19th-century cyberspace

The Victorian Internet
December 25, 1998

There is always something comforting in the discovery of pre-histories, in learning that there was a horse-carriage industry before the motor car, that the Romans had central heating, that the ancient Britons manufactured aspirin from willow bark. There is no shortage of them and they always carry a reassuring subtext, namely, that there is nothing really new in the world, that one thing just follows another in an endless series of funny stories and false starts and amusing discoveries.

Tom Standage of The Economist now provides an extremely readable brief account of the history of the telegraph, in which he points out the many parallels with the age of the internet, with its self-hype, its utopian overlay, its fears about the consequences of information overload, its prognostications of new industries, new crimes, new social tools.

He starts the story with an account of the pre-electronic attempts at signalling systems (optical telegraphs that sent coded messages from tower to tower across revolutionary France) and describes the sceptical reluctance of governments in the early 19th century to try the schemes of the telegraph pioneers. Eventually William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone and Samuel Morse and others demonstrated the practicality of the technology, and ultimately the pursuit of profit and military advantage ensured that telegraph wires were laid all over the world.

Many people of otherwise sound judgement seriously believed that the telegraph would so transform the world with its wires and connections that universal and eternal peace between nations would be the inevitable result - how could there be misunderstanding when communication was instantaneous?The telegraph was believed to have "widened the range of human thought" and even, by some, to have improved the standard of journalism and of literature. Morse, the acknowledged father of the telegraph, was treated in the United States and Europe as a kind of global saviour - and, indeed, his inventions had helped many prodigious fortunes to be made, although he did not very greatly enrich himself. All of the pioneers were given the heroic treatment, loaded with medals, banqueted and even voted state pensions.

The telegraph and its software, the telegram, were invested with enormous cultural significance and legend. Telegraph operators would propose marriage in Morse code and there were wedding ceremonies conducted in early cyberspace. Very soon there were telegraph scams and confidence tricksters, counter-balanced by enhancements in police detective work. The telegraph clerk pursued a mysterious profession, commanding a certain deference, with its own codes and secrets and its emphasis on inviolable discretion. For several decades it gave out a sense of boffinry, of mutual and international solidarity. There were female as well as male clerks and the most adept of them could send messages at extraordinary speeds - faster at times than human speech - along the telephone wire that eventually displaced the telegraph.

Very quickly whole industries came to depend upon instant communication of prices and availability of goods. Like all new communication devices, the telegraph brought about a whirlwind of creative realignments in economic activity. No business could afford to be without it once it was established across a terrain. No general could command without it - but once it was in place no general was any longer free to command without strategic advice from his home government. It facilitated many of the other great developments of the time, for there had to be specialist ships for laying cables, gutta-percha farms for creating the essential insulating substance, specialist metal works and an army of messenger boys to fetch and carry telegrams. Thomas Edison himself was a young telegraph operator who went on to develop the electric light bulb and innumerable other devices.

The Victorian central telegraph office was a vast information-processing centre, its networks of wires supplemented by a mass of pneumatic tubes that transferred the messages between the sorting tables, from one telegraph operator to the next. The tubes (in Paris you could speak of sending a "pneu") also sometimes extended to and within private concerns and projected messages at great speeds - steam engines were used to create the vacuum that forced the bits of paper through the piping. The organisation of such an enterprise necessitated clearly conceived managerial structures that fitted into the rapidly constructed international system of submarine cables and telegraph offices stretching to the most remote settlements in all the continents of the world. The telegraph is a wonderful subject and, for us today, a source of fascinating speculation, for it was indeed unconsciously a gigantic rehearsal for the communication devices of later generations and it played a massive set of roles in Victorian societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The problem with this treatment of the subject is that the author is overly tempted into entertaining and ingenious simplification. We now live at a great enough distance from this transforming invention to look for something more than the superficial -though admittedly quite valid - parallels with the internet that form Standage's main preoccupation. One would like him to have brought out the way in which the telegraph helped to usher in the era of the expert, in which the price system of the telegram mirrored and reinforced the class order, in which people were provided with new notions of time and space and thus of cultural and ethnic difference. There are real questions of our time that could usefully and interestingly have been raised in place of some of the rather archly conceived historical analogues. But the book is full of good stories and, I suppose, delivers the useful message that one must always accept and encourage what technology offers if one wants to avoid the mockery of posterity.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the 19th Century's Online Pioneers

Author - Tom Standage
ISBN - 0 297 84148 3
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £ 14.99
Pages - 216

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