The Victorian Internet – The Technology That Started It All

I’m at least three books behind in my reviews, so I figured I’d bang out a fun one today: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage. This 1998 book is now a classic – written as the Web was exploding on the scene, it reminded us that this movie has run before, 150 years in the past, with the rise of the telegraph. He writes:

The rise and fall of the telegraph is a tale of scientific discovery, technological cunning, personal rivalry, and cutthroat competition. It is also a parable about how we react to new technologies: For some people, they tap a deep vein of optimism, while others find in them new ways to commit crime, initiate romance, or make a fast buck age- old human tendencies that are all too often blamed on the technologies themselves.

Standage chronicles the history of the telegraph’s many inventors (Morse was just the most famous “father” of the device), and the passions it stirred across the world. Nowhere, however, did the invention stir more excitement (or bad poetry) than in the United States, where it can be convincingly argued that the telegraph’s ability to conquer distance and time almost perfectly matched the young country’s need to marshall its vast geography and resources. Were it not for the telegraph, the United States may never have become a world power.

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Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

Last month I finished a compelling biography of Samuel Morse: Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Kenneth Silverman. If you’re a fan of great biographies, or just want to learn more about the history of both our industry and of the United States during a seminal and innovative period, I certainly recommend this book.

If you had no idea that Morse was an acclaimed painter – possibly one of the top US artists of his era – well you’re in good company. I had no idea either. Born just a few years after the Constitutional convention, Morse grew up as one of the first native expressions of the new country that was America. A gifted painter, Morse never quite found his voice – his failure to create a masterpiece, in fact, drove his obsession with making his name as an inventor.

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In 1844, Morse Gets The Scoop, Then Tweets His Dinner

I’m reading a fascinating biography of Samuel Morse – Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. I’ll post a review in a week or so, but one scene bears a quick post.

Morse successfully demonstrated his telegraph between Baltimore and Washington DC in May of 1844. Three days later the Democratic party convention commenced in Baltimore. In what turned out to be a masterstroke of “being in the right place at the right time,” Morse’s telegraph line happened to be in place to relay news of the convention back to the political classes in DC.

Recall, this was at a time when news was carried by horseback or, in the best case, by rail. It took hours for messages to travel between cities like Baltimore and DC – and they were just 45 miles apart.

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The Ecstasy of Telegraphy

My research manager turned up this gem in the course of answering a question I had about the popular response to the introduction of the telegraph in the US (a moment that informs the working title of my next book). What I find fascinating is how the invention incited an innate religious response (this editorial from a local Albany, NY newspaper is in no way unique). The logic goes something like this: Mankind has invented something that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension – we are now doing something that once was understood to be the provenance only of God. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that this invention, while seeming to contradict the supreme powers of God, in fact only reinforces His position in our world. 

The logic may feel a bit tortured, but it’s consistent with a point I make every time I explain one of the core ideas of the book – that in the 200 years between the introduction of the telegraph (early 1840s) and when my children have kids of their own (roughly 30 years from now, or  early 2040s), mankind will have completed something of a pivot when it comes to our shared understanding of the relationship between technology and God. When Morse couldn’t decide what the first telegraph message should be, he settled on a Biblical quote quite consistent with the Albany Atlas and Argus’ editorial: What Hath God Wrought? The telegraph was such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God. Humans can’t handle this power.*

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