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The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers [Kindle Edition]

Tom Standage
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A new edition of the first book by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first "Internet," which revolutionized the nineteenth century even more than the Internet has the twentieth and twenty first.

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts that of the Internet in numerous ways.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Past and future... May 29, 2003
The title of this book, 'The Victorian Internet,' refers to the 'communications explosion' that took place with the advent and expansion of telegraph wire communications. Prior to this, communication was notoriously slow, particularly as even postal communications were subject to many difficulties and could take months for delivery (and we complain today of the 'allow five days' statements on our credit cards billings!).
The parallels between the Victorian Internet and the present computerised internet are remarkable. Information about current events became relatively instantaneous (relative, that is, to the usual weeks or months that it once took to receive such information). There were skeptics who were convinced that this new mode of communication was a passing phase that would never take on (and, in a strict sense, they were right, not of course realising that the demise of the telegraph system was not due to the reinvigoration of written correspondence but due to that new invention, the telephone). There were hackers, people who tried to disrupt communications, those who tried to get on-line free illegally, and, near the end of the high age of telegraphing, a noticeable slow-down in information due to information overload (how long is this page going to take to download?? isn't such a new feeling after all).
The most interesting chapter to me is that entitled 'Love over the Wires' which begins with an account of an on-line wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York. This event was reported in a small book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, published in London in 1848, which stated that this was 'a story which throws into the shade all the feats that have been performed by our British telegraph.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars two hours of fun, fun, fun April 7, 2001
In the story of the world-wide telegraph system, built from the 1840s until 1900 when the telephone rose to supplant it, Standage develops fascinating parallels with the rise of the Internet. Western Union "insisted that its monopoly [on US telegraphy] was in everyone's interest, even if it was unpopular, because it would encourage standardization." Today's high-pressure startups have nothing on Thomas Edison who "locked his workforce in the workshop until they had finished building a large order of stock tickers." As with the Web, the true inventor, Samuel Morse, made "a respectable sum, though less than the fortunes amassed by the entrepreneurs who built empires on the back of his invention." Standage pairs modern pundits such as Nicholas Negroponte predicting that the Internet will bring about world peace with their 19th century equivalents predicting that the telegraph will enable a perfect understanding between governments and peoples and bring an end to wars. If you made big bucks in the dotcom world of the 1990s, page 205 may cause you a moment's reflection:
"The heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker was over; telegraphers' brief tenure as members of an elite community with master over a miraculous, cutting-edge technology had come to an end. As the twentieth century dawned, the telegraph's inventors had died, its community had crumbled, and its golden age had ended."
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book and a fun book September 9, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have written three books on Wireless networking and am about to start writing a fourth. Coming from this perspective, The Victorian Internet was both an excellent read and an enlightening one. It is true that we can get caught up in any new thing and think that it is going to drastically alter the world. Of course, those of use directly implementing the new thing always think it will alter teh world for the better. This book shines a light of reality on this thinking to make you realize that a new technology alone is not likely to save the world, though it can make it an easier place for many to live.

Many reviewers have stated their favorite story, so I will share mine. It's the opening story of the book. It begins, "On an April day in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris, about two hundred monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held on end of a twenty-five-foot iron wire in each hand, connecting him to his neighbor on either side. Together, the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over a mile long."

The story goes on to reveal that Jean-Antoine Nollet induced a shock onto the wire to see if the monks would feel the shock at the same moment and indeed they did. This revealed to Nollet that electricity traveled at an extremely rapid speed and began the turning of the gears that led to electrical impulse-based communications (which we still use today in Ethernet and Wireless).

This book is filled with such stories and will certainly both entertain and inform you.

Tom Carpenter, Author: Wireless# Certificiation Official Study Guide
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short book on a fantastic breakthrough February 11, 2005
Standage largely succeeds in supporting his claim that Victorians returning to 21st century Earth through a time-travel machine would not be overly impressed with our Internet, because "they had one of their own." His short book - easily read in one sitting or a cross-country airline trip - covers the birth of the optical telegraph (a French invention that used the waving wooden arms atop a tower) through its electrification, the invention of Morse code, and to its decline with the invention of the telephone. He shows that the telegraph, like the Internet, spawned codes, hackers, criminal gangs, romance, and information overload. And the telegraph was greeted with the same overheated claims as the Internet that faster and easier communication among peoples would usher in World Peace.

Unfortunately, Standage's book ends abruptly in the 1880s, when the telephone began to replace the telegraph. "Telegrams" still flourished in the 20th century, and Morse Code is still used today by amateur radio operators. A few pages at the end of Standage's tale about the remaining echo from that wonderous 19th century device would have made a more complete book.

Even so, if you want to learn about how an amateur inventor - Samuel Morse - became inspired to invent this simple device, and how was resisted initially and then changed the world, then this is a good place to start.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Provides Humbling Context for Modern Technological Innovation
The parallels between the invention of the Telegraph and Internet are striking in terms of how people responded to the technology (hype, hope, promise, universalism, profit,... Read more
Published 5 days ago by Agatha Nostic
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, well researched, moved at a great pace
Great book. Well researched story comparing the history of the Internet to that of the telegraph.
Lots of great bits, like how Alexander Graham Bell was trying to invent a... Read more
Published 5 days ago by Colin Povey
5.0 out of 5 stars Peoples is peoples, regardless of communications technology
It's funny and sad at the same time the way people cannot understand how technology works, like the TV commercials making fun of FAX machines (fax me a beer). Read more
Published 1 month ago by Jeffrey Jonas
5.0 out of 5 stars Came Fast!!
The book was in really good condition. I bought it for a class so it was not something that would interest me to buy on my own, but when I start reading it, I may change my mind.
Published 8 months ago by Krista Vowels
5.0 out of 5 stars AP World History Review
Through writing the Victorian Internet, Tom Standage presents in great detail the development of the electric telegraph and its impact on the world. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Joseph A. Hostetler
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good history of the telegraph
This book was an easy and fairly entertaining read, detailing the history of the telegraph. I think more could have been done to compare and contrast it to the internet though,... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Turbo Van
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story about the first world-wide communication system
Great story recounting the development of the first communication system whereby you could get a message from here to there faster than you could walk, run, ride a horse, travel on... Read more
Published 9 months ago by David Stapel
5.0 out of 5 stars Very surprising historical information!
It is funny how history repeats itself. I had never known that the "towers" referred to in
old literature, including the Bible, refer to signalling stations. Read more
Published 9 months ago by valve timer
5.0 out of 5 stars Just as expected
As with most of my other book orders, this one was just as I expected, no issues, timely, in perfect condition. Thanks!!
Published 12 months ago by L.
5.0 out of 5 stars The Victorian Internet
The age of technology has been with us for 150 years now.
Throughout these years the "new" has thrilled each of those generations. Read more
Published 12 months ago by No_Spark
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More About the Author

Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist, overseeing the magazine's website,, and its smartphone, tablet and e-reader editions. Before that he was business affairs editor, running the back half of the magazine, and he previously served as business editor, technology editor and science correspondent. Tom is also the author of five history books, including "An Edible History of Humanity" (2009), "A History of the World in Six Glasses" (2005), a New York Times bestseller, and "The Victorian Internet" (1998), described by the Wall Street Journal as a "dot-com cult classic". He writes the video-game column for Intelligent Life, The Economist's lifestyle magazine, is a regular commentator on BBC radio, and has written for other publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children, and is currently working on his next book, on the prehistory of social media.

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