Jan 01

VIcovTom Standage’s book “The Victorian Internet” describes the development of the telegraph – the use of then barely-understood scientific phenomena, applied by nineteenth century chancers and opportunists to achieve the unthinkable goal of instantaneous trans-global communication. Perhaps this is not unlike the story of the Web’s development and takeup?

The telegraph network at its height really did qualify as an early internet – an interconnected set of regional and national communications lines using a variety of technologies. But the capability that this internet provided – instantaneous communication between two places hundreds or thousands of miles apart – was so incomprehensible and inexplicable to the contemporary audience that it took years for the possibilities to be realised. Government backers were skeptical and failed to understand the science or the application of proposed electronic telegraph systems. In a world in which the speed of communication and travel was limited to the speed of a galloping horse (e.g. the Pony Express), messages between business partners or even between military commanders and their armies might take weeks or months. So ingrained was this natural limitation to the operation of society that the revolutionary advantage of instantaneous communication afforded by this technology was grasped only by a few private individuals – the crank enthusiasts and inventors who built the first telegraph lines and established the early (initially unprofitable) telegraph companies.

initially the technology was seen as a novelty, but very quickly the telegraph became a success as the public, businesses and government began to realise the advantages to be had. “The rapid supply of information changed the way that business was done… Suddenly the price of goods and the speed at which they could be delivered became more important than their geographic location…. Direct transactions between producers and customers were made possible… manufacturers found that they could offer more competitive prices…”

The weakness of the telegraph was that the digital (morse code) messages had to be routed by increasingly overloaded hubs of human operators. The electric communication technology only allowed a message to be sent on a single leg of its journey; to travel multiple hops (from Reading to London on to Edinburgh) or between networks (across a national boundary to the French telegraph) a message had to be written down by a human operator, passed by hand to another office, and then retransmitted by another operator. As the number of telegraph lines and networks burgeoned and the volume of telegraphic traffic increased, the necessity for increasingly complex human systems and organisations to perform the manual routing slowed the whole system down alarmingly.

The Web, of course, is a network of stored and shared documents built upon the technology of the Internet. No such analogue exists for the telegraph (Victorian internet), it is only a system for delivering messages. Without electronic storage and programming, nothing similar could be produced without human effort every step of the way. In theory, it would be possible to telegraph the contents of a book or a newspaper between two remote parties, but the costs would be prohibitive and even though the speed of transmission may be instantaneous, the delays involved in translating into and out of Morse code by human operators would be intolerable.

A further distinction to be drawn between the Victorian Internet and our contemporary internet is that the telegraph only enabled communication between telegraph operators, not between members of the public. All messages had to be sent and received from a telegraph office, not only because the wired infrastructure did not extend to customers’ offices and houses, but because the Morse code skills necessary to use the equipment were not available to the general public. In fact, the telegraph led a generation later to the invention of the telephone which both extended the network to subscribers’ houses and simultaneously ended “the heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker”.

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