Find out what a smart phone and the telegraph have in common.


If you like history and technological evolution, you will enjoy this book about the invention of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet (Walker&Company 1997) written by Tom Standage, a science and technology writer for New York Times, Wired and other publications, a short book of only 220 pages.

Mr. Standage covers early design, the monumental task of wiring the globe and Samuel Morse’s contribution.   With that out of the way, he writes about the gargantuan impact the telegraph had on 19th century life.

He calls the telegraph the “Victorian Internet” because of the many similarities to the 20th Century Internet, developed a mere one hundred years later  in the 1960’s.  The “Victorian Internet” bought people, communities, and countries together like never before.  It had changed how commerce operated, how government set foreign policy and how people met and fell in love.  Referencing the popular telegraph periodicals, Mr. Standage quotes several examples of elopement by telegraph.  Mr. Standage opines that the modern American middle class was spawned from the economic wealth generated by the new industry.   Work as a telegraph operator had even been considered suitable employment for women, which created economic franchise for many.

In his 2007 afterword, Mr. Standage has written that we have come full circle with the telegraphic message in the form of short message service or SMS.  He believes “Mobile phones will complete the democratization of telecommunication started by the telegraph.”  Have we come full circle from the teletype and Morse code to the smart phone and texts messages?  They both are a broadcast communication.  They both rely on abbreviated messages.  They both changed the way people communicate with each other.

A companion book to The Victorian Internet may be Where Wizards Stay up Late – the Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner.  This book looks at those heady days in the 1960’s when scientist were interconnecting the nation’s large mainframe computers for the first time, a time when Al Gore was in junior high school.

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2 Responses to Find out what a smart phone and the telegraph have in common.

  1. Tamsey says:

    I have never really thought about the impact of the telegraph. The internet aside, I have often thought that the impact and influence of the copy machine has been very underrated. It was the invention and proliferation of copiers that has driven us to recognize the need to “go digital, go green” to stop the world from being “paper mached”. The copier directly contributed to the internet.

    • I agree with you comment about copiers changing our view on digital and green initiatives. The internet and the smart phone are granddaughters of the telegraph. The author of the Victorian Internet argues that the telegraph had a far greater impact on the world in the 1800’s than has the internet and cell phones in the 1990/2000’s.

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