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

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

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by Tom Standage

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The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than

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The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts that of the Internet in numerous ways.

Editorial Reviews

John R. Alden
[Tom Standage's] writing is colorful, smooth and wonderfully engaging. The Victorian Internet is a delightful book. -- Smithsonian Magazine
USA Today
A fascinating walk through a pivotal period in history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A lively, short history of the development and rapid growth a century and a half ago of the first electronic network, the telegraph, Standage's book debut is also a cautionary tale in how new technologies inspire unrealistic hopes for universal understanding and peace, and then are themselves blamed when those hopes are disappointed. The telegraph developed almost simultaneously in America and Britain in the 1840s. Standage, a British journalist, effectively traces the different sources and false starts of an invention that had many claims on its patents. In 1842, Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee rooms of the Capitol, and Congress reluctantly voted $30,000 for an experimental line to Baltimore--89 to 83, with 70 abstaining "to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand." By 1850 there were 12,000 miles of telegraph line in the U.S., and twice that two years later. Standage does a good job sorting through a complicated and often contentious history, showing the dramatic changes the telegraph brought to how business was conducted, news was reported and humanity viewed its world. The parallels he draws to today's Internet are catchy, but they sometimes overshadow his portrayal of the unique culture and sense of excitement the telegraph engendered--what one contemporary poet called "the thrill electric." News of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 led to predictions of world peace and an end to old prejudices and hostilities. Soon enough, however, Standage reports, criminal guile, government misinformation and that old human sport of romance found their way onto the wires. 18 illustrations. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club alternates. (Oct.)
An Internet before the Internet—an intriguing idea, one that Standage develops nicely. He follows the development of the telegraph from its earliest beginnings as a set of banging pans, through various visual systems that covered many countries, to the sophisticated and largely automated electric system of the late 1800s that spanned the globe. The story of the development of the non-electric telegraph would by itself make the book worth reading—clanging pots and pans, waving jointed arms, blinking semaphore towers, and "Telegraph" hills all over the place! For those who harbor the notion that an invention springs fully formed from the head of a single person, the story of the development of the electric telegraph will be a good antidote. Samuel Morse was just one of a number of people involved; Charles Wheatstone, William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), and Thomas Edison were among a host of people on both sides of the Atlantic who took part in some way in making the electric telegraph span the globe and become the Internet of its day. The skepticism and technical problems that dogged the development of the electric telegraph make for fascinating reading, although the one failing of the book is the lack of even a brief technical discussion of why early electric telegraphs failed to function over long distances. Standage makes the case for calling the telegraph the Victorian Internet even more strongly when he describes the cheats and scoundrels, the lovers, the businessmen, and just plain folks who used and abused the telegraph. Men and women fell in love, marriages were performed, criminals were apprehended, and all manner of scams were tried over the telegraph. This is anaccessible and enjoyable little volume. It would be especially suitable for anyone interested in either history or technology. It would make an excellent case study in a beginning course on the history of technology. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Berkley, 227p, bibliog, index 19cm, $12.00. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Chuck Weber; Science & Math Teacher, Rochester, MN, July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
Library Journal
In his first book, British science journalist Standage gives an engaging and readable account of the invention, growth, and decline of the telegraph. In the preface and epilog, Standage claims that by understanding the social changes brought about by the telegraph we can better understand the contemporary sociology of the Internet; however, he only seriously addresses their similarities in the final chapter. Instead, most of the book is a historical account, peppered with biographical, sociological, and technological anecdotes. Annteresa Lubrano's The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change (Garland, 1997) investigates the same subject but takes a much more academic tone. This lay reader's history of telegraphy is recommended for public and academic libraries.--Wade Lee, Univ. of Toledo Libs., OH
Hari Kunzru
. . .[M]ight be something of a bummer to all those who still think that having an e-mail address guarantees their status as hipsters. . . .[But if] you've ever hankered for a perspective on media Net hype, this book is for you.
-- Wired
Kirkus Reviews
The telegraph, which now seems a curious relic, was once cutting-edge technology, every bit as hot, Standage reminds us, as today's Internet. Rapid delivery of messages to distant places was a wild dream for most of history; only on the eve of the French Revolution did a workable system come into existence. That first mechanical telegraph used visual signals relayed along a series of towers; but already scientists had experimented with signaling with electricity, which was thought to travel instantaneously. By the 1830s, Samuel Morse in the US and William Cooke in England had independently developed workable electric telegraphs. Curiously, neither had much initial luck finding backers. Morse's first demonstration of his device to Congress drew no support; even after a second demonstration won him funding, many congressmen believed they had seen a conjuring trick. Despite some dramatic successes, as when British police wired ahead of felons escaping by train and had them arrested in a distant city it was some time before the telegraph was more than a high-tech toy. But by the mid-1840s, both British and American telegraphy companies were showing profits, and by the end of that decade, growth was explosive. And by then, the elaborate culture of the telegraph system was taking shape. Telegraph operators and messenger boys became familiar parts of the social landscape. There was a growth industry in telegraph-based jokes, anecdotes, scams, and even superstitions. The charge per word transmitted made messages terse; the expense made most people use them only to report deaths in the family or other grave news. Technical improvements—notably in the laying of submarinecables—eventually led to a worldwide network.

Standage, most recently (and suitably) editor of the London Daily Telegraph's technology section, competently relates all this, and the eventual erosion of the telegraph's power by the telephone, which was at first seen merely as an improvement in the telegraph. A fascinating overview of a once world-shaking invention and its impact on society. Recommended to fans of scientific history.

From the Publisher
"Fans of Longitude will enjoy another story of the human side of dramatic technological developments, complete with personal rivalry, vicious competition, and agonizing failures." —Therese Littleton,

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition, Revised Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.09(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.69(d)

What People are saying about this

William Gibson
An inspired and utterly topical rediscovery of the emergence of the earliest modern communications technology. I recommend it highly.

Meet the Author

Tom Standage is the former technology editor and current business editor at the Economist. He is the author of Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2000 Years, the bestseller A History of the World in 6 Glasses, An Edible History of Humanity, The Turk, and The Neptune File. He lives in London.

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