The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage

Nine stars

After reading a few books by Tom Standage, I was eager to get my hands on this piece. While many are familiar with the explosion of the Internet over the past few decades, Standage argues that there was a similar type of communication system that was just as complicated and readily accessible to the masses. The idea of a telegraph system came about centuries ago, when a Frenchman sought to relay messages between two points using the clanging of pots in a specific coded manner. While this seemed to work, it fell apart when the wind was too strong and the privacy of the message was completely lost. As advancements grew, telegraphy became a hot topic among physicists and investors of all kinds. Samuel Morse is seen as the father of modern telegraphy, using wires to transmit messages through a coded system he created. The emergence of Morse Code and the continued experimentation of communication through the wire began a primitive system whereby communities could pass along short messages up or down the line. However, vastly separated areas were still not able to communicate with one another, which posed an issue in making it a truly global attraction. Into the middle of Victorian Era, the idea of sending messages across the British Empire became all the rage, or at least across the Atlantic Ocean. Laying wires across open bodies of water by ship soon remedied this, though there were still errors during the early stages of its organisation. With determination, messages began to make their way through, though the ease with which messages could be sent soon created a massive backlog.

Standage addresses some of the larger follies of the telegraph system in the second part of the book. By using Morse Code, operators would sometimes bungle a single word and thereby completely change the message being sent or delivered. This proved to be quite costly in one instance, as a man lost thousands in stock purchases because he misunderstood the message sent by a colleague. There were also the issues of coding or shorthand message sending, where fabricated words made it even more difficult to convey the needed message from one person to the other. Eventually, rules were put in place to standardise, or at least limit the superfluous verbiage being placed across the lines. A more humourous downfall included the lack of complete understanding that people had about telegraphs. Standage discusses two examples whereby people came to the telegraph office to send physical items, from a plate of sauerkraut to a handful of money. The concept of immediate communication between people still needed to be honed, but things were surely moving in the right direction.

Standage does speak of some of the downfalls that came with telegraph use, specifically the inundating of offices with information. These countless messages would create major delivery delays and tie up the wires for weeks, thereby making the new technology less effective. Others argued that telegraph transmission provided the consumer with too much readily accessible information, lessening the ‘business edge’ when it came to the capitalist relationship. The rise of Western Union can be directly tied to the advancements in telegraphy, creating a monopoly for a period. However, as new technology emerged, in the form of the telephone, Western Union’s telegraph system began to wane, leaving it to fill the void with money transfers, but that is best discussed in another biography.

After reading to stellar books about world history seen through the eyes of various objects, I was pleased to see telegraphy receive such a thorough examination. Standage does a masterful job at laying the historical groundwork and developing great arguments throughout. He uses an array of concrete examples to substantiate his hypotheses in each chapter and provides the reader with a great story about the development of the telegraph machine. His parallels in the latter portion of the book as it relates to the modern internet is quite useful, as though there was a quasi-resurrection of ideas and sentiments about this new form of communication. The writing is not overly academic, though there is definitely a detailed primer feel to the writing, requiring more than a passing interest in the topic. I found myself affixed to the narrative and wanted to know more, hanging on while Standage discussed many of the topics at hand, which mixed a serious and somewhat humorous side to the topic. While the telegraph was eventually replaced with the telephone, there is sure to be a new form of technology that awaits the general public. What that is has yet to be discovered, but I hope Tom Standage is still around to explore it and pens a catchy tome to discuss its emergence.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for another amazing reading experience. I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read of yours to date and will scour the library for more!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: