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HALL OF FAMEon 23 November 2005
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Prior to this, communication was notoriously slow, particularly as even postal communications were subject to many difficulties and could take months for delivery (and we complain today of the 'allow five days' statements on our credit cards billings!).
The parallels between the Victorian Internet and the present computerised internet are remarkable. Information about current events became relatively instantaneous (relative, that is, to the usual weeks or months that it once took to receive such information). There were skeptics who were convinced that this new mode of communication was a passing phase that would never take on (and, in a strict sense, they were right, not of course realising that the demise of the telegraph system was not due to the reinvigoration of written correspondence but due to that new invention, the telephone). There were hackers, people who tried to disrupt communications, those who tried to get on-line free illegally, and, near the end of the high age of telegraphing, a noticeable slow-down in information due to information overload (how long is this page going to take to download?? isn't such a new feeling after all).
The most interesting chapter to me is that entitled 'Love over the Wires' which begins with an account of an on-line wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York. This event was reported in a small book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, published in London in 1848, which stated that this was 'a story which throws into the shade all the feats that have been performed by our British telegraph.' This story is really one of love and adventure, as the bride's father had sent the young groom away for being unworthy to marry his daughter, but on a stop-over on his way to England, he managed to get a magistrate and telegraph operator to arrange the wedding. The marriage was deemed to be legally binding.
A very interesting and remarkable story that perhaps would have been forgotten by history had history not set out to repeat itself with our modern internet.
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HALL OF FAMEon 5 November 2004
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Prior to this, communication was notoriously slow, particularly as even postal communications were subject to many difficulties and could take months for delivery (and we complain today of the 'allow five days' statements on our credit cards billings!).
The parallels between the Victorian Internet and the present computerised internet are remarkable. Information about current events became relatively instantaneous (relative, that is, to the usual weeks or months that it once took to receive such information). There were skeptics who were convinced that this new mode of communication was a passing phase that would never take on (and, in a strict sense, they were right, not of course realising that the demise of the telegraph system was not due to the reinvigoration of written correspondence but due to that new invention, the telephone). There were hackers, people who tried to disrupt communications, those who tried to get on-line free illegally, and, near the end of the high age of telegraphing, a noticeable slow-down in information due to information overload (how long is this page going to take to download?? isn't such a new feeling after all).
The most interesting chapter to me is that entitled 'Love over the Wires' which begins with an account of an on-line wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York. This event was reported in a small book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, published in London in 1848, which stated that this was 'a story which throws into the shade all the feats that have been performed by our British telegraph.' This story is really one of love and adventure, as the bride's father had sent the young groom away for being unworthy to marry his daughter, but on a stop-over on his way to England, he managed to get a magistrate and telegraph operator to arrange the wedding. The marriage was deemed to be legally binding.
A very interesting and remarkable story that perhaps would have been forgotten by history had history not set out to repeat itself with our modern internet.
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on 29 October 1998
This book is well written and enjoyable to read. The comparisons between the development of telegraph and the world wide web are well made and are sometimes spooky - the arguments presented by Western Union about why their near monopoly of the US telegraph was healthy seem uncannily like the arguments presented by a similiar monopoly today.
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on 28 August 2001
I enjoyed this diverting book, which covers the technical development and social impact of telegraphic communication. The author has taken the trouble to go back to the early, optical and phonetic systems which preceded and paved the way for the better-known electrical devices.
One dimension however which is missing is the financial one: how did investors in early telegraphy fare? Even where telegraphy was monopolized by the state, in Europe, it would have been interesting to hear about the growth and decline of telegraphic equipment suppliers. This would have nicely rounded out the comparison with the recent Internet "boom-and-bust".
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on 8 June 1999
A fascinating book that explodes the theory that we are in a period of communication innovation. If you thought 'netiquette', 'flaming' and 'newbies' were a new concept then you really should read The Victorian Internet. The Victorians have really 'been there, done that' and surely we have lessons to learn from them. As Standage summarises - Victorians viewing the late 20th century would be quite unimpressed with the Internet as many of its 'innovations' were around when the telegraph system was at it's height. Entertaining and informative.
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on 28 May 2011
Standage tells the story of the telegraph in this delightful short book. It opens with a chapter on the 'optical telegraph' - the signalling system based on a network of mutually visible towers which flourished particulaly in France. After this, it traces the decisive step made by Morse, Cooke and Wheatstone in harnessing electricity to convey messages. There are fascinating chapters on the sceptics who doubted the value of the new technology; the problems of inter-continental cable laying; alternative messaging techniques such as capsules shot through tubes with compressed air; the use of the electric telegraph by criminals as well as the police; online telegraphic romance; the hopes that instant communication would lead to international conflict resolution; and the growing realisation that in fact it was an invaluable military techonology.

Finally telegraphy is over-taken by telephony, which allows a greater rapidly of communication and requires no intermediaries. The book closes with some thought-provoking remarks as to how new and revolutionary the Internet really is.

Throughout the material is admirably selected and the writing witty and clear. It is also a self-effacing book: as far as could be seen, the word 'I' (in the sense of 'Tom Standage') appears exactly once - in the acknowledgements section. Strongly recommended. His book on planetary discovery (The Neptune File) is also superb.
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on 6 May 2002
We often tend to view our own time not only as the peak of the development, but by far surpassing achievements of the past. This entertaining book puts the internet into perspective by telling the story of the very first digital transmission system, the telegraph. It is amazing to discover how similar people reacted to technical change in the 19th century compared to the late 20th. A very refreshing historical perspective. Highly recommended.
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on 15 March 1999
This book is a brilliant look at telegraphy and its forebears. It delves into the lives of the people involved, their triumphs and failures (the laying of undersea cables sticks firmly in the mind here), and evolution of the telegraph and its internet-like community itself. So many similarities.
Buy it!
I've since lent this book to two people who adored it as much as I did.
Highly Recomended.
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on 15 October 2002
Victorian Internet is a wonderful book - I absolutely recommend it to anyone with the remotest interest in how science has shaped out world. It describes the emergence of a technology which is hailed at its outset as "shrinking the world" and able to "connect distant parts of the world instantly" - sound familiar ?
But this is the fascinating tale of Telegraphy - which - incredibly - pre-dates electricity itself, having begun in Napoleon's time as a mechanical way of signalling from hilltop tower to hilltop tower - for wartime messaging. Electricity of course made it "fly", and the tale is told rivetingly, with intruiguiing comparisons between the telegraph of a century ago and the internet of today. All the same human issues are there - down-the-wire romances between operators - hackers - and amazing technological misunderstanding (like the mother who took a plate of fresh food to a telegraph office, in the hope of sending it down the wire to her son, who was fighting at the front in the Crimea). Amazing - and a perfect Christmas present for every Net-Head, too. Well done Tom Standage.
Mike Holt
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on 19 September 2012
This is a pretty good book, tracing the period from the invention of different means of telegraphy to the advent of the telephone. Most chapters zip along at a good pace, your attention is caught by the characters and the rapid evolution of a quite dramatic form of communication. The book reveals how this impacted all sorts of business and personal lives. Also it stands as a pretty good metaphor for all sorts of novel industries as they grow up and mature today. It won't take an age to read but it's absorbing.
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