The Victorian Internet, 8/10.

The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneer. By Tom Standage, 1998. Printed by Walker Publishing Co.

Fascinating book on an interesting subject. The seminal 19th century/early 20th century inventions sent the modern world on its present course. The fact that ‘electric telegraphy’ was a first step, eclipsed somewhat by the telephone, and more so by radio, television, the internet and related devices and systems (the smartphone and social media) of today, has obscured the importance of its invention.

Tom Standage lays out the plans and ideas various inventors and their variable rates of progress, beginning in the 1840s. Obviously, there were enormous physical, political, and technical problems from the first rather short telegraph lines of the 1840s to the international network more or less functional thirty years later. The technical aspects themselves are well-detailed and explained in accessible descriptions.

The author’s ability to focus on the big picture while supplying step-by-step bits from the minds and labs of key participants makes this an entertaining, smooth read. Some of the best stuff is the comical misunderstanding of many ordinary folks about the nature of telegraphy. Especially noteworthy is the guy who thought a man somehow climbed along the wires to deliver the message, and the various examples of people wanting to send objects instead of messages.

Also compelling were the unintended consequences: attempts to commit various crimes, pursue romances, etc., with obvious parallels to the sometimes fun, sometimes nefarious uses that the internet can be put to. The codes and ciphers developed as an adjunct to discreet correspondence, whether for personal, business, or governmental reasons.

Among major historical events, the Dreyfus case is covered (pp. 121-126), in so far as telegraphy influenced it. There’s more diplomatic/military references in Chapter 9. He touches on telegraphic communications in mid-19th century wars: the Crimean War, The French/Austrian war in Italy, the Sepoy mutiny in India, the U.S. Civil War, and the Austro- Prussian War. Most of these references concern troop movements and orders facilitated by telegram. Governments were sometimes inadvertently undercut by journalists giving details to the print media via telegram on military matters. There were some beneficial results too.

One showdown occurring in 1898 in central Africa between rival British and French colonial expeditions was resolved peacefully, thanks in part to the British telegraphic network–the fact that the French got the short end of the resulting agreement was due in part to their inability to communicate directly with Paris. This fascinating denouement to the Fashoda Incident, as it became known is related on pp. 160-161.

Strangely, the case of the so-called Ems Dispatch of 1870 was only briefly and vaguely noted: “a French historian even went so far as to suggest that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was a direct result of diplomats reacting too hastily to telegraphic dispatches” (p.158). Charles Mazade, the historian cited, joins a myriad of contemporary and modern scholars who have indeed found far more than a mere suggestion of telegraphic cause-and-effect because of this affair.

I realize that in a short book (I wouldn’t have minded more chapters) that not everything significant can be mentioned. But I do feel that a fuller account of the Ems Dispatch was an unfortunate omission. In short, that incident concerned the deliberate altering of a telegram’s meaning (by the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck) to goad the French Government to declare war on Prussia in 1870. The French defeat, and consequent German unification under Prussian leadership, laid one of the routes to the World Wars of the 20th century.

Ironically, as access to information increased, the aptitude for deception kept pace. In the Ems case, however, the deception was executed by people on the same side–Bismarck and the Prussian King–though aimed at a perceived enemy. Nonetheless, codes and encryption became a vital part of diplomatic and military communication.

In a counterexample from the early months of WWI in 1914, The Russian high command (STAVKA) telephoned field headquarters in clear (without code); the eagerly listening Germans were more than happy to discover enemy troop movements, leading to their crucial early victory over the surprised Russian forces at the battle of Tannenberg. Disdain for technology was as dangerous as being fooled by it or out of its loop.

As the world was spun closer together by technology, improvements in telegraphy ensued. Edison’s key role in improving the ticket-tape machine, and more importantly, the invention of the telephone are neatly documented, giving a smooth transition to the end of his tale. Standage mentions some of the parallels with the internet that were foreshadowed by the hype and misconceptions of telegraphy 150 years earlier.

About the time this book was written, as I was first becoming acquainted with the ‘Information Super Highway’ (remember that phrase?), I remember an acquaintance, a bit more confused than I was by the internet, complaining that she ‘couldn’t see anything’ on the monitor. Apparently taking the term superhighway literally, she thought that there were supposed to be road signs and billboards on the screen directing her, as though on a drive. Like sightseeing, I guess.

Standage has done a remarkable job bringing to life an invention, which, with the various paths that followed, can be said to have been the beginning of our technology age. Well-written and entertaining. As noted, at least one major topic is barely glimpsed, but, given the constraints of its size and the array of disciplines covered, The Victorian Internet is a very satisfying read. 8/10

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