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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

3.4 9
by Tom Standage

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A new edition of the first book by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first "Internet," which revolutionized the nineteenth century even more than the Internet has the twentieth and twenty first.

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the


A new edition of the first book by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first "Internet," which revolutionized the nineteenth century even more than the Internet has the twentieth and twenty first.

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, Amazon.com

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Bloomsbury USA
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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 A History of the World in 6 Glasses, The Turk, and The Neptune File.
Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist and editor-in-chief of its website, Economist.com. He is the author of six history books, including An Edible History of Humanity, the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in Six Glasses and The Victorian Internet. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He lives in London.


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Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When it comes to internet hype, this book nails it! Anyone who thinks the internet is revolutionary, and will change everything, needs to read this book, and get a true historical perspective on the technology. Afterwards you'll marvel not at how much has changed, but at how little has changed in the past 100+ years.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Standage gives you a wonderful historical view of the telegraph and its implications on our modern day technologies. By historical view, I most certainly do not mean to imply that this book is a history book. It's concept is based more from the view point of sociology and anthropology and how they were impacted by telegraph technology in the past century. Throughout the book Mr. Standage gives you parallels between the telegraph and the internet. The book starts out by telling you the beginnings of the telegraph, and how the 'new' telegraph was speculated and ridiculed just like the concept of the internet. The book also relates practical ways in which the telegraph was used in both Europe and North America. There is even a story about an online wedding using the telegraph that took place with the bride in Boston while the groom was in New York. If you like to learn about history, technology, and culture, without being put to sleep, I would recommend this easy read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Upon reading 'The Victorian Internet' I realized that it took a very long time to get the world to communicate. This book was very good of including all the historical details. If you like to learn something new from books, this is the book to read. It starts out by explaining how people used towers to communicate and ends with how people send e-mails every second. The style of writing is very different from history text books, in the sense that it doesn't put you to sleep. The author does a very good job of describing the hardships of communications in a very intelligent and interesting way. The chronological order that the book was written in helps out a lot. From the early days of networks, until the latest days of the internet, everything goes step by step. As the book progresses it becomes more clear how the telegraph is the same tool as the internet, only less advanced. Our society started out slowly but then the rate of development sky rocketed. Not only did the invention of the telegraph speed up communication, it also speed up the way of life. People became more and more busy. Things picked up the tempo. The book shows how quick thinking is a requiement in the telegraph world. One example that the author showed us was the stand off of English and French troops in Africa. The troops didn't know what the governments wanted them to do, fight or leave? The English had an advantage, they quickly went to their telegraph line and asked the government. The government told them to claim the land. The French, without orders, were forced to retreat until they got a word from their officials, but by that time the English already fortified the land. All in all, this book teaches a lot about the way we communicate with the rest of the world. Every page of the book is interesting and full of facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to me by a friend last year, and I just finally got around to it. I wish I had read it sooner. By presenting a thorough and entertaining history of the rise and fall of the telegraph, Tom Standage effortlessly makes the point that nearly all of the modern Internet phenomena that we endure today had precedents in the Victorian age, when characters were sent down a single wire one at a time in the form of dots and dashes. Online chats, online business, online crime, online romance - you name it, and it was happening in the latter half of the 19th century. Great stuff!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoy the subject matter of this book. However, my experience is dampened by the fact that it was apparently not proof-read before it was released in the digital format. There are numerous spelling errors throughout and several numbers appear wrong due to the scanning process: i845 instead of 1845, for example. Many chapters begin with a small "Large" letter, etc. Since I paid for this book, I feel it should at least have the quality of a grade-school level proof-reading and checking. I hope this does not continue with other ebooks I get from Barnes & Noble.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tom Standage has done an excellent job of telling how the telegraph came into existence and how in revolutionized communication for the first time in millinium. Since the time of the Babalonians communication had to be hand delivered by messengers or couriers, later by mail services using shops and stagecoaches, often taking weeks or even months. Overnight, the telegraph made instant communication possible, albeit in code tapped out by skilled telegraph operators. Newspapers and givernments, particularly the military quickly saw its potential. Standage's book is an easy read which moves along at the pace of a good novel as he tells about rival inventors - bet you didn't know the first telegraph was invented by a Frenchman on the eve of the French Revolution in 1791 and Napoleon later allowedit to be used to transmit winning national lottery numbers - dating back a century before Victoria became queen of England! This is a very enjoyable and fascinating read for anyone who loves history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago