The Victorian Internet

As 2007 lurches to a close, it seems only appropriate to review The Victorian Internet, a book which hearkens to the past in two ways — most obviously, by talking about a significant technological revolution in the 19th Century, but also from its own time, very late in the 20th Century, before the dot-com bubble burst.

Tom Standage describes the birth and explosive spread of the telegraph network, the first technology to allow information to travel long distances faster than it could be physically carried. He begins with the optical telegraph in France, then moves on to the electric telegraph. The book doesn’t get very deep in the technology, but concentrates on the social effects, many of which were repeated 150 years later with the Internet (and some of which are occurring yet again with Web 2.0 and social networking — his description of the informal chatter of telegraph operators is very similar to what’s happening on Twitter right this instant).

Standage ends his story with the death of Morse (Samuel Morse, not the code, which is alive and well, even if it’s no longer a requirement for a ham license) — the telephone was poised to take over much of the telegraphy business at that point (almost anything which didn’t require written records), and chronicling a downward spiral is no fun.

It’s a short book, a bit dated, but still a good read.