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Book: The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage

Taking a break from my other non-fiction books; this is mostly about nice history, not racism and sexism.

Though, it took the French army 100 years to admit that they'd been wrong about Dreyfus.

Victorian lovers would send coded messages to each other via newspaper classifieds. Bringing a letter or telegram home could be suspicious where newspapers weren't.

Lots of experimentation with codes and ciphers, for privacy, and then also to save telegram costs by substituting words for phrases. Huge commercial codebooks resulted, specialized for a field of business or a particular large firm.

People seem to have stumbled toward the concepts of compression and then redundancy, when single-character errors started losing large amounts of money.

There was struggle for a while between users and the companies; to the companies, compression codes meant they weren't making as much money, while ciphers or gibberish codes were taxing for the operators, naturally more used to real words. Cable rules imposed a higher charge for ciphers, and limited codes to being 7 syllables, or 15 characters, or in a major European language, or in a dictionary (that didn't last long)... before all that, European governments had typically banned the use of codes or ciphers by private users; the USA didn't.

Telegraphs exploded. First really usable one was 1845; by 1852 they'd expanded massively and undersea cable was starting to be laid. By 1874 all inhabited continents were connected, and a round trip message between London and Bombay could take 4 minutes instead of 10 weeks. By 1880 there were 100,000 miles of undersea cable.

Telegrams are like e-mail (or fast postcards) for users, but more like an online chat room for the operators on the wire.

Pneumatic tubes kind of took over for intracity communication, having a much higher bandwidth than manually coded telegrams. In Paris long messages were allowed to be sent cheaply in the city, since they could be stuffed into the tubes. Messages could also be sent to the telegram office by dropping them in a box on the back of a tram, to be emptied at the end of the route.

An 'on-line' wedding was conducted by telegraph within a few months of the NYC-Boston line opening to the public, between a merchant's daughter and the clerk she loved, before her father managed to ship him over the Atlantic.

Operators would use quiet time to chat, trade smutty stories, play checkers or chess. Edison and another man 'claimed' a wire by changing the Morse code they used, so they could communicate effectively but other operators would seem incompetent if swapped in. A British operator in Persia preferred telegraphing with other British operators to local socializing... not surprising, given the language and culture differences.

The first woman telegrapher was Sarah Bagley, an operator in Lowell MA in 1846. By the 1870s, the Western Union main NYC office had a 2:1 male-female ratio. Britain thought women were sell-suited to the job, not too strenuous and rewarding fine manipulation. Long hours: 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Women might be segregated in the office, but of course male and female operators could chat on the wire. "Romances of the Telegraph" was published in 1891.

1876 saw another on-wire wedding; in this one the bride went out to her groom's army base, and it was the minister who was 600 miles away but performed the wedding for them.

.. -.. --- (I DO)

Rural part-time operator were often slower and less-skilled, and looked down on as 'plugs' or 'hams' (as in ham-handed). This puts a new light on 'ham radio' for me... I never did wonder why it's called that. But yeah, the pejorative carried over to the early radio (wireless telegraphy) amateurs, later got claimed with pride.

Operators were something of a meritocracy, rated only by speed, making it more open to women or even children. Top operators could code 40 words a minute. Edison was a record receiver, partly because partial deafness meant he was less distracted. He later used the deafness to get closer to the woman he was courting ("I have to get close to hear you") and proposed to Mina by Morse code, tapping on her hands.

...I've said Grendel's would be more tolerable if we all knew sign language, and could 'talk' through the noise. Morse code is an alternative, I guess, though probably slower than signing alphabetically, which is a lot slower than real ASL. OTOH real sign language is a whole new language.

(I learned Morse a while ago, so I'd have a binary communication scheme if I ever needed one, like being locked-in medically. Hopefully some nurse would recognize repeated ... --- ... and go look up a table.)


Pre-telegraph newspapers traded on local coverage; news traveled by carrying actual papers. Some larger papers like the Times had, literally, foreign correspondents, sending letters home by ship. A couple of US papers aimed at the business market though, and competing for faster news, with their own pony expresses, or fast boats that would go meet ships coming in slowly to bring back their news.

The first telegraph message was WHAT HAS GOD WROUGHT?, picked by Morse's fiancee IIRC. The second was HAVE YOU ANY NEWS?

People actually predicted the telegraph would kill off newspapers; after all, it could get the news first! No more racing. Of course the opposite happened. The Associated Press dates from 1848, just three years into the telegraph era. Over in Europe, Reuter had already been gathering business news by carrier pigeon. He got into telegraphs quickly, but took longer to develop a full news wire service, proving his worth by 1859. The Times still kept its foreign correspondents, but he could sell to its rivals. He also provided one of the few messages to go down the short-lived Atlantic cable of 1858. "EMPEROR OF FRANCE RETURNED TO PARIS... ALL INDIA BECOMING TRANQUIL". Another message was able to tell a British general in Nova Scotia not to mobilize across the Atlantic, countermanding orders he'd received by sea, at once saving Britain more money than it had invested in the cable.

Telegraphy also changed war secrecy. Before, news of ships departing could arrive no faster than the ships themselves, but now news of troops heading to the Crimea could reach Russia in minutes. Britain and France extended cable to the war zone, making the Crimean War the first one run by telegraph, as well as reported on by telegraph, including news of ill-prepared troops with inadequate medical supplies.

In 1881 the newspaper world got to "unite around a common sickbed" of President Garfield, who sickened slowly and died two months after being shot.

Telegraphs created global commodity and other markets.

European telegraphs were public utilities nearly from the start, and Europe had more social use of the telegraph than the US. In 1885 Britain pioneered single words as "telegraphic addresses", easier to remember than a postal address.

Private lines between business sites helped the rise of big business, dispersed yet well-knit hierarchical organizations, as we know it.

As inventors go, Morse did decently, with a fair bit of money, and a nationwide telegraph ceremony in 1871... right before the rise of automatic telegraph systems that could cut out the need for skilled operators, and of course the telephone in 1877. By 1901 10% of American homes had a telephone.

Standage concludes by noting similarities in sweeping claims made for the telegraph and the Internet, as well as other technologies: telegrams creating peace through communication, airplanes abolishing war by making armies too vulnerable, electricity abolishing physical labor, the Internet creating peace...

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/366763.html#comments


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 5th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
Fascinating stuff! I've always been enamoured by the telegraph and how it must've revolutionised the speed of communication.

How long had carrier pigeons been in operation and how quick/accurate/far did they go?

And are any of the old/original telegraphic cables still in use?

>By 1901 10% of American homes had a telephone.

That's incredible. With a population of about 75 million, I'm guessing that's about 35 million homes, so 3.5 million subscribers. Contrast that with India in the early-90s where there were still only 8 million telephone subscribers, with an 8 year waiting list for the 20 million on it.
Aug. 6th, 2013 12:58 am (UTC)
WP says pigeons had been used since at least ancient Persian times, 6th century BC. 19th century saw an explosion of military and even mail service.
100 mile range?
Dunno about cables.

The US today has 2.x people per household on average, and I'd guess it was higher then, with higher birth rates and fewer young adults on their own. So I'd guess 2.5 million subscribers or less.

8 million? Wow, that's sad. And WP says
31.53 million wire phone subscribers in 2012. Though after losing 2 million, and there are 929 million wireless ones; landline will never penetrate now I figure.
Aug. 6th, 2013 11:42 am (UTC)
Re: pigeons - wow.

Even 2.5 million subscribers (or less) is pretty impressive for its time.

Year 8 million is sad, especially when you consider telephones were introduced to India pretty early on.

I think land line subscribers in India peaked just before the mobile phone explosion at the turn of the century (at about 50 million). It's been in decline for nearly a decade now. As a kid, right up to the time I went to uni (2002), I used to visit India every summer. I saw the mobile revolution transform an otherwise poorly connected country by way of communication. I remember when we had a landline installed at our house in Madras (Chennai) in the mid-90s, it took ages for them to process it, and then when they did, about 30 guys came to set it up!

Now I don't get to visit India as often but it's a world of difference compared to my years growing up. Even if the networks aren't as reliable as here in the West, it's easily accessible and a whole lot cheaper.

Oh and I've only gone and bought a copy of the book! Thanks. :)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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