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Tom Standage: The Victorian Internet

24 Aug 2008 · No Comments

(Subtitle: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers)

Basically, I loved The Turk so much I’m going to read everything by Standage I can get my hands on. This book explores the meteoric rise (and precipitous decline) of the telegraph from the historical perspective. pretty much, of Web 1.0 (the copyright date is 1998).

Standage’s capable hands bring to life the colorful personalities of the architects of the “Victorian Internet” — not only Samuel Morse and Thomas Edison, but also Claude Chappe, one of the developers of the pre-electric telegraphs; William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, the rivalry-locked British counterparts of Morse, and the hapless Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, who played a ill-starred role in the struggle to lay transatlantic cables.

Along the way, Standage provides ample evidence to support his titular conceit: that the impact of the telegraph on the late 19th century was remarkably like the impact of the Internet on the late 20th century. He provides numerous examples of how technological change caused social change in ways that will seem familiar to modern readers: increasing the pace of business, advancing egalitarianism, online dating, online scamming, government attempts to regulate cryptography with limited success, and so forth.

Standage’s balance of human interest with history and science is, for my taste, just about perfect. He provides enough technical perspective on the electricity that makes the telegraph possible that the book doesn’t feel glib or lightweight, but the narrative is fast-paced and engaging throughout.

needs more demons? Nope.

Tags: history · s-author · science · v-title

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