Message Font: Serif | Sans-Serif
No. of Recommendations: 1
“Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers,” by Tom Standage, Berkeley Books, NY, 1998. This 228-page paperback tells the history of the telegraph beginning with an introduction to the discovery of electric batteries and a discussion of the optical telegraph systems of England and France. The first such system was installed in France in 1794, but signals could only be sent in daylight hours, were obscured by fogs and mists, and the need to resend signals at line-of-site distances required a large trained staff. The British installed a similar system, but costs limited its use to the government and especially the military.

The potential for an electric telegraph became apparent in the early 19th century. The electric battery–providing steady power– was discovered in 1800. The laws of electric current and its electromagnetic character were recognized by 1820. Soon various methods for sending and detecting signals were under discussion.

Samuel FB Morse was a painter from Massachusetts. He became interested in telegraphy in 1832, during an ocean voyage returning from copying paintings in the Louvre in Paris. He soon envisioned the dot and dash system that became Morse code. In 1836, William Cooke in England began experimentation along similar lines. However, his system used multiple wires and an indicator board.

To increase the range of his signal, Morse sought the assistance of Joseph Henry of Princeton who advised him to use multiple batteries in series. In effect they raised the voltage of the line, but the book does not say how high. In England, Cooke received similar advice from Charles Wheatstone, who was aware of Henry's publications on electromagnetism. Morse partnered with Prof. Leonard Gale of NYU and Alfred Vail to complete development.

After repeated efforts to interest the US government in funding a demonstration, Morse finally got $30K from Congress to build a line from Baltimore to Washington along the B&O Railroad right-of-way. The famous, “What God hath wrought” was transmitted on May 24, 1844. In England, Cooke had managed to install a demonstration line and to retain a promoter, Thomas Home to publicize its utility. Its popularity was greatly increased when used to announce the birth of Queen Victoria's second son, Alfred Ernest on Aug 6, 1844.

Though the demonstrations were successful and uses like catching fleeing criminals soon emerged, the public continued to regard the telegraph as a curiosity. After additional government funding was not forthcoming, Morse appointed Amos Kendall as his agent, who proposed a network of privately funded lines from New York. The Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in May, 1845, to license the Morse technology to these companies in return for royalties. Lines were soon under construction to major cities. Similarly, in Britain, financier John Ricardo created the Electrical Telegraph Company and bought Cooke and Wheatstone's patent rights.

The book does a good job of covering the global expansion of telegraphy including lines under the English channel and Cyrus Field's transatlantic cable. It discusses the commercial code systems that evolved, and relates the story of the telephone, the harmonic telegraph, duplex, and quadruplex telegraphs, and early automatic telegraphs. It also tells the story of Thomas Edison, who learned his craft as a telegrapher after rescuing the 3-year-old son of a station master. His invention factory in New Jersey began as a manufacturer of improved stock ticker machines.

The book makes the point that the telegraph is the first of the electrical inventions that eventually brought us the internet. The telegraph brought battery technology to towns all over the nation, and many young men began their careers as messenger boys for the telegraph and worked their way up to become telegraphers. Thomas Edison and David Sarnoff, CEO of RCA, were two of the most famous examples.

The book has a British focus and some aspects of the American story are not covered. The story of Western Union is omitted as is the story of newswires, Associated Press, the teletype and the telex. Also there is no mention of fire alarm boxes or railroad signaling that relied on automatic telegraphy.

Standage does a good job covering a fairly technical story in a lively, non-technical way. This is a reasonable introduction to the subject. Index. References. Illustration. Map. Photos. An appendix shows the Morse Code.
Print the post  


When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.