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Book Review: The Victorian Internet

Posted in Uncategorized by filizefe on January 30, 2009


The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage


If you think that the Internet is a revolution, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, most probably would change your mind. As revolutionary as the Internet may seem, this fascinating book brings to light that it has all happened long before. The Internet’s precursor was the telegraph, which connected the continents 150 years ago and made a revolutionary change to society. Online lovers, hackers, spies, distant offices, new business practices, and well-paid high-tech workers first came out with the telegraph. The highly common features of the nineteenth century telegraph network and today’s Internet, give us a perspective on the opportunities and pitfalls of a communication technology.

The author Tom Standage is business editor at The Economist magazine and the author of four history books. He also edits Technology Quarterly. His book The Victorian Internet is described by the Wall Street Journal as a “dot-com cult classic”. His journalistic point of view and undemanding storytelling style brings out an entertaining reading from a history book. Although it is relatively old (first published in 1998), presenting the similarities of the old communication technologies with the Internet, gives the book much longer shelf life than other Internet books.

The book follows a chronology by going back to the eighteenth century, to the first experiments of long-distance communication on a wire. It strengthens the impact of the technological inventions by demonstrating the details. The messages had to be physically carried from one place to another at those times and describing these conditions makes reader to imagine how important to send a message in four minutes across ten miles via signal towers. This invention was optical telegraph, which quickly spread across Europe so that by the early nineteenth century there were almost 1000 signal towers in Europe. However, these towers were expensive to build and maintain. The optical system was not working in the dark or bad weather conditions. Moreover, messages were open to public in sight, which was another negative factor.

These factors led the invention of electrical telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century. It took off like wildfire. The electric wires quickly circled the world, creating the roots of the McLuhan’s global village. The telegraph allowed people to communicate across continents. The rise of the telegraph continued the invention of telephone, but during this period, many social and economic changes took place. Given its potential to change the world, the story of telegraph contains a deep lesson. As the Internet connects via mail servers, the telegraph sends message via telegraph offices. First adopters, then as now, were businesses. Online weddings have taken place over both the telegraph and the Internet. Even the skeptic public reaction to telegraph at first was similar to the Internet.

The weakness of the book is that the author leaves out the differences. The telegraph made radical changes in social life but it did not shape the individual lives as much as the Internet did. The Internet diffused in our lives in every aspect, where the telegraph mostly used for communication and business purposes. We choose what we are going to eat, read, watch, wear, go and so on through the Internet. However, the telegraph did not cover this much space in the individuals lives. It was a tool of government, business, and military.

The strength of the book is coming from the author’s humorous style of conveying a historical perspective. The author does not claim to be an academic historian. He explicitly states that his book is a popular work. The main purpose of the book is not hidden in the details of the history; it appears on the surface of this collection. The history of an old communication device gives perspective on a recent invention.

Standage’s The Victorian Internet is a delightful book, which explains the history of a communication technology in a broad perspective with its ties with real life. The author’s way of presenting the historical knowledge, makes it obvious for today’s readers that the invention of the telegraph was a revolution after printing press in communication history. Before the advent of the Internet, we were still getting live news or speaking on mobile phones. We were even watching real time war on TV. The Internet, from this point of view, is an innovation rather than a revolution.

Book Review Citation:


Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers. Walker and Company, New York.

Standage, T. The Victorian Internet. Retrieved January 29, 2009, from  


One Response

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  1. mgm5 said, on February 6, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Filiz, You have a done a very good job of summarizing the book and drawing comparisons with the modern day internet. Yes, he clearly uses the telegraph to give perspective on the modern day internet.

    You might have included some of back up maybe Winston’s work on innovation, to bolster your argument about the telegraph as revolutionary and the internet as evolutionary.

    I don’t believe that business was the early adopter with the internet as it was with the telegraph. I think it was first geeks, than universities, than individuals. Business was way behind in understanding the significance of the internet. They may have used it internally and in business to business applications.

    Good job. Meg

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