Review: The Victorian Internet or ‘How I learned online dating is A-OK’

28 01 2009

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. Tom Standage. New York: Walker & Company, 1998. 217 pp.

To think, all this time I was mildly embarrassed to have met my girlfriend on Match.com. I would have spent much less time dodging friends’ questions about how we met if I had known that, 150 years ago, couples met – even married – using the telegraph. Online dating seems much less unique given that legacy.

This is one of many parallels that Tom Standage, business editor at The Economist, draws between the Internet and telegraph in his book, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

In the book’s preface, Standage notes how similar the Internet and telegraph are for delivering unprecedented networking capabilities in their respective eras. “The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press,” Standage says. “Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic traditions, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph.” With that, Standage leaves the Internet comparisons for readers to discover and provides an enjoyable narrative describing the birth and death of the telegraph and its effect as “The mother of all networks” upon the world.

Standage’s greatest achievement in this efficient, 200-page book spanning the telegraph’s 100-year history is his ability to develop characters. Pioneers of the telegraph – Samuel Morse, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, among others – are brought to life for readers though the chronicles of their trials, blunders, recognitions and lack thereof. For example, Standage turns Wheatstone from a name in a history book into a real, flawed person though passages like the one describing how he and Cooke struck a partnership to create what became the first telegraph in England: “Impressed by what he later described as Cooke’s ‘zeal, ability and perseverance,’ Wheatstone eventually agreed to a partnership, on the rather childish condition that his name would go first on documentation.”

Thomas Edison, best known for his inventions of the phonograph and light bulb, has a strong presence in the book as well. His experience as a telegraph operator (and a damn good one at that) would be a side note in other texts, but The Victorian Internet expounds how his experience as a telegraph operator connected him to the company that funded his most famous inventions.  Passages like these are plentiful in the book and valuable to those seeking to learn more about the path to success rather than success itself.

Outside of these characters, Standage demonstrates the impact the telegraph had on the world, from news reporting to war to romance. Stories of a bride and groom marrying via telegraph published in London in 1848.  The telegraph played a strategic role in the Crimean War during the 1850s. By the 1880s, European and American stock markets relied upon the telegraph for timely business exchanges. Sound familiar? Throughout the book, Standage knits a pattern of examples that makes the Internet feel more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The Victorian Internet’s “decline and fall” happens, ironically, when Standage describes the telegraph’s decline and fall. This isn’t all Standage’s fault.  Historically, the creation of the telegraph was exciting – a roller coaster of pitfalls and triumphs. By the time the telegraph was in decline, its pioneers were relatively inactive and innovation was flat. The impact of the telegraph was realized, and inventors left it for developing audio technologies like the telephone. As a result, the book slows and becomes as uninteresting as the telegraph in its late life. Still, for as exciting as Standage could make the telegraph, which is considered a dull topic by today’s standards, he could have better enlisted his skills to enhance the storyline of its last days.

Despite this, Standage more often than not entertains and educates. He does this, in part, by maintaining a consistent presence in the book. His rich, tongue-in-cheek transitions like, “Meanwhile the French, as usual, were doing things their own way,” compliment his narrative style and are a reminder that he is equally historian and storyteller.

It’s this style that carries the story and reader’s interest, separating the book from an extended Wikipedia entry while never compromising the historical impact of the telegraph. I’d recommend The Victorian Internet to any fan of history and would even recommend it to my girlfriend, who I am proud to say I met online.

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4 responses

2 02 2009
mgm5

Paulo, what a charming introduction to a book review and a great hook to get us sucked in to your story, as in the story of your book review. Even outside of your intro, your review was a pleasure to read.

I particularly like your explanation of Standage’s writing, letting the reader discover the comparison’s between the internets and your critique of the book’s ending. Even though the author does not bother with analysis of the two internets, it might be of interest to the audience of your review to cover that more thoroughly.

3 02 2009
Week 5 - Class Notes « evolution and trends in digital media technologies

[…] reviews:  Michael, Paolo, Peter, […]

2 03 2009
Mattso

Guess who’s getting cited in my final project on Electronic Dating… 🙂

3 03 2009
Paolo

Oh jeez.

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