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

Author: Tom Standage
Publisher: New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1998
Review Published: April 2002

 REVIEW 1: Jonathan Sterne
 REVIEW 2: Leslie M. Tkach

The Internet is not what it used to be. Since its original development as a simple text-based e-mail system in the 1960s, it has grown into a complex range of related technologies incorporating e-mail, news groups, Web sites, MUDs, MOOs, chat rooms, and cellular-based instant-messaging systems. With each successive technological development, the list continues to grow and it becomes more difficult to narrowly ascribe all of these functions to "the Internet." Further challenges arise when we step away from the technical capabilities of these Internet-related technologies and view its use within social, legal, political, and economic contexts. As the Internet is becoming increasingly difficult to technologically define and contextually analyze, how can we keep up with its current developments from these various perspectives, let alone predict where it will go in the future?

One possible approach is to look at the past. What may be forgotten in the complex dialogue surrounding the Internet is the fact that it is only the most current incarnation of person-to-person communications technologies that have developed over history. By historically examining the technological and social development of other communications technologies such as telegraphy and telephony, we may discover signposts (and roadblocks) within the lifespan of these technologies that provide clues to the future development of the Internet. After all, although these communications means either were or are part of everyday life (perhaps occupying the same role as the Internet does today for many of us), at one point in time, they had to be invented, developed, marketed, and put into general use. And specifically in the case of telegraphy, even lapse into disuse.

In re-acquainting ourselves with the fundamental nature of communications means, two questions arise: How are communications systems developed and distributed throughout societies? And, in turn, how does the resulting social use of such technologies further shape these communications systems? These two questions provide the basis for The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. Currently the Science and Technology Correspondent for The Economist, Standage has authored a wide range of books and articles that examine the Internet and related technologies from historical, social, and new-media-related viewpoints. [See Tom Standage's Web site for links to his other publications and a selection of his articles in The Economist.] By examining the development of telegraphy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Standage describes how communications systems can come into popular use through the reflexive interplay between technological advancement and the social use of such technology.

The telegraph's development required technological advances in two fundamental areas that can be described as the "hardware" and "software" necessary to provide telegraphic services. The initial concept for transmitting messages over distances was created in 1746 when a group of monks participated in an experiment conducted by French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet, who found that electricity traveled over certain distances with almost instantaneous speed. Another French scientist, Claude Chappe, further refined this concept in 1791 by using electricity to send certain signals representing words or phrases using tall pivot stands placed at strategically visible points. This optical telegraph, developed by Chappe and his brothers, was first used by the French government and later in slightly different variations by other European countries during the early 1790s. Yet although it was enthusiastically adopted, a number of technical drawbacks also surfaced: The telegraphs did not work in the dark, they were expensive to run (thus, at this point, only governments could afford them), and skilled operators were necessary for their operation.

Although these optical telegraphs provided the necessary "hardware," what was lacking was the "software" that would transform telegraphic transmission services from a series of interesting experiments into a practical communications system. The software problem was solved in 1832 by the creation of Morse code by Samuel F.B. Morse. Using electromagnets to produce long and short "clicks" (dots and dashes represented letters and numbers), Morse developed a language that could be used for sending messages through electrical wires. However, he met a stumbling block when attempting to send such messages over long distances. Although the basic technology and coding system were ready, further hardware refinements that would allow distance transmission had to be made before the telegraph could be marketed or put into general use.

The linkage between electricity and encoding was also being probed by two British scientists, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. They found that they could send messages further and faster than electromagnetic-based telegraph systems by using batteries to increase the velocity of electrical current running through wires. Through this means, they refined Morse's invention further in the mid- to late 1830s by using a system of switches and needles to represent alphabetic and numeric characters.

This technological infrastructure coupled with Morse code provided the basis for extending the utilization of the telegraph. However, as with all new ideas, finding financial backing proved difficult. The British and American governments, initially enthusiastic yet wary of the technical problems that surfaced throughout its development, backed away from directly financing further technological development in telegraphy. In the late 1830s, after having their funding requests repeatedly rebuffed, Cooke and Wheatstone turned to the only other source of large-scale financial backing available at the time -- the private railroad companies. Their funding and publicity stimulated interest in the telegraph which in turn led to the construction of telegraph lines throughout the United Kingdom in the early 1840s.

The novelty of the telegraph, if not its practical application as a messenging system, was also used to spur public interest and attention in the United States around the same time. This attention allowed Morse to also find financial backing for the telegraph through private industry. In 1845, he was able to form the Magnetic Telegraphic Company and construct a small network of telegraph lines along various railways in the eastern United States.

The involvement of private industry at this point in the history of the telegraph had a fundamental impact on its commercial and social development. By advertising and charging for telegraphic services, the telegraph quickly became profitable, which attracted more attention and business. Banks in particular were greatly attracted to the use of the telegraph as a means of rapidly transmitting messages among branches and clients. The initial use of the telegraph at this point by business concerns in turn caused improvements in its distribution technology such as vacuum tubes that connected centrally placed offices. The growing use of telegraphy also generated a new technically oriented occupation -- that of telegraph operators -- who, like modern-day computer scientists, possessed highly valued and necessary skills to operate the hardware.

After being adopted and refined by the business sector, telegraph technology filtered down to the general public through the establishment of telegraph offices in many cities and towns throughout the United States and Europe. Cheap, readily accessible, and instant communication capabilities appealed to the general public, who started to use the telegraph to send both business-related and personal messages. Standage provides a number of entertaining examples of crimes, love affairs, and financial transactions conducted through telegraphy in its heyday of the mid- to late 19th century. He also describes the trials and tribulations of laying the first transatlantic cable in 1858, which of course, extended the range of the telegraph even further.

On first glance, the invention and diffusion of the telegraph in the mid-18th century and that of the Internet in the late 20th century show some interesting parallels in terms of basic technology and social use. The encoding systems that were in use prior to the development of Morse code used a variety of complicated codes to send words, phrases, or abbreviated terms through electrical wire. Packet-switching, deconstructing a message to send various parts through different networks to be reassembled at its destination, provides a modern-day Internet equivalent. Morse code in itself is comprised of electric "clicks" that distinguish letters and numbers based on how long they were held and can be described as a type of binary code.

Parallels also appear in terms of diffusion. Although governments were initially interested in telegraphy as a means of contact among the higher levels of government, through social diffusion, the telegraph came to be used for a variety of purposes quite different from official diplomatic communications. One need only ponder how the Internet is used today compared to its original rationale for development by the American Defense Department as a means of official government communication.

Although the analysis of the rise and development of the telegraph illustrates close similarities to that of the Internet, how the telegraph eventually became superseded by other communications technologies may also be relevant in predicting the future of the Internet. The telegraph as a technology failed to innovate and was supplanted by cheaper and even more accessible technologies with faster diffusion rates such as the telephone. Furthermore, the basic hardware and software of the telegraph required either large sums of financial investment or specially adapted skill in its use, making it relatively inaccessible on a large scale by individuals. If we compare this to other communications technologies such as the telephone and the Internet, it is clear that this is a particularly key point in the diffusion of such technologies.

Two questions were initially posed at the beginning of this review: How are communications systems developed and distributed throughout societies? And, how do societies shape (or are shaped by) these communications systems? Throughout The Victorian Internet, Standage addresses these questions in terms of the story of the rise and fall of the telegraph. The key point in this book is that although technological innovation can initially determine the shape and construction of a communications means, it is only given meaning through how it is made accessible to and absorbed by societies. When comparing the telegraph and the Internet, although we may say that "the Internet is not what it used to be," we may also add, "Or is it?"

Leslie M. Tkach:
Leslie M. Tkach is a postgraduate student at the Graduate School of International Political Economy, University of Tsukuba, Japan. Leslie is currently researching how a blend of infrastructure, cross-cultural, and political economy issues contribute to the political use of the Internet in Japan and other South-east Asian countries.  <tkach@japan.email.ne.jp>

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