Book Review – List Book – The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

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This little history of the telegraph was a quick, enjoyable read.

It seems the telegraph is older than I thought. The first telegraphs were not electrical at all but optical, being large tower things with rotating arms that could be positioned in various ways to stand for letters and numbers (in France), or sets of panels that could be opened or closed to indicate the letters and numbers (in England). These were positioned on hilltops where they were observed by operators with telescopes who relayed the messages to other operators who set their own towers to re-transmit the same message. These optical telegraph towers were spreading throughout Europe in the 1790s.

Of course, people began working on ways to improve this system right away. The big push was to find a way to use electricity to transmit the messages. This was long before there were electrical generators or an electrical network of any kind. The earliest telegraphs – in fact evidently all telegraphs right through the heyday of the telegraph – were battery powered, and once there were working telegraphs, one of the main ways to improve them was to develop better batteries.

Cooke and Morse had done the impossible and constructed working electric telegraphs. Surely the world would fall at their feet. Building the prototype, however, proved to be the easy part. Convincing people of their significance was far more of a challenge.

Standage, Tom, The Victorian Internet, p. 40

Eventually, through a lot of trial and error, Samuel Morse in America and William Fothergill Cooke in Britain (with their associates) succeeded in producing working telegraphs. Morse’s eventually came to use the code named after him, while Cooke’s used dials which rotated to point to letters in a grid. Eventually, Morse’s system came to be dominant, but Cooke’s was in common use in England for a long time.

Although it has now faded from view, the telegraph lives on within the communications technologies that have subsequently built upon its foundations: the telephone, the fax machine, and more recently, the Internet. And, ironically, it is the Internet – despite being regarded as a quintessentially modern means of communication – that has the most in common with its telegraphic ancestor.

Standage, Tom, The Victorian Internet, p. 205

The author goes on to describe the effect of the telegraph on life around the world and on the other technologies that grew out of it.

This was a library book.

Cover image from Goodreads.

Title:                     The Victorian Internet

                              The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers

Author:                Tom Standage   

Publisher:            Walker and Company                                                                            

Copyright:           1998                                 

Format:                Hardback

Genre:                  History/ Telegraph

ISBN:                    0-8027-1342-4                                

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