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From the Bookshelf Of...
Created by AustinSirkin on 3/26/2012 4:40:17 PM

In our new feature, "From the Bookshelf Of...", Steampunk Chronicle editors and writers review books from their personal libraries. Classics of steampunk literature, biographies, arcane texts or even cookbooks are all fair game. In the first installment, Austin Sirkin, reviews The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage. 


It’s commonly understood that history is cyclical; the pendulum of liberal and conservative swings back and forth, and certain trends tend to repeat when you take a macroscopic view of the past. So it’s no wonder that many of the trials and tribulations that currently beset our burgeoning internet-based society have, in fact, happened before.

The telephone is the most likely analogue to the internet because of its accessibility and prevalence. Phones were installed in each person’s private home so that calls could be made in relative privacy, and those calls could connect two people across the world from each other. Much outcry was raised at the time about the deleterious effect that the telephone would have on everything from socialization to productivity, and those outcries were echoed again when the internet rose to prevalence.

Tom Standage, however, makes the argument that those complaints were old even when the telephone was new in his book The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers. In this book, he sets out to explain in great detail exactly how the telegraph set the social and political stage for the internet, well over one hundred years before the information superhighway was even the germ of an idea.

The book starts off with a history of the telegraph, from Claude Chappe’s first optical telegraph all the way to the magneto-electrical telegraphs of Morse and Cooke. Standage does an exceptional job in this section of painting a picture of exactly how difficult it was for the pioneers of the electrical telegraph to get their technology a foothold in society. What benefits appear obvious to us as modern readers were ignored or derided extensively at the time, and even that derision and lack of vision is easy to see mirrored in our modern times.

Once the history has been explained, Standage moves on to talk about the ‘telegraph culture’ that arose around the new communication medium. It’s easy to think of all of the practices that have arisen around the internet: spam, rampant abbreviations, dating, shopping, fraud, etc. Likewise, he argues, many of these things were first developed for the telegraph.

For the first time in history, nearly instantaneous communication across vast distances was possible, and it created all sorts of new opportunities for newspapers, businesses, lovers, and criminals. Newspapers got their information by wire, allowing news to spread faster than ever before. Businesses used the telegraph to get up-to-date financial information from foreign markets. New relationships blossomed over the wires as lovers carried out discreet long-distance relationships. Criminals used the telegraph to con people out of money. All of that sounds familiar?

Many today feel out of touch with history, which is understandable considering how far we’ve come technologically in just the last hundred years. That’s why it’s important to remember that many of the paths we now travel were first trod by our ancestors in the 19th Century and before, so that we can keep our footing firmly on our roots and not become disconnected from the past.

This book, written in an easy-to-read, approachable style, is a must-read for anyone interested in not just history, but in understanding the world around them. While not necessarily meaty enough for the avid student of history, it still contains enough specific, real-world historical examples that both inform and amuse that it will make for excellent reading.

 

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers. New York: Walker & Co., 1998. Print.

Buy a copy from Amazon.

 

Austin Sirkin is a modern day, Victorian-inspired Renaissance man who wears many hats, both literally and figuratively. Primarily a literature scholar at Georgia State University, Austin uses his training to explore Steampunk and has presented papers on the topic at academic conferences as well as giving many panels at fan conventions. He was also in the Panic at the Disco music video "The Ballad of Mona Lisa", has been featured in Locus magazine, is the Culture and Media track director at AnachroCon, and has contributed in countless ways to the growing Steampunk scene.

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