Book Review: Victorian Internet

The Telegraph 

The Victorian Internet  points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today. Reading “The Victorian Internet” provides me with a very interesting information and important backgrounds on that specific age; it provides a deep and profound thinking about the paradigm of “new media”. The comparison between the internet and the telegraph is quite crucial in providing us with a better understanding in how new technologies emerge. On the surface, it is a flimsy comparison to make between the Internet of today and the telegraph of its golden age, 1840–76. But, this lively reveals that the telegraph changed the world forever and the internet changed and it is still changing our world. With The introduction of the telegraph, and explaining how the focus was on the innovation itself and not the use of it, we are experiencing exactly the same with the internet and the social networking. Nothings changed really, only the technique.

 Many have contributed to the development of this great technology. The last of the gentlemen amateur scientists, Samuel F. B. Morse (the father of the telegraph), who devised the first truly working telegraph and developed its message code; Charles Wheatstone, perpetually irascible British academic, and his partner, experimenter William Cooke, who were working on the telegraph on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Thomas Edison himself was a crack telegraph operator, and his expertise allowed him to raise the funds to begin his groundbreaking inventions. The telegraph was very useful in many life aspects as Standage has indicated in his book, including the role the telegraph played in war, spying, and even love. The internet is quite similar to the telegraph in its use purposes. 

In general, people at that time had so many expectations and predictions regarding technology. But, Tom had a very deep and optimistic point of view that it turned out to be true in the long-run. He believes that the telegraph would spread globally presenting peace and understanding to the humanity, and it will end war and famine. This book is yet another reminder that there are a whole host of issues that continue to arise whenever a new communication technology is introduced. In the age of email and other instant communication tools this had to happen. However, it’s great to see that the significance of the telegraph networks in understanding the impact of information and communication technologies on society hasn’t been lost.


On the other side, I think this book lacks the presentation of a new research. It’s true, I didn’t uncover any new documents, or make any new discoveries — I just dug up all the stuff about the telegraph that sounded like the internet.

It was a long time for the telegraph to get off the ground, and that is for two reasons. First, it seems that the “scientific community” was poorly organized; it was detached from the business community. Second, only little was already known about electricity. At that time, mainly technology was vague and people’s standards were different than now. 

More interestingly, what I discovered later that the telegraph collapsed when the telephone emerged. Is that the case with all technologies, a new kills the old? So, what will kill the internet (web)? 

The introduction of the electrical telegraph made reliable high-speed communication available for the first time in human history. As Tom Standage points out in The Victorian Internet: “At the time, sending a message to someone over a 100 miles away took the best part of a day – the time it took a messenger traveling on horseback to cover the distance. This unavoidable delay had remained a constant for thousands of years: it was as much a fact of life for George Washington as it was for Henry VIII, or Charlemagne, or Julius Caesar.” (Standage, 1999) 

It is hard to overestimate the considerable impact that the resulting explosion in high-speed communication via the telegraph had on established social and business structures of the day. More recently the last great leap forward in human communications has been the arrival of the internet and its continuing development to the present day, with an impact arguably greater than the arrival of the telegraph due to its ability to encompass all the existing media and communication forms.

 For me, the study of “New Media” is about the exploration of social change associated with the evolution and cultural adoption of new forms of media. New media is a combination of all media, and older technologies affect newer ones. The Internet, and its World Wide Web, is a medium with its own characteristics. The Internet is not a newspaper, it is not a TV, and it is also not a radio. However, the Internet offers a convergence of all these media.       


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