Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Victorian Internet

We're having a short run of warm days. No one expects it to last. Today I didn't have much time for the outdoors, but I did manage to walk all the way around Volkening Lake, a large pond where the Schaumburg Park District rents canoes and paddle boats in the summer.

The Victorian Internet by British writer Tom Standage is an interesting book, and an interesting turn of phrase to describe the worldwide telegraphy network established in the 19th century. Originally published in 1998 during the flush of the dotcom boom, the book points out parallels between the telegraph and the Internet, though without overstating the case too much.

The comparison can be overstated, because after all Internet has grown into much more than a way to send e-mail, as important as that function is. Then again, as Standage notes, the telegraph was more than just a messaging system, and mind-bending to early Victorians in ways we might not fully appreciate, since a world without instant communications is unimaginable for us, but not for them. The telegraph was something astonishingly new.

Comparative technologies is one thing, but I'm more interested in reading about the history of the telegraph -- about the largely forgotten optical telegraphy of the early 19th century; the men besides Morse who contributed to the building of a practical electrical telegraph; the history of pneumatic tubes, whose first major use was to send telegrams between telegraph stations or to nearby buildings; the struggle to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph line; the use of codes and cyphers in telegraphy; and the use of the telegraph by governments, businessmen, journalists and criminals. The book discusses all those and other odd tidbits too, such as the fact that Thomas Edison was a master telegrapher in his youth, and that people occasionally married at long distance, using a telegraph.

Missing in Standage's book is a discussion of the telegraph and the war between the United States and Mexico, a subject I've read about elsewhere. Telegraph lines were expanding across North America before the war, but the outbreak of hostilities spurred their further growth, so that war news could be transmitted faster to the East Coast. If I remember right, by the end of the war dispatches were being sent by fast boat from Veracruz to New Orleans, which had just been connected to the telegraph network, for transmission to Washington and New York and other places.

There's a pointless thesis out there about the use of the telegraph in literature or other media. I remember thinking it odd, for instance, that characters in Of Human Bondage, which I read about 20 years ago, often traded telegrams even with people who lived nearby. But in a world without cheap telephony, it makes sense.

In the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Grant describes his telegraphic conversations with Secretary of War Stanton -- which went on for hours, sometimes. I could imagine a rumbled Grant sitting at a table, cigar in hand and drink glass in front of him, blowing puffs of smoke and telling the telegraph operator what the tell Stanton, and then sipping his whiskey while the reply came through (and was decoded? I'd think so).

Without the depiction of telegram deliveries in old movies ("Telegram!"), no one my age would know much about the device or the lore surrounding it. Fewer and fewer people watch these kinds of movies, so I suspect even a second-hand sense of the telegraph is vanishing. Too bad. The lore is rich.

I sent a telegram only once, in 1990. I'd arrived just the day before in Japan, so it seemed a better -- and probably cheaper -- option than figuring out how to use the local phone system for an international call. The main post office in Tokyo offered the service, so I filled in the blanks and paid (a few hundred or a thousand yen? I can't remember). The message was (I think) ARRIVED JAPAN OK. My mother probably still has it somewhere.

I didn't realize that Western Union was sending telegrams as recently as five years ago. But not many. As this New York Times article says, "At the height of business in 1929, more than 200 million telegrams were sent around the world. Just under 21,000 were sent last year [2005]."

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