5 out of 5 stars

Tom Standage, author of THE VICTORIAN INTERNET, image courtesy of Amazon

Tom Standage, author of The Victorian Internet, image courtesy of Amazon

Victorian Page Decoration 2

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage, was published by Walter Publishing Company in the United States in 1998. The hardcover edition (ISBN: 0-8027-1342-4) is just under 230 pages, including alphabetized index. Amazon currently hosts 127 reviews with a 4.5/5 star average.

As an amateur historian, fascinated by all things Victorian and in anxious search of accurate information about the telegraph in the United States, I found Standage’s book to be informative, concise, humorous, entertaining, an easy read, and exactly what I was looking for. I understand more now about how the antiquated–and yet highly innovative–Victorian technology actually worked than I could have imagined. Standage addressed everything from the various men at work (often unaware of one another) to create the means of sending rapid messages over a great distance to the consequences on warfare and other news of the day. He addressed the employees of both genders, romances that flourished as a result of time spent together ‘online’, and the challenges eventually conquered in laying the Transatlantic Cable. A legal marriage was contracted over the wires, and more than one elopement to Gretna Green was foiled.

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Telegraph technology was simultaneously developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Standage gave fair and thorough explanations and history to both sides, sharing what felt like an unbiased report of the history. I was fascinated to see that people are essentially the same in Victorian times as they are today; new technology fascinates us, even if we’re not quite sure what to do with it.

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telegraph quote

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The demands for the telegraph have been constantly increasing; they have been spread over every civilized country in the world, and have become, by usage, absolutely necessary for the well-being of society.

~ New York Times, April 3, 1872. The Victorian Internet, p 92

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I learned:

  1. How the criminal class committed crimes over the telegraph.
  2. The codes used for business–and their inherent problems and solutions.
  3. How money was wired from one location to another.
  4. How wires were ultimately sent to the addressee.
  5. Cost of telegrams, both domestic and foreign.
  6. How experienced operators “salted” newbies, a gentle form of hazing that put the less-skilled in their place…and how a young Thomas Edison triumphed.
  7. Why so many women were employed by telegraph companies.
  8. I heard, for the first time, about the plastic-like natural substance widely used in Victorian times: gutta-percha.
  9. I was fascinated to learn steam-driven pneumatic tubes— in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Munich, Rio de Janeiro, Dublin, Rome, Naples, Milan, Marsielles, and New York– were historical fact and not merely Steampunk fiction.
  10. Humorous misunderstandings about the newfangled technology and those who couldn’t comprehend its function.

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Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Major telegraph lines across the Earth in 1891. Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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An electrical telegraph was independently developed and patented in the United States in 1837 by Samuel Morse. His assistant, Alfred Vail, developed the Morse code signalling alphabet with Morse. The first telegram in the United States was sent by Morse on 11 January 1838, across two miles (3 km) of wire at Speedwell Ironworks near Morristown, New Jersey, although it was only later, in 1844, that he sent the message “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT from the Capitol in Washington to the old Mt. Clare Depot in Baltimore. From then on, commercial telegraphy took off in America with lines linking all the major metropolitan centres on the East Coast within the next decade. The overland telegraph connected the west coast of the continent to the east coast by 24 October 1861, bringing an end to the Pony Express. [Wikipedia]

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Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC