The Victorian Internet

by Tom Standage 

    Although it has now faded from view, the telegraph lives on within the communications technologies that have subsequently built upon its foundations: the telephone, the fax machine, and, more recently, the Internet. And, ironically, it is the Internet — despite being regarded as a quintessentially modern means of communication—that has the most in common with its telegraphic ancestor.

    Like the telegraph network, the Internet allows people to communicate across great distances using interconnected networks. (Indeed, the generic term internet simply means a group of interconnected networks.) Common rules and protocols enable any sort of computer to exchange messages with any other — just as messages could easily be passed from one kind of telegraph apparatus (a Morse printer, say) to another (a pneumatic tube). The journey of an e-mail message, as it hops from mail server to mail server toward its destination, mirrors the passage of a telegram from one telegraph office to the next.

    There are even echoes of the earliest, most primitive telegraphs —such as the optical system invented by Chappe — in today's modems and network hardware. Every time two computers exchange an eight-digit binary number, or byte, they are going through the same motions as an eight-panel shutter telegraph would have done two hundred years ago. Instead of using a codebook to relate each combination to a different word, today's computers use another agreed-upon protocol to transmit individual letters. This scheme, called ASCII (for American Standard Code for Information Interchange), says, for example, that a capital "A" should be represented by the pattern 01000001; but in essence the principles are unchanged since the late eighteenth century. Similarly, Chappe's system had special codes to increase or reduce the rate of transmission, or to request that garbled information be sent again — all of which are features of modems today. The protocols used by modems are decided on by the ITU, the organization founded in 1865 to regulate international telegraphy. The initials now stand for International Telecommunication Union, rather than International Telegraph Union.

    More striking still are the parallels between the social impact of the telegraph and that of the Internet. Public reaction to the new technologies was, in both cases, a confused mixture of hype and skepticism. Just as many Victorians believed the telegraph would eliminate misunderstanding between nations and usher in a new era of world peace, an avalanche of media coverage has lauded the Internet as a powerful new medium that will transform and improve our lives.

    Some of these claims sound oddly familiar. In his 1997 book What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives, Michael Dertouzos of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote of the prospect of "computer-aided peace" made possible by digital networks like the Internet. "A common bond reached through electronic proximity may help stave off future flareups of ethnic hatred and national breakups," he suggested. In a conference speech in November 1997, Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT Media Laboratory, explicitly declared that the Internet would break down national borders and lead to world peace. In the future, he claimed, children "are not  going to know what nationalism is."

    The similarities do not end there. Scam artists found crooked ways to make money by manipulating the transmission of stock prices and the results of horse races using the telegraph; their twentieth-century counterparts have used the Internet to set up fake "shop fronts" purporting to be legitimate providers of financial services, before disappearing with the money handed over by would-be investors; hackers have broken into improperly secured computers and made off with lists of credit card numbers.

    People who were worried about inadequate security on the telegraph network, and now on the Internet, turned to the same solution: secret codes. Today software to compress files and encrypt messages before sending them across the Internet is as widely used as the commercial codes that flourished on the telegraph network. And just as the ITU placed restrictions on the use of telegraphic ciphers, many governments today are trying to do the same with computer cryptography, by imposing limits on the complexity of the encryption available to Internet users. (The ITU, it should be noted, proved unable to enforce its rules restricting the types
of code words that could be used in telegrams, and eventually abandoned them.)

    On a simpler level, both the telegraph and the Internet have given rise to their own jargon and abbreviations. Rather than plugs, boomers, or bonus men. Internet users are variously known as surfers, netheads, or netizens. Personal signatures, used by both telegraphers and Internet users, are known in both cases as sigs.

    Another parallel is the eternal enmity between new, inexperienced users and experienced old hands. Highly skilled telegraphers in city offices would lose their temper when forced to deal with hopelessly inept operators in remote villages; the same phenomenon was widespread on the Internet when the masses first surged on-line in the early 1990s, unaware of customs and traditions that had held sway on the Internet for years and capable of what, to experienced users, seemed unbelievable stupidity, gullibility, and impoliteness.

    But while conflict and rivalry both seem to come with the on-line territory, so does romance. A general fascination with the romantic possibilities of the new technology has been a feature of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: On-line weddings have taken place over both the telegraph and the Internet. In 1996, Sue Helle and Lynn Bottoms were married on-line by a minister 10 miles away in Seattle, echoing the story of Philip Reade and Clara Choate, who were married by telegraph 120 years earlier by a minister 650 miles away. Both technologies have also been directly blamed for causing romantic problems. In 1996, a New Jersey man filed for divorce when he discovered that his wife had been exchanging explicit e-mail with another man, a case that was widely reported as the first example of "Internet divorce."

    After a period of initial skepticism, businesses became the most enthusiastic adopters of the telegraph in the nineteenth century and the Internet in the twentieth. Businesses have always been prepared to pay for premium services like private leased lines and value-added information—provided those services can provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Internet sites routinely offer stock prices and news headlines, both of which were available over a hundred years ago via stock tickers and news wires. And just as the telegraph led to a direct increase in the pace and stress of business life, today the complaint of information overload, blamed on the Internet, is commonplace.

    The telegraph also made possible new business practices, facilitating the rise of large companies centrally controlled from a head office. Today, the Internet once again promises to redefine the way people work, through emerging trends like teleworking (working from a distant location, with a network connection to one's office) and virtual corporations (where there is no central office, just a distributed group of employees who communicate over a network).

    The similarities between the telegraph and the Internet—both in their technical underpinnings and their social impact — are striking. But the story of the telegraph contains a deeper lesson. Because of its ability to link distant peoples, the telegraph was the first technology to be seized upon as a panacea. Given its potential to change the world, the telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so, of course — but we have been pinning the same hope on other new technologies ever since.

    In the 1890s, advocates of electricity claimed it would eliminate the drudgery of manual work and create a world of abundance and peace. In the first decade of the twentieth century, aircraft inspired similar flights of fancy: Rapid intercontinental travel would, it was claimed, eliminate international differences and  misunderstandings. (One commentator suggested that the age of aviation would be an "age of peace" because aircraft would make armies obsolete, since they would be vulnerable to attack from the air.) Similarly, television was expected to improve education, reduce social isolation, and enhance democracy. Nuclear power was supposed to usher in an age of plenty where electricity would be "too cheap to meter." The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago.

    That the telegraph was so widely seen as a panacea is perhaps understandable. The fact that we are still making the same mistake today is less so. The irony is that even though it failed to live up to the Utopian claims made about it, the telegraph really did transform the world. It also redefined forever our attitudes toward new technologies. In both respects, we are still living in the new world it inaugurated.


Tom Standage is currently the science correspondent for the Economist, a weekly newsmagazine published in Great Britain. He is the former deputy editor of the "Connected" supplement of London's Daily Telegraph, a section that focuses on developments in new technology. He has also written for Wired and the electronic magazine FEED and has appeared as a commentator on technology and new media on British television.

In his 1998 book The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers, Standage points out that the tele-
graph was one of the first mechanical systems of long-distance communication. Its prototype, invented by the Frenchman Claude Chappe in the late eighteenth century, was superseded in the nineteenth century by electrical systems and ultimately by wireless systems that send messages via electromagnetic waves. In each case, messages were transmitted in code. In the most common of these codes, developed by the American Samuel Morse, letters are represented by a series of dots and dashes, indicating short and long signals (for example, the letter b in Morse code is _...). Highly skilled operators had to quickly translate written messages into code and vice versa. Depending on the distance traveled, messages might go through several stations before reaching their destination. In this section from The Victorian Internet, Standage compares the telegraph, now rarely used, with the Internet. His purpose, in part, is to convince readers that the sweeping claims made for new technologies should be regarded with some skepticism.