20 May 2019

The Victorian Internet – Tom Standage

1. The Mother of All Networks

Chappe-style optical telegraph, showing arm positions corresponding to different letters. Mounted on the roof of a tower, the arms were controlled from the inside by an operator.

The construction of a fifteen-station line from Paris to Lille, about 130 miles to the north, was proposed. Chappe was put on a government salary, complete with the use of a horse.

The British telegraph was designed by George Murray, a clergyman and amateur scientist, and it consisted of six wooden shutters, each of which could be opened or closed to give sixty-four possible combinations (since 64 = 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 = 26). Soon, telegraph towers were springing up all over Europe.

The success of the optical telegraph designs inspired by Chappe was limited because they were so expensive to run. They required shifts of skilled operators at each station and involved building towers all over the place, so that only governments could afford to run them; and their limited information-carrying capacity meant they were just used for official business. Optical telegraphs had shown that complex messages could be sent using combinations of simple signs; but other than noticing the appearance of a tower on top of the nearest hill, most people's lives were not directly affected. (Today, all that is left of the original telegraph network is a few place-names; several hills are still known as Telegraph Hill.) As well as being expensive, optical telegraphs suffered from the drawback of not working in the dark, despite various experimental schemes that involved the use of colored lanterns on the end of the indicator arms. But at least the fall of darkness could be predicted; fog and mist, on the other hand, could arise at any time.

2. Strange, Fierce Fire

Morse was forty-one when he caught the telegraph bug following a chance meeting on board a ship in the mid-Atlantic. In 1832, he was returning to the United States from Europe, where he had spent three years in Italy, Switzerland, and France improving his painting skills and working on a rather harebrained scheme to bring the treasures of the Louvre in Paris to an American audience. On a six-by-nine-foot canvas, he was painting miniature copies of thirty-eight of the Louvre's finest paintings, which he collectively dubbed the Gallery of the Louvre. The painting, still unfinished, accompanied Morse onto the sailing packet Sully, a fast ship that was carrying mail, together with a small number of well-to-do passengers, across the Atlantic. His intention was to finish the Gallery of the Louvre when he got back to the United States, and then exhibit it and charge admission. It was a scheme typical of Morse: Since 1823, for example, he had been experimenting with a marble-cutting device that would supposedly make copies of any sculpture, with a view to reproducing well-known works of art in large quantities for sale to the public. And as a young man, he had dabbled with various other inventions, including a new kind of water pump, devised in 1817, which he sold to a local fire brigade. But none of his schemes, which typically combined artistic ingenuity with public-spiritedness, had ever been successful; the hapless Morse seems to have stumbled from one moneymaking idea to another as the mood took him.

Electricity was believed to pass through a circuit of any length instantaneously. Morse was thunderstruck. "If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit," he is reputed to have said, "I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." This, of course, was exactly the reason that so many scientists had spent the best part of a century trying to harness electricity as a means of signaling, but Morse didn't know that. He left the table, went up on deck, and started scribbling in his notebook. Convinced that he was the first to have had the idea, he instantly became obsessed with a new scheme: building an electric telegraph. Perhaps fortunately, Morse was unaware that other would-be telegraphers had failed after being unable to get signals to travel over long wires. Assuming that the electric side of things would be fairly straightforward, he started thinking about the other half of the problem: a signaling code.

He sketched out a way to record incoming signals on paper automatically, by marking a paper tape with a moving pencil controlled by an electromagnet.

Cooke and Wheatstone's original five-needle electric telegraph. Each needle could be tilted to the left or right, or remain vertical; moving two needles picked out a letter on a diagonal grid (in this case, the letter "v").

Morse's original telegraph. Winding the handle (L) forced the toothed rack through the transmitting apparatus (P), making and breaking the circuit. At the receiving end, the intermittent current was recorded as a zigzag line on a moving tape (A) by deflecting a pencil (G) with an electromagnet.

Building the prototypes, however, proved to be the easy part. Convincing people of their significance was far more of a challenge.

3. Electric Skeptics

Members of the public were quite content just to come and see it, and watch chess games played between the leading players of each town over the wires. But the telegraph wasn't regarded as being useful in day-to-day life.

4. The Thrill Electric

Although the telegraph, unlike later forms of electrical communication, did not require the consumer who was sending or receiving a message to own any special equipment—or understand how to use it—it was still a source of confusion to those unfamiliar with it.

Laying a pipe along the seabed across the English Channel was another matter entirely. And if the cable was to last any length of time, an alternative to coating it in rubber would have to be found, since rubber quickly deteriorated in water. The solution was to use gutta-percha, a kind of rubbery gum obtained from the gutta-percha tree, which grows in the jungles of Southeast Asia. One useful property of gutta-percha is that it is hard at room temperature but softens when immersed in hot water and can be molded into any shape. The Victorians used it much as we use plastic today.

Things did not go according to plan. For starters, the wire was so thin that it wouldn't sink; it simply floated pathetically in the water behind the boat. The Bretts' response was to clamp weights around the wire at regular intervals to get it to sink.

The cable was working, but the messages were being garbled because the surrounding water changed the cable's electrical properties in a way that was poorly understood at the time. Effectively, it meant that the staccato pulses of electricity were smoothed out, and the Bretts' high-speed automatic machines transmitted so fast that succeeding pulses overlapped and became indistinct. But, using an old-fashioned single-needle telegraph, they were eventually able to send a few messages manually, in much the same way that a preacher in a resonant cathedral must speak slowly and distinctly in order to be understood. However, the next day the cable met a watery end; a French fisherman snagged it in his net, and when he brought it to the surface he hacked off a piece to see what it was.

He wanted to protect his investment, so the new cable consisted of four gutta-percha-covered wires twisted together and wrapped in tar-covered hemp, and then encased in a cladding of tar-covered iron cords. It was far tougher than the first cable, and it weighed thirty times as much. This meant it was harder to lay.

The first direct message from London to Paris was sent in 1852.

The problem of laying a telegraph link across a stretch of water seemed to have been cracked: It was simply a matter of making sure that the cable was properly insulated, strong enough not to break, and heavy enough to sink, and that messages weren't sent too quickly along it.

Further underwater links across the North Sea directly connected Britain with the coasts of Germany, Russia, and Holland.

He failed in his attempt to reach the North African coast, which involved laying a cable across the deepest and most mountainous part of the Mediterranean seabed. Brett lost a lot of money, and his failure proved that there were limits to submarine telegraphy after all.

5. Wiring the World

Everything seemed to be going according to plan. There was only one fly in the ointment: Whitehouse was totally incompetent.

The reliability of the cable steadily deteriorated, and it eventually stopped working altogether on September 1, less than a month after its completion.

Not only had Whitehouse made the conducting core too small, Thomson explained, but his use of high-voltage induction coils had gradually destroyed the cable's insulation and caused its eventual demise. Worse still, Whitehouse had disobeyed his superiors and had acted as though the sole purpose of the cable's existence was to satisfy his experimental curiosity. When it became clear that a highly sensitive new kind of receiving apparatus, the mirror galvanometer, was better suited for transatlantic telegraphy than his own patented automatic receiver, Whitehouse grudgingly agreed to use it.

The cables were so profitable that Field was able to pay off all his debts in 1867. That year, when one of the two cables got crushed by an iceberg and stopped working, it was repaired within weeks. Before long, the recovery and repair of undersea cables was regarded as commonplace.

As the volume of traffic increased, the telegraph was in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.

6. Steam-Powered Messages

Speedy communication is a marvelous thing. But as anyone who uses e-mail will testify, once you've got used to being able to send messages very quickly, it's very difficult to put up with delays. Just as today's e-mail systems are still plagued by occasional blackouts and failures, the telegraph networks of the 1850s were subject to congestion as the volume of traffic mushroomed, and key network links within major cities became overloaded. The problem arose because most telegraph messages were not transmitted directly from the telegraph office nearest the sender to the one nearest the recipient, but passed via one or more intermediate points where they were retranscribed and retransmitted each time.

Some telegraph companies tried employing additional messenger boys to carry bundles of messages along busy routes from one telegraph station to another—a distance of only a few hundred yards in many cases. With enough messages in a bundle, this method was quicker than retelegraphing them, but it hardly inspired public confidence in the new technology. Instead, it gave the impression that the telegraph system was merely a glorified and far more expensive postal service. On the other hand, because the number of messages being transmitted over busy parts of the network varied so dramatically, simply installing more telegraph lines and staffing them with more operators wasn't practical either; for if there were very few messages to handle during a lull, the highly paid operators would have nothing to do.

In London, the problem of congestion first emerged in the early 1850s, when half of all telegraph messages related to the Stock Exchange, another third were business related, and only one in seven concerned "family affairs."

The telegraph link between the Stock Exchange branch office and the Central Telegraph Office, a distance of 220 yards, carried more messages than any other part of the network; and the value of these messages depended on their being delivered swiftly.

He proposed a steam-powered pneumatic tube system to carry telegraph forms the short distance from the Stock Exchange to the main telegraph office. Since outgoing messages would be carried by tube, the telegraph wire along the route could be dedicated to incoming messages, and the level of traffic along the wire would be dramatically reduced.

The original tube was one-way only, since the vast majority of messages originated at the Stock Exchange end. Batches of empty carriers were taken back to the Stock Exchange by messenger.

Blockages were a constant problem for all pneumatic tube networks.

Although they were originally intended to move messages from one telegraph office to another, pneumatic tube systems were soon being used to move messages around within major telegraph offices.

In 1875, the Central Telegraph Office in London, for example, housed 450 telegraph instruments on three floors, linked by sixty-eight internal pneumatic tubes.

The Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today's e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.).

In 1844, when Morse had started building the network, there were a few dozen miles of wire and sending a message from, say, London to Bombay and back took ten weeks. But within thirty years there were over 650,000 miles of wire, 30,000 miles of submarine cable, and 20,000 towns and villages were on-line—and messages could be telegraphed from London to Bombay and back in as little as four minutes. "Time itself is telegraphed out of existence," declared the Daily Telegraph of London, a newspaper whose very name was chosen to give the impression of rapid, up-to-date delivery of news. The world had shrunk further and faster than it ever had before.

The telegraph was increasingly hailed as nothing less than the instrument of world peace.

Unfortunately, the social impact of the global telegraph network did not turn out to be so straightforward. Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen.

7. Codes, Hackers, and Cheats

There was certainly a demand for codes and ciphers; telegrams were generally, though unfairly, regarded as less secure than letters, since you never knew who might see them as they were transmitted, retransmitted, and retranscribed on their way from sender to receiver. In fact, most telegraph clerks were scrupulously honest, but there was widespread concern over privacy all the same.

Twenty states sent delegates, and in 1865 the International Telegraph Union was born. The rules banning the use of codes by anyone other than governments were scrapped; at last, people could legally send telegrams in code. Not surprisingly, they started doing so almost immediately.

Since numbers were frequently garbled in transmission—telegraph clerks were used to transmitting recognizable words, not meaningless strings of figures—devisers of codes soon switched to the use of code words to signify other words or even entire phrases.

Such codes weren't all that secret because the codebooks were widely available to everyone (though in some cases they could be customized). But before long another advantage of using such nonsecret codes, known as "commercial" codes, soon became clear—to save money. By using a code that replaced several words with a single word, telegrams cost less to send.

The fishing industry, the mining industry, the sausage industry, bankers, railroads, and insurance companies all had their own codes, often running into hundreds of pages, to detail incredibly specific phrases and situations.

The use of commercial codes was starting to get out of hand. Some codes involved some weird words.

Rules were further tightened. A limit was imposed of ten letters per word for telegrams in code language, and words had to be genuine words in German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, or Latin.

However, by this stage the drawbacks of such codes were becoming apparent to their users as well as the telegraph companies. Each code word meant so much that a single misplaced letter (or dot or dash) in transmission could dramatically change the meaning of a message.

As fast as the rules were changed, new codes were devised to get around them. And eventually users got what they wanted—the ability to send coded messages.

In 1872, Western Union (by then the dominant telegraph company in the United States) decided to implement a new, secure scheme to enable sums of up to $100 to be transferred between several hundred towns by telegraph.

Each telegraph office had one of these books, with pages containing hundreds of words. But the numbers next to these words varied from office to office; only the district superintendent had copies of each office's uniquely numbered book. A running count was kept for each book, and each time a money transfer telegram was sent, the next word in its unique numerical order was sent as one of the words of the message. Another page in the codebook gave code words for different amounts in dollars. And a special password, known by the superintendent and the operators at each office, also had to be included, sometimes as the first word in the message, and sometimes as the last word.

8. Love over the Wires

The world's telegraphers represented an on-line community encompassing thousands of people, very few of whom ever met face-to-face. And despite the apparently impersonal nature of communicating by wire, it was in fact an extremely subtle and intimate means of communication. Experienced operators could even recognize their friends merely from the style of their Morse code.

During quiet periods, however, the on-line interaction really got going, with stories, jokes, and local gossip circulated over the wires.

The telegraph community was a meritocracy—it didn't matter who you were as long as you could send and receive messages quickly—which was one of the reasons that women and children were readily admitted to the profession.

Despite the strange customs and the often curious lifestyle of many operators, telegraphy was regarded as an attractive profession, offering the hope of rapid social advancement and fueling the expansion of the middle class. Courses, books, and pamphlets teaching Morse code to beginners flourished. For the ambitious, it provided an escape route from small towns to the big cities, and for those who liked to move around, it meant guaranteed work wherever they went.

9. War and Peace in the Global Village

In the early nineteenth century, newspapers traded on their local coverage, not the timeliness of their news.

Some newspapers printed on a different day each week to fit in with the social life of the editor; others rationed the amount of news they printed in a busy week, in case there was a shortage of news the following week. And apart from local stories, most other news was taken from the pages of other papers, which were delivered by post—days after publication. Newspapers reprinted each other's stories freely; news moved so slowly that there was no danger that one paper would steal another's story and be on sale at the same time.

Although receiving news by telegraph would seem to be the logical next step from using horses, carrier pigeons, and so on, it was instead viewed as an ominous development. The telegraph could deliver news almost instantly, so the competition to see who could get the news first was, in effect, over.

The handful of telegraph companies that tried to press operators into journalistic service, and then sell their reports to newspapers, found that operators tended to make pretty hopeless journalists. On the other hand, if each newspaper sent its own writer to cover a far-off story, they all ended up sending similar dispatches back from the same place along the same telegraph wire, at great expense. The logical solution was for newspapers to form groups and cooperate, establishing networks of reporters whose dispatches would be telegraphed back to a central office and then made available to all member newspapers.

Readers just couldn't get enough foreign news—the more foreign, the better. Instead of limiting their coverage to a small locality, newspapers were able for the first time to give at least the illusion of global coverage, providing a summary of all the significant events of the day, from all over the world, in a single edition.

The War Ministry in London issued precise details of the number and nature of the forces being deployed. This information was faithfully reproduced in the Times, which wanted to capitalize on enthusiasm for the war by providing its readers with as much information as possible.

With the telegraph network reaching across Europe to the enemy in St. Petersburg, daily reports of the British plans, lifted from that day's copy of the Times, could be telegraphed to Russia.

The telegraph had, arguably, prevented bloodshed, if only through the use of misinformation. Optimism about the peacemaking potential of the telegraph was still widespread at the close of the century, even though there was no evidence that it had made any real difference one way or the other.

10. Information Overload

The information supplied by the telegraph was like a drug to businessmen, who swiftly became addicted. In combination with the railways, which could move goods quickly from one place to another, the rapid supply of information dramatically changed the way business was done.

Direct transactions between producers and customers were made possible without having to go through middlemen.

Suppliers could keep smaller inventories.

The telegraph made world produce markets a possibility; it was used to send cotton and corn prices between Liverpool, New York, and Chicago. Metal markets, ship brokering, and insurance became global businesses.

The telegraphic address was just one example of how businesses were prepared to pay extra for the latest telegraphic innovations. Private leased lines, which ran from telegraph exchanges to the post rooms of large offices and government buildings to speed the sending and delivery of telegrams, became increasingly popular.

The demand for more frequently updated information led to the development of stock tickers: machines that spewed out information in a continuous, merciless flow.

Although today Edison is principally remembered for inventing the phonograph and the light bulb, it was his telegraphic background and the enhancements he made to the stock ticker that gave him the financial freedom to pursue his career as an inventor. But, ironically, it was the improvements that he and other inventors devised that would eventually lead to the demise of the telegraph and the community that had grown up around it; for any industry founded on a particular technology faces the danger that a new invention will render it obsolete.

11. Decline and Fall

Morse's patent was upheld; he was officially declared the sole inventor of the telegraph, and the telegraph companies finally started paying him the royalties he deserved. Even so, Morse received no official recognition from the U.S. government—in marked contrast to the situation in Europe, where he spent many years making the rounds and collecting honors and decorations.

Although the countries of Europe ceremonially recognized Morse as the inventor of the telegraph, they weren't paying him any royalties—for he had failed to obtain patents in Europe during a yearlong trip to promote his invention in 1838–39. (The one exception was in France, where Morse had in fact been granted a patent, something that had been conveniently overlooked by the state-run telegraph company, which used his invention without paying for it.) Morse pointed out this incongruity to the U.S. ambassador in Paris, who took up his case, and in 1858 Morse was awarded the sum of 400,000 French francs (equivalent to about $80,000 at the time) by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany, and Turkey, each of which contributed a share according to the number of Morse instruments in use in each country or region.

The first sign of change was the telegraph companies' growing enthusiasm for automatic telegraphy, which started to gain ground in the 1870s.

The ABC telegraph, known as the "communicator," was used extensively for point-to-point communication on thousands of private lines in Britain, since it had the advantage that no operator was required.

In 1858, Wheatstone patented an automatic sender that could transmit messages in Morse at very high speed from a prepunched tape. This was a direct replacement for a human telegrapher, and it was capable of up to four hundred words per minute—ten times faster than the finest human operators. At the receiving end, messages were printed out as dots and dashes by a standard Morse printer, and could then be decoded into letters and numbers in the usual way.

This was less skilled work than operating a Morse key, and it could be done in advance; long messages could be punched by several operators in parallel, each punching a different paragraph, and then spliced together.

A further boost to network capacity was provided by the invention of the duplex, a means of sending messages in both directions over a single wire simultaneously.

It meant that telegraph companies were suddenly able to send twice as much traffic along a single wire, merely by installing special equipment at each end, and it saved them a fortune, since it cost far less to buy a set of duplex equipment than it did to string up a new wire. Meanwhile the French, as usual, were doing things their own way.

At each end of the wire, synchronized rotating distributor arms switched the use of a single telegraph line between four or six sets of apparatus. In conjunction with duplex equipment, this enabled a single line to carry up to twelve lines' worth of traffic. Instead of Morse code, the apparatus used a five-unit binary code, in which each letter was represented as a series of five current pulses, each of which could be positive or negative.

The combination of these new technologies enabled telegraph companies to save money on construction and skilled labor; reducing operating costs while making maximum use of network capacity was the name of the game.

One approach, which was being pursued by several inventors, was known as the "harmonic" telegraph. The human ear can distinguish notes of different pitches, and if each of those notes is playing a separate rhythm, anyone of a sufficiently musical turn of mind can "tune out" all but one of the notes—just as it is possible to separate the voice of someone at a party from the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. The idea of the harmonic telegraph was to use a series of reeds vibrating at different frequencies. Electrical signals produced by the reeds would be combined, sent down a telegraph wire, and then separated out again at the other end using an identical set of reeds, each of which would respond only to the signals generated by its counterpart. Morse telegraphy would then be possible by stopping and starting the vibration of each reed to make dots and dashes.

Another inventor working on a harmonic telegraph was Alexander Graham Bell.

Initially, the telephone was seen merely as a "speaking telegraph"—an improvement of an existing technology, rather than something altogether different. Even Bell, whose 1876 patent was entitled "Improvements in Telegraphy," referred to his invention as a form of telegraph in a letter to potential British investors.

The telephone was an instant success. By the end of June 1877, there were 230 telephones in use; a month later, the figure was 750; a month later still, there were 1,300. By 1880, there were 30,000 telephones in use around the world.

12. The Legacy of the Telegraph

Early technological hurdles such as low sound quality, long-distance calling, and the design of efficient manual and automatic telephone exchanges were rapidly overcome by Edison, Hughes, Watson, and others, and by the turn of the century there were nearly 2 million phones in use. (Bell did little to improve his invention; once its success was assured, he turned his attention to aviation instead.)

Ironically, it is the Internet—despite being regarded as a quintessentially modern means of communication—that has the most in common with its telegraphic ancestor. Like the telegraph network, the Internet allows people to communicate across great distances using interconnected networks. (Indeed, the generic term internet simply means a group of interconnected networks.) Common rules and protocols enable any sort of computer to exchange messages with any other—just as messages could easily be passed from one kind of telegraph apparatus (a Morse printer, say) to another (a pneumatic tube). The journey of an e-mail message, as it hops from mail server to mail server toward its destination, mirrors the passage of a telegram from one telegraph office to the next.

Instead of using a codebook to relate each combination to a different word, today's computers use another agreed-upon protocol to transmit individual letters. This scheme, called ASCII (for American Standard Code for Information Interchange), says, for example, that a capital "A" should be represented by the pattern 01000001; but in essence the principles are unchanged since the late eighteenth century. Similarly, Chappe's system had special codes to increase or reduce the rate of transmission, or to request that garbled information be sent again.

The protocols used by modems are decided on by the ITU, the organization founded in 1865 to regulate international telegraphy. The initials now stand for International Telecommunication Union, rather than International Telegraph Union. More striking still are the parallels between the social impact of the telegraph and that of the Internet. Public reaction to the new technologies was, in both cases, a confused mixture of hype and skepticism.

People who were worried about inadequate security on the telegraph network, and now on the Internet, turned to the same solution: secret codes.

On a simpler level, both the telegraph and the Internet have given rise to their own jargon and abbreviations. Rather than plugs, boomers, or bonus men, Internet users are variously known as surfers, netheads, or netizens. Personal signatures, used by both telegraphers and Internet users, are known in both cases as sigs.

Just as the telegraph led to a direct increase in the pace and stress of business life, today the complaint of information overload, blamed on the Internet, is commonplace. The telegraph also made possible new business practices, facilitating the rise of large companies centrally controlled from a head office. Today, the Internet once again promises to redefine the way people work, through emerging trends like teleworking (working from a distant location, with a network connection to one's office) and virtual corporations (where there is no central office, just a distributed group of employees who communicate over a network).

Given its potential to change the world, the telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so, of course—but we have been pinning the same hope on other new technologies ever since. In the 1890s, advocates of electricity claimed it would eliminate the drudgery of manual work and create a world of abundance and peace. In the first decade of the twentieth century, aircraft inspired similar flights of fancy: Rapid intercontinental travel would, it was claimed, eliminate international differences and misunderstandings. (One commentator suggested that the age of aviation would be an "age of peace" because aircraft would make armies obsolete, since they would be vulnerable to attack from the air.) Similarly, television was expected to improve education, reduce social isolation, and enhance democracy. Nuclear power was supposed to usher in an age of plenty where electricity would be "too cheap to meter." The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago.

The irony is that even though it failed to live up to the Utopian claims made about it, the telegraph really did transform the world. It also redefined forever our attitudes toward new technologies. In both respects, we are still living in the new world it inaugurated.


Curious rebirth of the telegram in the form of text messages sent between mobile phones.