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The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist, is a well-known speaker, author and kind of cultural historian of technology. He’s written previous books on the history of food, drink and even a 2,000 year history of social media. Of course, Standage takes the long view and considers papyrus letters and the pamphlets circulated during the Revolution as a kind of social media of their respective eras.

He takes the same approach here, writing about the invention and impact of the telegraph as the internet of the Victorian era. This kind of context works for Standage as a branding element (it’s his schtick) but didn’t seem entirely necessary here, though his central theme is valid enough. The telegraph did have nearly the same sort of dramatic impact on everything from politics to warfare, economics to culture that the internet has had in our modern era.

For the entire history of humanity, communication typically travelled only as fast a human, horse or ship could move across land or sea. The invention of the telegraph and Morse code, freed information from this inherent constraint and, along with the near simultaneous invention of the railroad, quickly transformed societies around the globe.

By transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between a network of stations, the telegraph suddenly made possible near-instant communication of election results, currency fluctuations, futures trading, breaking news, commodity prices; you name it and it was transferred via telegraph.

Standage even delves into more intimate stories such as family feuds, love affairs and small time hustles transacted over electrical lines.

The heart of the book however deals with the stops and starts, innovators, dreamers and investors that not only invented the technology but worked to monetize it and harness it for the public good. We learn about key figures such as Samuel Morse, Sir William Cooke, Sir Charles Wheatstone, and others who were working on perfecting the technology on both sides of the Atlantic.

Also striking is the relatively long lifespan of the telegraph. The first practical line in America was put online in 1844 with the message “What Hath God Wrought” (title of our previous read in the Oxford History of the U.S. series) and though it was already being replaced by more advanced technology by the end of the century, Western Union was still, incredibly, transmitting messages via telegraph as late as 2013.

All told, this was a fun read on one of the most culturally significant inventions in human history and an interesting parallel to our present era of rapid technological change.