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

Tom Standage
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1998
Until the mid-1800s, communicating across distances was limited to ship or horse. Then the telegraph revolutionized world-wide communications. Like the Internet today, the new network was hyped by advocates and dismissed by skeptics.

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Imagine an almost instantaneous communication system that would allow people and governments all over the world to send and receive messages about politics, war, illness, and family events. The government has tried and failed to control it, and its revolutionary nature is trumpeted loudly by its backers. The Internet? Nope, the humble telegraph fit this bill way back in the 1800s. The parallels between the now-ubiquitous Internet and the telegraph are amazing, offering insight into the ways new technologies can change the very fabric of society within a single generation. In The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage examines the history of the telegraph, beginning with a horrifically funny story of a mile-long line of monks holding a wire and getting simultaneous shocks in the interest of investigating electricity, and ending with the advent of the telephone. All the early "online" pioneers are here: Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and a seemingly endless parade of code-makers, entrepreneurs, and spies who helped ensure the success of this communications revolution. Fans of Longitude will enjoy another story of the human side of dramatic technological developments, complete with personal rivalry, vicious competition, and agonizing failures. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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On an APrIL DaY in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris, about two hundred monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
First off, A very well to the point read, worth the price.

Now, overall this book just blew me away with all the comparisons between the birth of the telegraph and the birth of the internet.

Even though the telegraph was created 150 years ago, the lessons discussed in the book, and the technological outcomes, are still being felt today. So are the struggles to keep up with demand, privacy issues, and safety on the Web.(The term "world wide web" was actually coined during Victorian times, but rarely used)

As pointed out by the author, the Victorians had many issues when it came to dealing with the telegraph, and seeing how they coped with that "new" technology, and all its applications to their "modern life"gives us, 150 years later, the hope of a better tomorrow, via the 21st century Internet.

Also, I would recommend anyone who has read James Burke's Book CONNECTIONS to give this book a try (and vice versa).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could have been a great story. Sept. 20 2002
Format:Hardcover
The author missed what could have been a great story in this journalistic (in the worst sense of the word) story of this fascinating invention. The hook which attempts to link the telegraph with the internet is a strained metaphor -- an attempt to make the book relevant.
Missed or lightly touched on is how the telegraphy truly changed the world -- how wars were fought, how business is conducted. Instead we get a lot of the fluffy stories of people getting married by telegraph etc.
Also glossed over are any real technical details about how the various gadgets worked. The author obviously doesn't know the difference between a volt and jolt and assumes the readers are equally ignorant.
Pity because the relationship between invention and history is a great story and the telegraph is a great way of telling this story. This book just skims the surface.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Past and future Nov. 24 2005
By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Prior to this, communication was notoriously slow, particularly as even postal communications were subject to many difficulties and could take months for delivery (and we complain today of the 'allow five days' statements on our credit cards billings!).
The parallels between the Victorian Internet and the present computerised internet are remarkable. Information about current events became relatively instantaneous (relative, that is, to the usual weeks or months that it once took to receive such information). There were skeptics who were convinced that this new mode of communication was a passing phase that would never take on (and, in a strict sense, they were right, not of course realising that the demise of the telegraph system was not due to the reinvigoration of written correspondence but due to that new invention, the telephone). There were hackers, people who tried to disrupt communications, those who tried to get on-line free illegally, and, near the end of the high age of telegraphing, a noticeable slow-down in information due to information overload (how long is this page going to take to download?? isn't such a new feeling after all).
The most interesting chapter to me is that entitled 'Love over the Wires' which begins with an account of an on-line wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York. This event was reported in a small book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, published in London in 1848, which stated that this was 'a story which throws into the shade all the feats that have been performed by our British telegraph.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Parallels Galore Jan. 24 2004
Format:Paperback
The idea of this book is that the telegraph had much the same effect for the Victorians, as the internet has on our own times. The world got smaller: markets became more efficient and larger and diplomats had to respond to crises in real time. Journalists had to adapt and organize syndicates for gathering and sharing information. Codes and ciphers increased in importance and commercial value while governments futilely tried to control and restrict their use. All of these things are as familiar to us, as it was to the Victorians.
Sandage has done a credible job in researching the parallels and tells the story with plenty of amusing asides and anecdotes, making for an easy read. The stories about how the telegraph was used in affairs of the heart, and the ingenuity of criminals to find innovative methods of practicing their craft shows one more time that there is little really new under the sun.
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5.0 out of 5 stars History Repeats Itself Oct. 7 2003
By Winter
Format:Paperback
Tom Standage is onto something. It seems that everything we know about the Internet today, we've already done before. The turn of this century was a lot like the turn of the last century.
"The Victorian Internet" is all about our world and the invention of the Telegraph. As cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson once pointed out, the telegraph was the world's first global digital network. It's when we started trying to push voice down the copper lines that we mucked things up.
In this book, you'll find technological wizardry, geek pioneers, global aspirations, long-distance romances, and online scams. You'll discover what 19th-Century chat was like. There are growing pains. We see fear for the future and fear of moral decline. The Telegraph represented a sudden, massive interconnection of people thousands of miles apart, and the effects of this overnight deluge of information is clear in reading. You have to remember that these were people used to feeling safe in their own homes, blissfully unaware of each other, and only vaguely informed of events going on in other countries.
Standage does a nice job of hitting on the hottest topics of our time, without hitting the reader over the head to make a point. Cybergeeks will love his stops at Cryptography, code, and the other programming-like solutions people came up with to solve their problems. Fans of history will be amused by the parallels between life then and now as "old media" learns to stop worrying and embrace "new media".
In a narrative style that resembles the British TV series "Connections", Standage shows us what each side of the Atlantic was up to, the race to connect the world, and the sheer determination and boundless optimism that made it all happen.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars From the Applied Science Sketchbook, but ...
... Can You be Sure it's True?
Standage does for the telegraph what the "How and Why Wonder Books" used to do: outline the history and science of a topic in a basic yet... Read more
Published on Feb. 8 2004 by A. R. Drenth
5.0 out of 5 stars History Really Does Repeat Itself!
When I first picked up this book I was intrigued, but a bit skeptical of its premise. "The Victorian Internet" is a briskly-told history of the creation of the telegraph, focusing... Read more
Published on Aug. 31 2003 by W. C HALL
5.0 out of 5 stars I really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. If you're looking for an in-depth study of the science behind the telegraph or a statistical sociological study, however, this is not the book for... Read more
Published on July 4 2003 by knord
5.0 out of 5 stars Past and future...
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Read more
Published on May 29 2003 by FrKurt Messick
5.0 out of 5 stars A Victory for the Internet
After reading The Victorian Internet it was very interesting to see how technology emerged. I was always interested in the history of how all it began. Read more
Published on Oct. 26 2001 by Ariya Ahrary
5.0 out of 5 stars A Victory for the Internet
After reading The Victorian Internet it was very interesting to see how technology emerged. I was always interested in the history of how all it began. Read more
Published on Oct. 26 2001 by Ariya Ahrary
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining historical account
Standage's "Victorian Internet," stands of one of the more entertaining non-fiction reads that I've read in recent months. Read more
Published on Oct. 8 2001 by S. Lawrenz
5.0 out of 5 stars History at its best
Looking to the past can sometimes help you understand the present and this little book will open your eyes. Read more
Published on June 2 2001 by Theresa Welsh
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