantage point of web 2.0 or whatever they're calling it these days. (Though, for my money? The best legacy of the golden age of the telegraph might just be the pile of bad poetry.)Once you've read this I recommend checking out this book review for a critique and more cool thoughts about elitism, the transformative power of technology, and narratives of progress.


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.


I read this years ago. The visual of two French brothers banging pots and pans to communicate at a distance comes to mind. I also remember mention of the first telegraph wedding, and the trouble that telegraph owners had with operators taking up the lines to play tele-chess. Oh, and all of the work that went into laying the Transatlantic cable, I remember reading about that and thinking: Wow, they did that back then?This is a great little history book, and I will definitely read it again some day to keep its subject matter fresh in my memory.

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.


After reading a number of the reviews I am prone to think that a number of people missed the larger point. For all of the hyping of the internet in the mid to late 90's, it wasn't as drastic a change to everyday lives as was the electric telegraph. Where it took weeks to months for a message to cross oceans or continents before the telegraph, it took minutes after. The phone and internet just changed the amount that could be communicated. The telegraph truly interconnected the world and laid the groundwork for the phone network and internet later.Also to try to compare the telegraph operators to your standard internet user is unfair. the more proper analogy would be to the web designer/software programmer. It was a more technical job than the GUI interface of our browsers of today which make it so easy for your basic user of the internet.I agree that it is mostly an overview that doesn't go greatly in-depth, but it does hit pretty much all the points. To say that it doesn't go very far into the Chappe's telegraph towers is also unfair; the book does go into it and discusses how it sped up communications, and then it does go into the disadvantages as well (doesn't work at night, doesn't work in fog or heavy rain, and seen by whoever has a line of sight view (so not very private)).

Adam Wiggins

Fun read about the heyday of the electric telegraph (circa 1850 - 1880).Tidbits:- The original telegraph system was visual, not electric. Towers were built on tall hills that signaled each other and passed messages along. This is why there are still places named "Telegraph Hill." What I usually think of as a telegraph (an operator sitting at a keypad tapping out morse code) didn't require any particular line of sight.- Prior to the invention of the telegraph, boarding a train right after committing a crime meant it was almost impossible for you to be caught. Information could not travel faster than a speeding train until the telegraph.- A whole private culture existed among telegraph operators, which I found comparable to the BSS culture in the 1990s. Operators had signatures ("sigs") and codenames ("handles"). Online romances sprung up between operators who had never met in person.I assumed the comparison to the internet in the book's title was a gimmick to grab attention, but based on the material presented here I think it's fairly accurate. The telegraph system was the world's first world-wide web. Terms like "network" (then "net-work"), online (then "on-line"), "web", and even "information highway" were used by people of that time to talk about the telegraph system.


nah- it's cool. just mention women once. we're totally over that gender analysis thing..

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.

Jillian L

"The Victorian Internet," written by Tom Standage, is a good source of information for the history behind the telegraph. It was really slow at parts of the book, but it is a good read. "The Victorian Internet," gives a really clear, descriptive view on the journey of how Samuel Morse invented and succeeded making the telegraph. Morse even accomplished making the telegraph line that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He had many struggles with inventing the telegraph but there were also many rewards. He was a very determined man and that was what kept me reading this book. He never gave up and kept working until he succeeded. Tom Standage did a great job with this book, but he added so many details that I had to constantly read the page over and over again. It took me a little longer than usual to finish this book. I would recommend this read to anyone who is interested in inventing things or who is interested in learning about the history on the telegraph. It's a really interesting topic and Tom Standage does a good job explaining it.


What a surprisingly fun historical account of the development, uses, and effects of the telegraph. Standage strung together an interesting narrative which made for an enjoyable and easy (non-academic/jargony/theoretical) read. It's great for anyone looking for an overview of the telegraph or a starting place for understanding the social developments/effects. It really is amazing how much the development, uses, users, effects, and discourses of the telegraph parallel the internet. Everything from romances, to hackers, to concerns of privacy, to changing business practices, to issues of addiction/dependency, to the spread of news, gossip, and political information is eerily and strikingly similar. As a media scholar I already knew this, yet for some reason media scholarship so often uses the phone and letter writing as the precursors to the internet (with a mere, yea yea and the telegraph). Really we would all benefit from remembering the subcultures, discourses, effects, hype, users, social norms, etc. of the telegraph. Great read, quick, fun, informative, and all around enjoyable.


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.

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.


The Victorian Internet is a book that I enjoyed reading and would recommend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of the telegraph and its significance to the Internet. If history repeats itself, as I think it does, there are key points that can be derived from reading this book. While I cannot imagine a time when the Internet will be replaced by new and better technology like the telephone replaced the telegraph, it is worth thinking about from a user experience design perspective. The book touches upon key elements of new technology like innovation, prototyping, social/cultural/economic consequences, and privacy, to name a few. I enjoyed reading about the historical background of the telegraph and its social impact on both the people using and facilitating the communication system. I was especially intrigued with the social consequences of the telegraph, like the romances and the culture behind telegraph operators.

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