Thursday, November 18, 2021

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

An internet in Victorian times? There could not be such a thing. This book makes the persuasive argument that there was - in the form of the telegraph. In many ways the telegraph was very similar to the internet of today. It opened up instantaneous communications over long distances. It enabled new types of commerce and gave rise to immense fortunes. Eventually the initial means of communication were supplanted by the telephone and our current internet. However, it can be seen as one continuous adaptation of technology.

Telegraphs started a few centuries ago. Visual telegraphy involved communicating signals that could be seen over long distances. This was faster than messenger systems. However, it was susceptible to weather conditions. Electronic telegraphs helped provide a better solution. Samuel Morse helped perfect some means of transmitting signals, and more importantly invented a code for doing so. Telegraph companies began to lay more wire to enable communication. 

Skilled operators would hammer out communications in morse code for other operators to receive. (They could even recognize distinct styles of different operators.) The messages were written down on paper and delivered to the recipients. A message may pass through multiple locations on the way to the final destination. This would involve separate transmission and resends. Vacuum tube networks were set up in some areas that received a great deal of message traffic. Different means of encryption and shorthand codes were set up. Attempts were regularly made to regulate these codes, but with limited success. This all sounds very similar to the internet of today.

The job of the skilled operator was gradually automated. Keyboards allowed any person to type out a telegraph message. Phones helped displace the need for telegraphs altogether. Western Union stopped sent the last telegram in 2006. It may be possible to send telegrams in some parts of the world. (Though modern telegrams are often just printed out emails.) The internet really isn't as new as it seems to be.

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