The Victorian Internet

In the nineteenth century there were no televisions, aeroplanes, computers, or spacecraft; neither were there antibiotics, credit cards, microwave ovens, compact discs, or mobile phones.

There was, however, an Internet.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A world-wide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionised business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.

Does all this sound familiar?

Today the Internet is often described as an information superhighway; its nineteenth-century precursor, the electric telegraph, was dubbed the “highway of thought.” Modern computers exchange bits and bytes along network cables; telegraph messages were spelled out in the dots and dashes of Morse code and sent along wires by human operators. The equipment may have been different, but the telegraph’s impact on the lives of its users was strikingly similar.

The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic tradition, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph — and the telegraph, in turn, can give us a fascinating perspective on the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls of the Internet.

The rise and fall of the telegraph is a tale of scientific discovery, technological cunning, personal rivalry, and cut-throat competition. It is also a parable about how we react to new technologies: for some people, they tap a deep vein of optimism, while others find in them new ways to commit crime, initiate romance or make a fast buck — age-old human tendencies that are all too often blamed on the technologies themselves.

This is the story of the oddballs, eccentrics and visionaries who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they constructed — a network that was, in effect, the Victorian Internet.

My first book, The Victorian Internet, was published in 1998 in Britain and North America (and has since been published in translation in Germany and South Korea). It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, scepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).

I was particularly pleased that Vint Cerf liked the book, since he is the modern-day equivalent of Samuel Morse: Cerf is known as the Father of the internet, just as Morse was called the Father of the Telegraph. And both, oddly, have white beards, a parallel that always gets a laugh when I give speeches based on the book. Sci-fi writer William Gibson liked the book, as did the management theorist Peter Drucker and the economist Paul Krugman, which suggests that, to my surprise, it has some kind of appeal for business gurus and economists. Newt Gingrich is also a fan, apparently; and the book was quoted in a report submitted to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee on “The Impact of the Internet on UK Inflation”. Don’t ask me why. Michael Powell, America’s telecoms regulator, included the book on a reading list for FCC staff when he took office in 2001, and it has been recommended reading at tech companies including Motorola, Oblix, ADC Communications, and the Boston Consulting Group. Most recently it turns out that Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, recommended the book to Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, who likes it too.

A couple of reviewers criticised the book for failing to present any new research. It’s true, I didn’t uncover any new documents, or make any new discoveries — I just dug up all the stuff about the telegraph that sounded like the internet. But then I don’t claim to be an academic historian; my book is a popular work, and lacks things like footnotes and other scholarly paraphernalia (though I have, in response, added more detailed endnotes to my subsequent books).

A more justified criticism, in my view, was that I failed to give a sense of what it was like to be online in the nineteenth century — what it was like to use a Morse key and sounder. Another criticism is that I could have gone into more detail about the economics, and in particular the speculative bubble that surrounded the telegraph companies in their early days. But this criticism only surfaced after the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000, long after the book was published. Besides, it turns out that Andrew Odlyzko, formerly a researcher at AT&T and now a mathematician and economist at the University of Minnesota (and, in my view, one of the greatest telecoms gurus around), has done most of the econometric research and analysis needed to support my arguments in the book. He was motivated to do so partly as a result of reading it.

By and large, the book has aged well. Its deliberately retro subject-matter has given it a much longer shelf-life than most internet books, and it seems to have become, if anything, even more relevant since the dotcom crash. (It was reissued in September 2007, unchanged except for the addition of a new afterword.)

Some of the press coverage was fun. The Seattle Times described me as “angular, toothsome” because I come from England, where having teeth that don’t quite line up with my nose is not a crime. That made me laugh. (No, really, it did.) I also got to go on NPR’s Fresh Air, which was most enjoyable, particularly because I like listening to NPR whenever I am driving in the US.

The Victorian Internet established the pattern for my next two books, both of which have essentially the same format — a historical tale wrapped in a modern story. I may only have one joke, but I like to think I tell it well.

“A terrific little book.” Paul Krugman

“An inspired and utterly topical rediscovery of the emergence of the earliest modern communications technology.” — William Gibson

“Marc Andreessen gave me this book called ‘The Victorian Internet’, which is a fabulous read. The book makes the argument that the telegraph in its day was much more revolutionary than the Internet is in our day.” — Jimmy Wales

“Fascinating… If you’ve ever hankered for a perspective on media Net hype, this book is for you.” — Hari Kunzru, Wired

“A steampunk classic”New York Times

“One of the most fascinating books of the dotcom era” — Financial Times (2005)

“A new technology will connect everyone! It’s making investors rich! It’s the Internet boom — except Samuel Morse is there!” — Fortune, “The Smartest Books We Know” (2005)

“Richly detailed and immensely entertaining… Standage’s writing is colourful, smooth and wonderfully engaging… a delightful book.” — Smithsonian Magazine

“Blends anecdote, suspense and science into richly readable stuff.” — The Independent

“An engaging and stylish debut.” — The Mail on Sunday

“Standage is a good storyteller, and provides an engaging account of the rise and fall of the telegraph… thoroughly entertaining.” — The Financial Times


39 thoughts on “The Victorian Internet

Comments are closed.