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

4.5 out of 5 stars 130 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0425171691
ISBN-10: 0425171698
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Imagine an almost instantaneous communication system that would allow people and governments all over the world to send and receive messages about politics, war, illness, and family events. The government has tried and failed to control it, and its revolutionary nature is trumpeted loudly by its backers. The Internet? Nope, the humble telegraph fit this bill way back in the 1800s. The parallels between the now-ubiquitous Internet and the telegraph are amazing, offering insight into the ways new technologies can change the very fabric of society within a single generation. In The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage examines the history of the telegraph, beginning with a horrifically funny story of a mile-long line of monks holding a wire and getting simultaneous shocks in the interest of investigating electricity, and ending with the advent of the telephone. All the early "online" pioneers are here: Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and a seemingly endless parade of code-makers, entrepreneurs, and spies who helped ensure the success of this communications revolution. Fans of Longitude will enjoy another story of the human side of dramatic technological developments, complete with personal rivalry, vicious competition, and agonizing failures. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

A lively, short history of the development and rapid growth a century and a half ago of the first electronic network, the telegraph, Standage's book debut is also a cautionary tale in how new technologies inspire unrealistic hopes for universal understanding and peace, and then are themselves blamed when those hopes are disappointed. The telegraph developed almost simultaneously in America and Britain in the 1840s. Standage, a British journalist, effectively traces the different sources and false starts of an invention that had many claims on its patents. In 1842, Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee rooms of the Capitol, and Congress reluctantly voted $30,000 for an experimental line to Baltimore?89 to 83, with 70 abstaining "to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand." By 1850 there were 12,000 miles of telegraph line in the U.S., and twice that two years later. Standage does a good job sorting through a complicated and often contentious history, showing the dramatic changes the telegraph brought to how business was conducted, news was reported and humanity viewed its world. The parallels he draws to today's Internet are catchy, but they sometimes overshadow his portrayal of the unique culture and sense of excitement the telegraph engendered?what one contemporary poet called "the thrill electric." News of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 led to predictions of world peace and an end to old prejudices and hostilities. Soon enough, however, Standage reports, criminal guile, government misinformation and that old human sport of romance found their way onto the wires. 18 illustrations. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club alternates.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade (October 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425171698
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425171691
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.6 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,813,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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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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