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

Tom Standage, Author
Tom Standage, Author Walker & Company $22 (227p) ISBN 978-0-8027-1342-1
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
A lively, short history of the development and rapid growth a century and a half ago of the first electronic network, the telegraph, Standage's book debut is also a cautionary tale in how new technologies inspire unrealistic hopes for universal understanding and peace, and then are themselves blamed when those hopes are disappointed. The telegraph developed almost simultaneously in America and Britain in the 1840s. Standage, a British journalist, effectively traces the different sources and false starts of an invention that had many claims on its patents. In 1842, Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee rooms of the Capitol, and Congress reluctantly voted $30,000 for an experimental line to Baltimore--89 to 83, with 70 abstaining ""to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand."" By 1850 there were 12,000 miles of telegraph line in the U.S., and twice that two years later. Standage does a good job sorting through a complicated and often contentious history, showing the dramatic changes the telegraph brought to how business was conducted, news was reported and humanity viewed its world. The parallels he draws to today's Internet are catchy, but they sometimes overshadow his portrayal of the unique culture and sense of excitement the telegraph engendered--what one contemporary poet called ""the thrill electric."" News of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 led to predictions of world peace and an end to old prejudices and hostilities. Soon enough, however, Standage reports, criminal guile, government misinformation and that old human sport of romance found their way onto the wires. 18 illustrations. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club alternates. (Oct.)
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