Review: "The Victorian Internet" by Tom Standage -- and Why It's Relevant

Before TCP/IP, there was tap-tap-tap -- and similar social and economic consequences came with both communication improvements. That's the underlying theme of Tom Standage's "The Victorian Internet," a short book packed with interesting facts, tie-ins, and characters relevant to the modern communications age. The book was first published in 1998, and updated in 2007. It seems very relevant, however, as the history it captures speaks so clearly to the modern era of electronic communication.

The evolution of the electric telegraph from the visual telegraph -- yes, the Victorian Internet actually started with two L-shaped arms waving signals across the French countryside, which the British changed to eight lozenges in two columns -- was not assured. It took new technology, materials, and systems before it came into existence. Even then, it wasn't obvious what to do with the electric telegraph. Military and government use? Commerce? News? Personal communications?

The technical challenges were daunting. Insulating wires, finding impedances, powering signals, laying trans-oceanic cables, and so forth -- it was all new territory, and competing theories and inventors provide a brief, colorful backdrop to descriptions of the electric telegraph's early days. Connections to some parts of the modern world also become clear, such as why there are a number of place names called "telegraph hill" and why AP and UPI are/were called "wire services." How Reuters emerged is particularly interesting, as is the utility of pneumatic tubes as an affordance for decentralized telegraph offices. The prevalence of "handles" in place of names for operators, the use of abbreviations to capture ideas and emotions -- it all seems a bit familiar.

These social aspects of the Victorian Internet are perhaps the most riveting part of Standage's stories. Romance online. Spying and misinformation, as well as encryption. The tension between local and world news. Governments struggling to keep up with the pace of commercial change. The role of electronic communication to prevent war and as a tool for warmongers. There were even authors speculating at what all this meant, futurists from the past.

And the Victorian Internet is still with us. Remember the earlier description of the eight lozenges in two columns? These lozenges could be turned to represent certain characters or concepts. Today, we use a similar scheme, called ASCII -- 8-bit strings to represent various characters or concepts in the online world. The distance from telegram to Twitter to Instagram is shorter than we may realize.

Written with verve, Standage's book is worth a read, especially as organization's face uncertainty about how to respond to today's unique publishing challenges. If past is prelude, there are clues here as to how a combination of clear thinking and nimble response helped some firms and individuals thrive in new realms.