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The Victorian Internet


The Victorian Internet
 by Tom Standage
Standage, Tom : The Victorian Internet - The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth 
Century's On-Line Pioneers. New York : Walker Publishing Company, 1998.

- In the 19th century were not televisions, airplanes, computers, but an Internet                     - under Queen Victoria’s reign, the new communications technology of the telegraph was developed 
- it let people communicate almost instantly across great distances and shrank the world
- it was the greatest revolution in communication since the printing press
- the Internet users are the heirs of the telegraph
- looking back can yield a perspective on the Internet today

1. The mother of all networks
 - for thousands of years a message took a day long to be transmitted a hundred miles (on a horse’s 
- as a result, pace of life was slow 
- light and sound were faster, but had too many preconditions (be in ear- or eyesight) and like an electrical signal, they were very simple and didn’t contain many information
- the first telegraph was invented by two french brothers (Claude Chappe), with a system of panels, clocks and numbers (telegraph from greek, far writer) end of 18th century
- later, Claude invented a system of towers in line, which conducted signals via the position of an arm construction on top
- the towers were quickly adapted and installed along France, Napoleon supported the installment
- all over Europe, copies were quickly invented, acknowledging the military use
- in Britain, George Murray invented a similar construction with wooden shutters in 1795
- the success of the telegraph grew, in the mid 1830ies, the different network technologies were 
connected in sort of an Internet
- it stretched across Paris to Amsterdam to Venice and had branches in Finland, Denmark, Russia and 
- people, scientists and amateurs engaged in the improvement of the telegraph across Europe with the 
idea of electrical telegraphs appearing
- The first model of an actually working electrical telegraph was rejected, since the war with France was over
- the optical telegraph had several disadvantages and was hardly used, despite efforts of inventors, the electrical telegraph still seemed to be impossible

2.  Strange, Fierce Fire
- the discovery of the electromagnetic field was fueling the invention of the electrical telegraph
- but the fact, that the longer the wire, the weaker the effect of the electricity at the other end 
buried the expectations again
- Samuel Morse got informed about the possibility of a telegraph without knowing of the many futile attempts of creating one in Europe
- Morse and Cooke both got independently from each other help by academics and also found the solution with many batteries enabling a longer transmission way

3. Electric Skeptics
- Moore and Cooke both faced profound skepticism for trying to convince money giving instances or 
governmental institutions
- in a last bid at congress, Moore finally got the funding of $30.000, but even when demonstrating the transmission of a sentence into dots and lines, the witnesses remained sceptic
- yet when he installed a line along 40km and read out a message that was confirmed by a messenger in the first train that arrived, people finally believed in the machinery
- still, it was rather thought of as an amusing subject, rather than as a revolution of communication
- in Britain, the telegraph’s fame took a giant leap, when the birth of Alfred Earnest was announced 
via the Times, who subsequently praised the Electro-Magnetic-Telegraph for providing the information
- additionally, criminals that run by train, could be caught when their appearance and travel directions was communicated via the faster telegraph
- In the US, Morse faced similar problems, with people being still skeptical and solely wanting to see and experience but not really use the line
- Morse turned to business and set up a service, that was subsequently taking off,
- Cooke too, found an investor

4. The thrill electric
- Enthusiasm had swiftly replaced skepticism from 1845 to 1849
- in 1846 there were 40 miles of wire, which were the experimental lines from Morse, in 1850 there 
were 12000 miles of working wire by 20 different companies
- the telegraph line was starting to rival the post , causing the Pony express to be shut down
- soon telegraph lines were installed in several countries, including Prussia, Canada and India
- the job of a messenger boy was popular, Thomas Edison started off as such
- A jargon among the telegraphers quickly emerged, making greetings and chatting possible
- there were plenty of misunderstandings about the technology of telegraphy,
- people misunderstood the wires as shouting pipes, tried to send food via the wires or imagined the 
messengers to be walking on the line
- Soon, people undertook the mission to link across water and let a wire sink in the sea
- but transmission was difficult and a fisher soon cut the wire, thinking it was a new kind of seaweed
- soon cables were insulated in away that they were heavy enough, sufficiently insulated and stable 
and messages were sent at an appropriate velocity
- the Gutta Percha company figured they were sitting on a gold mine, since their gum material was used for all the submarine cables

5. Wiring the World
 - Soon, there were attempts to link across the Atlantic ocean, via New Foundland, with the help of 
grand money givers
- problems occurred, e.g. a totally incompetent electrical engineer named Whitefield, but after 
several attempts, the continents were connected
- The resulting celebrations equaled hysteria, with preachers, politicians and rulers praising the 
- Tiffanys sold souvenirs of the remaining cable
- „it shows that nothing is impossible to man.“, additional promises were, that the USA and UK would 
be united again
- the cable soon proved to be not working and unstable, effectively causing experts to kick out 
- the second attempt failed again, but raising money for a third one wasn’t too difficult and finally resulted in a link across the atlantic, yielding another wave of enthusiasm

"where he was toasted for having „annihilated both space and time in the transmission of intelligence. The breadth of the Atlantic, with all it’s waves is nothing“.
6. Steam-Powered Messages
- Soon, the telegraphic system was congested by it’s own success
- subsequently, pneumatic tube systems were installed, esp. to deliver short-distance messages
- a network of telegraph networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems and messengers evolved, 
spanning a victorian internet
- cables reached Alexandria, china, japan and Hong Kong and South America
- peaceful sentiments were extended, as the telegraph was hailed as nothing less than the instrument
of world peace
- „Unfortunately the social impact of the global telegraph network did not turn out to be so straightforward, …. the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen“

7. Codes, Hackers and Cheats
- criminals were always one step ahead, they took use of the information imbalance produced by the 
telegraph for fraud, bribe, etc.
- people distrusted the telegraph clerks and were concerned about their privacy
- hence they started to invent codes, which was partly forbidden by governments, until in a big treaty it was decided for codes to be legal which resulted in coding instantly
- in the US though telegraphy was owned rather by private companies, hence coding wasn’t forbidden and
- for economic reasons, there were codes invented, that said entire sentences with a single word
- codes were widely used, esp. by companies to express specific fields
- consequently, the International Telegraph Union limited the length of possible words to as few as 
- as a result, a single misspelled word or dot could change the entire meaning
- more rules were introduced, but the compilers always routed around it
- the ITU wanted to issue a vocabulary book with „legal“ words, but it was apparent that they could 
not issue a book with millions of words and have the clerks check on them
- hence the compilers finally were allowed to code
- the Western Union developed complex models to make transactions safe via the telegraph, still people found ways to make money with the telegraph
- the French were the first to have a military unit responsible for intercepting and decoding telegrams

8. Love over Wires
- an online marriage was conducted and legally found binding in 1848 between Boston and New York
- the world’s telegraphers represented an online community, never facing each other but still being 
intimately connected
- they had own codes, recognized each other, partnerships and played checkers and exchanged laughter 
et al. with each other
- romances emerged via the line, even haven a novel built upon on line romances
- there were some more skilled telegraphers, it was kind of like a meritocracy, where your speed 
mattered far more than who you were (and what your age or gender was)
- the job of a telegrapher was popular since it enabled to find work all over the world and somewhat 
being in charge

9. War and Peace in the Global Village
- before telegraphic times, the fastest news papers had news from distant places several weeks old
- news were increasingly valuable, hence carriers and fast ships were used, otherwise, news were 
freely shared
- the emergence of the telegraph would change everything but newspapers were far from welcoming it, 
they rather feared it
- but their fears turned out to be far fetched, on the contrary, newspapers could strongly benefit 
from the developments, e.g. people buying four issues a day
- trying to find a system for yielding world wide news (not being written by clerks who were rather 
poor journalists) the Associated Press was founded - responsible for gathering information sent in a 
central space for all newspapers
- Paul Julius von Reuter did the same in Europe,
- the telegraph brought implications for military, news reports and governments that demanded a lot of getting used to
- on the one hand, news were covered for enhancing moral in the homeland, on the other hand that 
yielded support for the enemy
- the telegraph had annihilated the distance between the soldiers at the front, the readers back home , the government and the generals
- suddenly the world had shrunk
- diplomats were skeptical about the acceleration of decision-making, but could not ignore the 
pressure of news made public
- some officials even installed telegraph stations at their house for being able to keep in touch (!)
- in warfare the asymmetric situations in information and disinformation was used for own interests, e.g. amid the British and the French
- still, telegraphy was described widely as crucial for peacemaking and prevention of warfare by 
bringing governments closer to each other
- it also led to a far more shared experience of distinct people by reading shared news
- it was supposed to be giving people of „different races“ a sense of unity in accompanying events
- but it also led to a new thing: Information overload

10. Information Overload
- the telegraph led to an acceleration of the business pace, this acceleration hasn’t stopped yet
- there have already been remarks on how the velocity of information exchange interrupts the merchant while he is having dinner with his family
- retailers and smaller stock due to fewer uncertainties, the price and speed was more important than the geographic location of goods
- business and the telegraph were inextricably linked, esp. in the US

11. The Rise and Fall
- telegraphy grew subsequently, but it’s growing popularity also led to more efficiency and invention of easier-to-use devices
- it quickly became something that everybody could deal with and pick up
- the telephone was in the beginning merely thought of as an improvement of the telegraph
- it became obvious that it encompassed numerous advantages, was quick, easy to use and cheap
- in 1877 there were solely 230 telephones in use, in 1880 there were 30 000 across the world
- the fast progress of technology and the engagement in electrical engineering in the end let the 
telegraph and it’s subculture wither

12. The Legacy of the Telegraph
- as the twentieth century dawned, the inventors of the telegraph had died, it’s community ad crumbled and the time of the skilled operators was over
- the internet has actually a lot in common with the telegraph
- it allows communication across great distances via connected networks (internet)
- it allows different types of computers to engage and the servers along which an email hops, resemble the telegraph offices
- the system of eight-digit binaries are the same as the eight panel telegraphs
- culturally, there are more parallels
- there has been both hype and skepticism
- it was supposed to dissolve nationalism and bring peace
- hackers and criminals try to use the network for their interests or break them
- users apply codes and encryption to protect themselves, in both cases, major organizations or 
governments try to limit the encryption
- both have given rise to an own jargon and abbreviations
- there is a profound enmity between netizens and newcomers which are considered stupid, incompetent 
and impolite
- complaints about the information overload are common, also the changes in work formats
- the telegraph and internet both were seen as a panacea and given high potential to change the world, but so have planes and the TV
- „That the telegraph was so widely seen as a panacea is perhaps understandable. The fact that we are still making the same mistake today is less so“ (page 211)
- in a way we are still living in the new world it inaugurated

- we can expect the same reactions of skepticism and hype for whatever invention will spawn in the 
21st century
- this is amplified by an egotism, that Standage labels „Chronocentrism“ - we always expect our age to be at the very cusp of history
- the Internet basically is a much-trumpeted telegraph network and a time traveller would be far more impressed by our aviation machines, since they were considered impossible
- but they did already have an Internet

- Standage considers telephones once again as surpassing PC-centered communications

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