The Victorian Internet

By Eric Goldman

Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet (1998). Find it at Half.com and Amazon [the Amazon link is an affiliate link]

As you might infer, I’m not at the cutting-edge of reading books. I don’t read that many books in general; and I tend to read books well after everyone is done talking about them. But I enjoyed this book so much, and it has aged so well over the past decade, that I thought it was worth a shoutout. One side bonus: given that the book is no longer a hot release, you should be able to get this book used for well less than $10.

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 message…an event that will also probably pass with a whimper, not a bang.

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