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on October 7, 2003
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. There are also interesting tidbits along the way: we get facts about Samuel Morse and Thomas Edison that most history books ignore. There are anecdotes from 19th-century daily life that we can easily identify with today. All of it combines in a way that is easy to read, decently-paced, and fun to think about and discuss with others.
I give this book 5 stars for being clever with presentation and for keeping the various threads together without seeming fragmented. Tom Standage moves us through history without jumping around, and references earlier sections to remind us of where things are going. If you like history, technology, or even the geekier topics of machine logic, programming, and cryptography, this book makes an excellent read.
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on November 24, 1999
The really interesting part about this book is the role of the personalities. the author does a pretty good job of examining the role of the individual in bringing about this 'communications revolution.' The parallels to today's emerging Internet are striking. I think that I was most struck by the 'online communities' and the new telegraph shorthand, similar to today's emoticons. An intersting, enjoyable, easy read.
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on September 20, 2002
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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on June 27, 2008
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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on March 21, 2000
This is the pioneering story of the telegraph, an almost forgotten technology, but one which Tom Standage shows to have relevance for today. For me, telegrams are very mysterious things, glued to the hands of bellboys, like the 'Candygram for Mongo' in 'Blazing Saddles'. In idle, stupid moments, I wonder how all those words got sent down a piece of wire. If I'm confused as to what comprises the telegraph, then I wouldn't have been the first: Standage relates how one woman tried to send a cake down the wire. The reason being that if generals can move armies by telegram, then why cannot cakes be sent? This new technology was ridiculed and feared in the early nineteenth century, with people such as Charles Dickens almost regaling it with supernatural powers (see Dickens' classic 'The Signalman' ). That was the case until a telegram from Slough to Paddington apprehended the murderer John Tawell. Capturing Tawell, and various other vagabonds who preyed on rail travellers, showed that the telegraph had practical uses. I was particularly interested in the references to my home town of Slough, since it has always been a communications centre, from the Roman builders of the Bath Road, the stagecoach, to the railways.
Standage's analogy would seem to hold true, since a certain internet retailer has just opened in the same town, with geographical networks still retaining import in the invisible world of electronic commerce. But this book will appeal to readers on a far wider level. This is an exciting tale of scientific innovation, featuring characters such as Samuel Morse, and will delight those who loved 'Fermat's Last Theorem' and 'Longitude'
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HALL OF FAMEon November 24, 2005
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.' This story is really one of love and adventure, as the bride's father had sent the young groom away for being unworthy to marry his daughter, but on a stop-over on his way to England, he managed to get a magistrate and telegraph operator to arrange the wedding. The marriage was deemed to be legally binding.
A very interesting and remarkable story that perhaps would have been forgotten by history had history not set out to repeat itself with our modern internet.
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on December 29, 1999
Very easy book to read (did it in a long night). Book makes premise that in the whirlwind of Internet hype and how it's revolutionizing our world, this all first happened a hundred years ago when the Telegraph was invented.
Ironically, Morse had a hard time convincing the initial trials. It was also first seen as a play toy, an oddity. However soon applications came to be and governments, news, business, and personal lives were changed by this first major advance in communications in hundreds of years (likely since the printing press).
When reading about the chapter on how commerce was changed because cross-atlantic orders could be transmitted in a day rather than weeks. Business people became obsessed with keeping up with the new demands for fear of competition(They lived in "Internet Time"). How the first major application in business was transmitting stock quotes (this sound familiar?).
The book makes the premise that in this 'new internet age', we've seen it all before. To that it does a good job in a quick entertaining read.
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on September 18, 2000
From the late 1840s to the advent of the telephone in the early 1880s, the telegraph provided the first modern means of instant communication to a suddenly shrunken world. Standage's book is easy to read with several interesting anecdotes, including appearances by more than a few eccentric characters. Take for example Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, something of a crackpot who, despite a pathetic lack of scientific knowledge, talked his way into becoming the official electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. This organization pioneered the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. Within a month Whitehouse had fried the wire by mandating the use of excessive voltage to transmit messages. Successful and reliable transatlantic cabling thus had to wait until the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865.
Although we enjoyed the easy to read style in which the book is written, a dearth of footnotes providing source citation is a minor annoyance (thus, we docked Standage a star in Amazon's ranking system). Sometimes quotes appear to be completely unattributable, and it would have been nice to see from where Standage drew them. Regardless, it is an easy and fun read and the book will no doubt open the eyes of the current generation to the fact that "Everything old is new again" holds true today more than ever.
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on October 8, 2001
Standage's "Victorian Internet," stands of one of the more entertaining non-fiction reads that I've read in recent months. It's clearly intended as a light read, not a deep scholarely work. The writing style is light and informative.
Standage's thesis in the book is that the Telegraph was very much like the internet is today. I think that in many ways, he was able to prove that thesis. It was the beginning of instant mass communications, and it opened the world in ways that few other inventions have since. There were even a few "Online romances" and marriages connected with the telegraph.
The book follows the developement of the telegraph from it's very early beginnings in the form of optical telegraphs, to the development of machine enhanced, and harmonic telegpahs, then lastly, the telephone. As the book progresses, the development of the telegraph is interspaced with many interesting anecdotes that makes the book even more entertaining.
The only downside I can see for this book is the lack of decent endnotes or something similar. I'm a fan of them, even if the book is intended as a light read.
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on November 5, 1998
This book is a must read for people interested in the introduction of new technology. As the inventor of new technology (including VisiCalc, the PC spreadsheet) I marveled at the parallels with the adoption of the "old" technology of the telegraph. This story really puts the march of new things in perspective.
As an avid reader of the books by Henry Petroski (whose recommendation of this book appears on the back cover), I love anecdotes that help us learn how new technology advances and is assimilated by the general public. This book is full of such insights. Retelling these stories helps us in R&D explain to others how what they may think at first is a seemingly useless invention can actually change the world once its benefits are understood.
This book also shows the opposite, when people expect too much, reminding us to help restrain those that think there is more than is really there. (As Bill Gates reminded people, I believe, at the launch of Windows 95, it doesn't cure diseases, though you'd think so from the hoopla.) This book lets us give direct examples from the 1800's that seem obvious in hindsight.
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