marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

The Victorian Internet

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

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.

Tags: history reviews: 19th century-wwi, world-building: technology

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