What came before the Internet?

I recently read a fascinating book called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (Walker and Company, NY, 1998).

The author’s thesis is that the telegraph was very similar to the modern internet in its ability to connect people from all over and to send information anywhere, almost instantly. He traces the invention of the telegraph during the 1800’s, and describes some of the unique different ways that people found to transmit messages over long distances. Using electric impulses to send information meant inventing some sort of code that could contain the information, and be decoded easily.

Standage’s description of companies building their own dedicated telegraph lines from just one spot to another is fascinating. He mentions Abbe Nollet, a monk who did early experiments with electricity. Abbe Nollet is famous for getting a quarter mile (or some large distance) line up of monks holding a wire which he then electrified. It showed that as far as the instruments of the time could tell electricity moved instantaneously. All the monks jumped at once.

The creation of the telegraph caused the destruction of some industries and the building up of others, notably the telegraph operators. His description of the little world of the operators, who could recognize each other from the tempo of clicking keys is entertaining, and he describes some of the romances that flourished over the wire. As a comparison to the current internet I found that tidbit hilarious.

The author discusses Samuel Morse and a French competitor in their role as creators of the telegraph. He talks about the economics of the system, who got rich and who didn’t, and eventually explains how the telegraph was superseded by new technology.

At the time lots of people wrote about how time had changed and the world had gotten smaller and the telegraph had changed us forever. Just as they do with today’s chip world, including the internet.

But in the end, I wonder. There are lots of moments that seem to be pivotal in history. Sometimes these moments come from inventions like the telegraph or microchip. Sometimes they come from people who did something like saving manuscripts from barbarians (the Irish). Or fighting the barbarians long enough for a leader to die and the invasion to stall. I haven’t read a book about how Albania saved civilization but I’ve met Albanians who think it. The Battle of Lepanto and the Battle of the White Horse both seem crucial.

I think all these events are/were crucial. I think all the people who discover things are crucial. I don’t believe that someone else would necessarily discover what Kilby and Noyce discovered about making chips. I don’t believe that civilization always moves forward. Sometimes it moves back. Sometimes the barbarians do enter the gates.

So I like to read about the moments that brought us to the good places we inhabit, the medieval technology and the modern, the medieval minds and the modern. Keeping track of knowledge, and of how it was discovered and used, seems very important.

**An absolutely captivating sidelight on the Victorian Internet/telegraph comes from the book The Chinese Typewriter: A History, by Thomas S. Mullaney (The MIT press, 2017). Mullaney discusses how the Chinese used the telegraph to transmit their language before moving on to the different problems encountered in using a typewriter.

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