The First Web


The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers, by Tom Standage, New York: Walker & Co., 240 pages, $22.00/$12.00 paper

Since the World Wide Web's birth in the early 1990s, policy makers, wonks, and writers have tried to understand it through analogies to other media. Policy mavens from President Clinton to the deposed Sen. James Exon, author of the Communications Decency Act, have sought to imitate radio's, film's, and now televisions's train of ratings, prohibitions, and litigation. Despairing bibliophiles invoke the birth of the printing press, usually with a strong sense of martyrdom, while jubilant assassins of latter-day Gutenbergs celebrate their Webified publications as the demise of ancient, un-updatable, and exceedingly bound pages. Theorists like Avital Ronell and films like The Matrix turn to the telephone, with its insinuating intimacy and point-to-point connections. The future's technology, or at least the present's best versions of it, are seemingly best understood by invoking mechanisms of the past.

Tom Standage's trick in The Victorian Internet is to reverse this gaze, using the lived experience of the Internet to illuminate an older medium: the telegraph. Although the book does offer some suggestions about what we might expect from our rewiring world, its real interest and pleasure lie in remembering the first electric network.

Standage's chronological account traces the rise (and occasional fall) of persons, organizations, and inventions working with and around the telegraph. In brief: There are several tantalizing false starts, inventive means of long-distance communication that appear then fade, including versions of the semaphore and cumbersome mechanical signals. Several mid-19th-century inventors fight both each other and their equipment's limitations to establish a working system of transmitting information electrically. Between the American and British inventors William Cooke, Charles Wheatstone, and the more famous Samuel Morse, the telegraph slowly then rapidly takes hold of the Western mind. Governments see it as a way to control armies; business interests use it to get up-to-date economic information. From 1850 to century's end, telegraphic networks link much of the world, especially the parts held by the major colonial powers.

Where The Victorian Internet shines is its descriptions of cultural responses to the device. From on-line (notice the term) marriages to telegraphic crime and crimestopping, from telegraphic verse to elite societies of eccentric operators, Standage describes a cultural history largely vanished but for rare traces: Telegraph Hill, or the metaphorical use of the verb "to telegraph." As the telegraph expanded and imperfections appeared–largely the result of what we see on the Internet as network congestion–the pneumatic tube was invented to complement the wire with rapid short-range information transmission.

A distinct culture of telegraph operators developed, where speed became the ultimate measure–a fetish, even–of work and worth. New operators were ritually hazed (or "salted") with brutal speed trials and fake messages ("addressed to `L.E. Phant' or `Lynn C. Doyle'"); top-notch telegraphers preferred urban centers and shunned country operators. Itinerant operators, "boomers," often appeared in different towns. Anticipating late-20th-century Net sex, operators flirted online, fell in love, even married. The Victorian Internet offers a stream of such cultural incidents, from the nightmarish struggles to wire the Atlantic to the problems of sending cats through pneumatic tubes. Yet this tantalizing portion of the book often promises more than it presents.

By the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, the telegraph had begun its decline from historical view. A series of replacements vied for communicative supremacy. Inventors squabbled, and squandered their belated riches. At last, Alexander Bell's telephone, initially seen as a curiosity, exploded on the world scene, subsuming the telegraph's printed, abbreviated scrip with the human voice.

Standage's book is refreshingly direct, if not academic, history. Lacking footnotes and nearly all scholastic apparatus, it is nevertheless freighted with carefully chosen anecdotes and elegant summaries. The author's reflections on the meaning of events are brisk and never intrude on the narrative's rush. In fact, no extended discussion of the Internet appears until page 205, where Standage pauses for an overview–at last–of similarities between his subject and the modern Net.

Both forms relied on war and big business for serious construction and expansion: the Cold War and e-commerce for the Net, 19th-century Great Power politics and industrial combines for the telegraph. The telegraph inspired jubilant predictions of an end to war, with the new technology primed to weaken or abolish boundaries between states; miscommunication, optimists alleged, would no longer be an excuse for conflict. The Internet stirred some to argue that an increasingly well-informed, critical netizenry would sap nation-states' justifications for war. And both provided more information, ultimately, than many consumers had been accustomed to handling, while adding a new requirement to everyday life's routines.

For example, an American entrepreneur complained in 1868: "[A merchant] has to keep up constant intercourse with distant correspondents, knows in a few weeks the result of shipments which a few years ago would not have been known for months, orders the proceeds invested…. He is thus kept in continual excitement. …He must use the telegraph." Those who fail to do so risk falling behind an expanding market's leaders. Sound familiar?

Standage's account builds up a massive sense of déjà vu, drawing links between telegraphic secret coding and Internet encryption practices, noting generation gaps between older and novice users, and so forth. Yet such a strategy works too efficiently at times. We rarely get a sense of the experience of sending and receiving telegrams. Standage offers images of people using the device–perhaps most sentimentally, Morse's farewell telegram. But The Victorian Internet skimps on the experience of using a machine, of being immersed in its effects and beginning to work it for feedback. We can think of how intimate the telephone's whisper into the inner ear is as it slides, enclosed by a cup formed of receiver and skin, literally into our head. We can contrast that with the open space between a body and an old-fashioned radio, or the wash of light from a television, or the cavernous expanse of a movie theater. Documents of the era relate a sense of the terrific concentration needed to form and code a message by telegraph. Yet this is missing from Standage's book.

So, while he writes about marriages conducted by both the Internet and the telegraph, Standage doesn't address the effects of anonymity on the imagination. The Internet offers sex-focused chat rooms, S&M advice, and contradictory utopian promises of both bodilessness and consequence-free orgies. Surely the telegraph either lacked this aspect entirely, which is worth noting, or was yet another part of the famous Victorian sexual underworld. But Standage simply fails to acknowledge the erotic nature of either medium.

Still, his analysis is valuable. As an antecedent in the Western cultural mind, the telegraph system eerily anticipated the post-Web Internet. Ciphers and code-breakers, steady reinvention and obsolescence, government regulation and entrepreneurial frenzy, the constant dream of abolishing space and the reactionary return to localism–all have an uncannily familiar ring.

Most disillusioning, as the spread of McDonald's fails to stop either bombing in Kosovo or slaughter in East Timor, is the repeated dream of technological innovation establishing peace. The telegraph that was supposed to make borders irrelevant, end national differences, and halt mistaken rushes to battle in fact aided the conduct of war, quickening the tempo of military campaigns. As the Clinton administration continues to seek restrictions on civil liberties in the name of fighting cyberwars launched by other nations, we can remember that a new medium's effects are, to say the least, more complex than they first appear.