Book review : The Victorian Internet

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

By Tom Standage. New York : Walker and Co., 1998. Pp. IX + 227. $9.56.

The title of this book, in particular the words “Internet” and “On-Line,” reminds us that networked telecommunication systems are not unique to our contemporary times. Although digital computer networks, and in particular the World Wide Web, are perceived today as revolutionary, it is always necessary to look at previous technologies in order to grasp a better understanding of their cultural, economic, and social impact. In The Victorian Internet, science and technology journalist Tom Standage tells the story of the development of the telegraph network during the 19th century, and highlights some of the similarities with the 20th century Internet. This historical tale is divided in twelve chapters that explore, chronologically, different aspects of the creation, implementation, and decay of the telegraph system in Europe and North America. Some chapters focus on the life of amateur scientists and inventors; others on the technicalities, regulations, and economic facts of the nations that implemented the new technology (in particular England, France, and the United States); others on the cultural practices developed by businesses, telegraph operators, and users of the system. At the end of the book, there is one chapter where the author reflects on the legacy of the telegraph and an epilogue where he criticizes techno-utopianism.

Standage tries to argue that the implementation of the telegraph network was more dramatic and transformative for the world than the computer Internet of the 20th century, and that it created the foundations for the development of subsequent telecommunication technologies. Although his intentions are valid, his methodology is neither rigorous nor comparative, and his argument is not well developed. This book was written for a popular public, not an academic audience. Standage focuses on describing the development of the telegraph through anecdotes and superficial facts. His sources are mainly newspapers, trade journals, magazines, and biographies. Furthermore, since Standage avoids consistently a direct comparison with the cultural, economic, and social transformations brought by the computer Internet, it is the reader who needs to identify the similarities through the common terminology that exists between the two systems. In the few occasions when the author explicitly compares the telegraph and the computer networks such as in the conclusion and epilogue of the book, his argument focuses on a criticism of the contemporary excitement and optimism about the Internet and does not compare the social, cultural, and economic specificities of the two systems.

Despite the lack of academic rigor, The Victorian Internet is an informative and entertaining reading. The book is plenty of personal anecdotes and details that bring color to the different episodes that Standage has selected for narrating his tale. The majority of these personalities are male inventors, scientists, skilled telegraph operators, and businessmen. For instance, for describing the foundations of the telegraph, Standage focuses on the life of Claude Chappe and how his invention of the optical telegraph was implemented in France. In order to illustrate the slow process of creation of the electric telegraph infrastructure, the author narrates the obstacles that Samuel Morse and William Cooke overcame in in the United States and England, respectively. For portraying the tinkering culture of the telegraph operators, Standage chooses the ingenious tasks performed by the young Thomas Edison. Sometimes the episodes of the tale, especially those that occurred once the telegraph infrastructure was in place, involve only secondary characters such as the criminals that practiced fraud, theft, and deception, the spies that sent highly encrypted messages of national security, and the lovers that tried to marry over the wire.

The most interesting parts of the book are the ones that focus on the culture that was created by operators, businesses, governments, and newspapers. It is during these chapters where the reader can better appreciate the uniqueness of the telegraph technology for transforming society, annihilating distances, and accelerating the world. By describing the use of coding books by traders and brokers, the establishment of news agencies, the online community of operators, and the drama of the governments who used the telegraph during a war, Standage is able to give us a glimpse of the changes that instantaneous long distance communication brought to the world.

In conclusion, The Victorian Internet is a colorful historical tale about the development of the telegraph. Standage analysis is poor and superficial but his narration is fluid and full of details that can spark the reader curiosity. I wish he had better developed his argument about the similarities with the computer Internet. Comparative methodologies, when applied, can reveal the complexities and relationships between communication systems and help us understand them in new ways.

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