The Victorian Internet

Familiar Stories From A Long-Ago Internet

The Wall Street Journal dubbed this book “a Dot-Com cult classic,” the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world’s first Internet.

“Time Itself Is Telegraphed Out Of Existence”

“The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic tradition, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph. And the telegraph, in turn, can give us a fascinating perspective on the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of the Internet.

The rise and fall of the telegraph is a tale of scientific discovery, technological cunning, personal rivalry, and cutthroat competition. It is also a parable about how we react to new technologies: For some people, they tap a deep vein of optimism, while others find in them new ways to commit crime, initiate romance, or make a fast buck — age-old human tendencies that are all too often blamed on the technologies themselves.

This is the story of the oddballs, eccentrics, and visionaries who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they constructed — a network that was, in effect, the Victorian Internet.”

I really enjoyed this book. Before radio and TV, information could travel only as fast as a person could run, a horse could gallop, a train could barrel down the tracks, or a ship could sail. But the telegraph transmitted information almost instantaneously. It was a radical change — for the better and for the worse.

When the telegraph was initially introduced in the 1840s, it was met with skepticism and some breathless hype. Many people thought it was a solution looking for a problem, while others predicted it would herald in a new era of world peace and global cooperation.

But within a short time, early black-hat hackers started finding vulnerabilities.

“It is a well-known fact that no other section of the population avail themselves more readily and speedily of the latest triumphs of science than the criminal class. The educated criminal skims the cream from every new invention, if he can make use of it.” Inspector John Bonfield, 1888.

➡️   Two bankers bribed telegraph operators in 1836 to manipulate the stock market in France.

➡️   One unscrupulous stock broker bribed two telegraph operators with a cut of the profits, but got found out.

➡️   Exploiting information imbalance due to simple geography, two men used privileged information to cheat on legal betting. They sent innocent-sounding telegraph messages to each other which circumvented legal restrictions.

➡️   One English bloke tried to bribe a telegraph operator to delay transmission of horse racing results so that he could place bets on the winner. This guy was arrested, but when the case went to court it was found that the only telegraph-related law he could be charged under was related to damaging telegraphic apparatus. Delaying the mail was illegal, but delaying a telegram wasn’t. So the law was quickly changed.

On a more positive note:

☑️   Meetings were conducted over the telegraph.

☑️   Romances sprang up between telegraph operators, often at huge distances.

☑️   In 1876 William Storey and his fiance Clara Choat were married over the Telegraph, erasing the distance of 650 miles that separated them.

Prior to the telegraph, messages between New York and Chicago could take a month to arrive. With the telegraph, messages arrived almost instantaneously. Any business that wanted to stay competitive had no choice but to embrace the new technology. The accelerated pace of business life was a boon and a curse, and proved to be a mixed blessing.

All of this sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? So much for “universal peace and understanding.” In addition to all the new business and societal benefits it provided, the original Internet of the 1840s – 1890s was providing new ways to cheat, steal, lie and deceive.

Sounds alot like the Internet of our day.

Even so, the Victorian Internet — and our own — have exerted more of a positive than negative effect on the world.

“Time-traveling Victorians arriving in the late twentieth century would, no doubt, be unimpressed by the Internet. They would surely find space flight and routine intercontinental air travel far more impressive technological achievements than our much-trumpeted global communications network. Heavier-than-air flying machines were, after all, thought by the Victorians to be totally impossible. But as for the Internet — well, they had one of their own.”

— Anthony Collette

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