The Victorian Internet
The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers.
Samuel B. Morse. A daguerreotype made between 1844 and 1860 from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. From the Library of Congress Daguerreotype Collection.
Jean-Antoine Nollet, the Abbot of the Grand Convent of the Carthusians
in Paris decided to test his theory that electricity traveled far
and fast. He did the natural thing on a fine spring day in 1746,
sending 200 of his monks out in a line 1 mile long. Between each
pair of monks was a 25-foot iron wire. Once the reverend fathers
were properly aligned, Nollet hooked up a battery to the end of
the line and noted with satisfaction that all the monks started
swearing, contorting, or otherwise reacting simultaneously to the shock.
A successful experiment: an electrical signal can travel a
mile and it does so quickly. Of course, this is the kind of
experiment you can only run once as your monks may prove
less-than-cooperative the second time around.
This story of the early days of electrical experimentation leads
off The Victorian Internet, a fascinating story of the
telegraph by Tom Standage, a journalist who writes for
The Economist. Thankfully, Standage makes the point that
the telegraph was the Internet of its age, but then lets the
metaphor drop and tells the story of the spread of the telegraph
on its own terms.
The telegraph began as an optical system in France after the
revolution, invented by
His systems of towers, telescopes, and various
signaling devices spread across Europe so that by the mid
1830's there were almost 1000 telegraph towers in a half-dozen
countries. But, the optical telegraphs suffered from many
drawbacks, not the least of them being rain, mist, and
darkness, all fairly frequent occurrences in much of Europe.
The idea of an electrical telegraph was bandied about by
many, often with enough fervor that it joined the perpetual
motion machine as one of those topics that signaled
the presence of a perhaps-crazed inventor. In 1832, Samuel
B. Morse, a painter, was on a ship back from Europe when
he caught the telegraph bug. Seven years earlier, he had
been traveling to Washington, D.C. to do Lafayette's
portrait and had received a letter that his wife had died.
He raced back home, but the letter took so long in transit
that he missed her funeral. That experience marked
him, and the idea of an electric telegraph hit home.
Morse got off the boat from Europe with the sketches for
an electric telegraph in hand and the beginnings of the
Morse code already done.
In Europe, William Fothergill Cooke started work on the
electrical telegraph in 1836, a few years after Morse.
He had the same problem Morse did, trying to get the
electrical signal to go long distances. As Morse
was doing in the United States, Cooke sought
advice from a variety of experts on the
electrical transmission issue, consulting with
Peter Roget, and ultimately teaming up
Charles Wheatstone, the inventor of the
Morse in the United States and Cooke and Wheatstone
in England met with many skeptics, but finally in
1844 Morse got his line up and running between Washington
and Baltimore and transmitted his first message:
"What Hath God Wrought?"
The new medium took off like wildfire. By 1850, there
were over 12,000 miles of telegraph lines in the United
States. The lines quickly circled the world, creating
a global network and global industries.
Standage weaves all the history of the telegraph together
in an impeccably researched, very readable book. He
doesn't get bogged down in details of operation or
theory, yet conveys a great deal of information on how
the medium grew and what it changed.
Throughout the book are fascinating nuggets of information.
Though the parallels to our modern times are evident,
Standage doesn't club the reader over the head with the
Some parallels may seem obscure, but will hit home for those
that work on the Internet. Take the address for
a telegraph. Most telegraphs were sent to a SnailMail® address.
The telegraph network would transmit it to the nearest
post office (in Europe) or telegraph company office (in the
U.S.) and a messenger would take it to the final destination.
The problem with postal addresses was that they chewed
bandwidth. In Britain, somebody had the brilliant idea
of coming up with a new addressing system, based on
nicknames. Instead of chewing up valuable bits on the
line (and paying for those bits by the word), people
could refer to a destination by a registered nickname.
These nicknames were quite popular, with over 35,000
being registered, yielding a substantial profit for the
postal system, the monopoly provider of the namespace.
While Standage explains the history of the telegraph,
he also shows how the telegraph spawned much of our
modern age. One inventor trying to squeeze more capacity
out of telegraph lines was Alexander Graham Bell, who
was working on a harmonic telegraph, one that would
send several signals simultaneously at different pitches.
When his assistant plucked a reed too hard at one end
of the line, Graham heard more than a signal: he heard
the unmistakable sounds of the reed itself and realized
that the electrical lines could transmit voices.
His telephone invention grew even faster than the
telegraph; over 30,000 phones were in operation 3 years
after the first service began.
was working on an automatic
telegraph, one that would replace the key operator with
machine transmission. Baudot invented a five bit
digital code and a way of turning that digital code into
electrical pulses using a modulator/demodulator (modem) that
operated at 2-3 pulses (or Baud) per second.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental technologies spawned
by the telegraph was electricity itself. One young
telegraph operator, Thomas Edison, soon turned from fiddling
with new hacks on telegraph equipment to electricity,
moving on to start the first systematic commercial
electrical distribution systems. While Standage doesn't
go into this story in great depth, a great follow on to
the Victorian Internet can be found in Wolfgang Schivelbusch's
Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century,
a fascinating look at the lighting of the world and the spread of
Detail of a color sketch Morse did 6 years before his first successful demonstration.
One of the most touching stories in Standage's Victorian
Internet is of the final tribute to Samuel Morse. Though
Morse was widely credited and revered as the father of the
telegraph, he received very few financial rewards. Though
he was able to buy a
most countries operating
the Morse system failed to grant him patents and many companies
in the United States did not honor his patents.
With Morse pushing 80, a young telegraph operator mounted
a campaign to erect a statue of Morse in New York to honor
his hero. Donations from telegraph operators all over
the world, and in 1871, a banquet was held to unveil the
statue and honor the aging inventor. He used the occasion
to make this his farewell to the telegraph operators of
That night, all the telegraph wires in the United States
were connected to a single key in the banquet hall.
An operator keyed in Morse's message for him:
GREETINGS AND THANKS TO THE TELEGRAPH FRATERNITY
THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST,
ON EARTH PEACE. GOOD WILL TO MEN.
Then, the 80-year old Morse with a long flowing white
beard, the father of the telegraph, sat down at the
table and keyed in his signature.
Standage's The Victorian Internet is an example of
the history of technology at its finest. It explains
the technology, but shows how the technology became real
and how it changed our lives. This book is a must-have
for anybody interested in how our village became