Tracey's Reviews > The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
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's review
Dec 19, 2007

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bookshelves: libraryread, pop-history, pop-science
Read in December, 2004

A short, but thorough look at the history of the telegraph, as well as its sociological effects. Standage starts in the 1790's, with the development of the optical telegraph in France. An alternate design was developed in England, which in some ways, foreshadowed the 8-bit binary language of modern computing. The electrical telegraph had many different people participating in its development; with Samuel Morse being not only the first to put the pieces together most successfully, but also the one to develop a code that was relatively easy to learn and transmit.

Like most new developments, Standage goes into the resistance this new communication system faced, both in Europe and America; in the Old World, the system was government-owned and controlled; while in the United States, free enterprise eventually saw the utility of the telegraph.

The difficulty in establishing a trans-oceanic cable is covered in detail; as were the social aspects of the telegraph (particularly the meritocracy of the operators), albeit a little less thoroughly. The comparisons between the world of the telegraph operators and that of early Internet users is uncanny at times. He addresses the development of the pneumatic tube as a supplemental communications tool, and Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell appear in their adjunct roles.

The writing is entertaining and informative; however, more detail might have been useful in certain sections. Standage provides a Sources list; some of which may be worth following up on.

A worthwhile read for those interested in technology from the Victorian age. I'd recently read Time and Again by Jack Finney and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett and this work helped me put some pieces together from both of those novels.

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