Book Review – The Victorian Internet

25 Apr

The Victorian Internet was published in 1998 and authored by Tom Standage, a professional journalist who has written about technology and science for many different newspapers and magazines for a long time.  In this book, Tom used his clever written words to describe the history of telegraph development in nineteenth-century with lots of interesting and significant stories about scientists and amateur inventors. From how scientists found the electricity could be transmitted by a long distance to the invented process by well-known Morse code, the book did a great job for providing the context of each period of development. Like every products now, telegraph also experienced the attitude from skepticism of people’s eyes but soon changed to embracement from public and was utilized by different markets very much. Militaries, governments and private enterprises or even wealth people all rely on the telegraph in nineteenth-century. It also changed the social behaviors and intercommunication way of people at that time. Good part such as on-line wedding helped people in love to find a new solution for their marriage ceremony, and bad part such as cheating on racehorse contest for gaining the notorious price. The book not only introduced the glory age of telegraph for how it impacted the whole society, but also lamented the decline of telegraph with consequent new inventions – telephone in the last chapter. I personally really enjoyed this book because of its vivid writing and copious content of telegraph history. Also, I can’t stop applying the stories mentioned in the book to current life with our “Internet” world when I was reading.

The first thing I want to discuss about is the illusion that people believe the telegraph would increase “world peace” because of elimination of communication by using it. However, the fact of many wars still happened after the telegraph age proved that the world didn’t always in peace even though the telegraph had been invented for a long time. The same situation is happening in current “Internet” environment. Based on this book, in 1997 the professor Michael Dertouzos in MIT wrote of the prospect of “computer-aided peace” (Standage, 1998, p.207) in his book which revealed his thought that Internet could enhance the world peace and eliminate the nationalism. However, we both know this is not true or “haven’t reached yet”. So why didn’t the telegraphy and Internet perform as good as human’s expectation? I would like to quote another great thoughts from this book is that “It’s all about human beings rather than technology no matter what medium it is. (telegraph or Internet)” And I believe this is a true and board answer. People are too complicated to predict. Hence the telegraph or Internet can help us to communicate with each other faster in the past and now, it can’t help us to maintain the world peace or sweep the misunderstanding totally. I believe the reasons involve many fields and one of them I have read about is the psychology theory of people’s behavior online. According to “Psychology and the Internet” (Gackenbach, 2007, p.79), people are easy to become “flaming” when chatting or doing the social networking online. (Flaming in this context means incessant talking or pointless chatter or aggressive comments..etc.) I assume it is because we don’t have to communicate with each other by face to face; hence it reduces some level of concerns of people when they are talking in person. The same example I found in “The Victorian Internet” was that the famous inventor Edison used “Morse code” to ask his wife to merry him. And he mentioned in the diary ”The word ‘Yes’ is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak it, she might have found it harder.” What an interesting example in nineteenth-century and it already indicated the issue of “flaming” of Internet at that time. Therefore, telegraph or Internet did play the important role on communication between human beings, however the world peace can’t reach only by machines. It always depends on human beings.

The second thing I felt interesting is that the book mentioned in the end of telegraph age that telegraph changed from high-skill to low-skill occupation. Before this, all operators needed to know the complicated skills to send and receive the telegraph. However, when telegraph developed to its extremely situation, people start thinking how can they invent advanced equipment to enhance the function of telegraph. Hence, lots of inventions appeared to replace the role of skilled operators. For example, the Wheatstone Automatic transmitter, which will prepunch the message on a paper tape and then transmitted in Morse code. This condition just reminds me the theory I read in Christensen’s book “Seeing What’s Next”. (Christensen, 2004)The theory talked about “development of rules allows migration of producer toward end-user” which means in the development process; there is a situation that company will gradually design the product closer to end users with less skill but still good-enough. The things happened in the nineteenth century of telegraph was exactly matched the theory and I believe it’s reasonable and a constant principle for many products. It is also one way that company could earn more profits and reduce costs in the end.

Overall, this book is easy to read, entertaining and educational. I admit that I have never thought about how we can talk to each other by telephone. I always take this intelligent and convenient invention for granted. After reading this book, I have a very clear concept about the telegraph and its relationship to telephone, mobile phone and Internet in current age. I recommend people who are interested in the technology and inventions field to read it. Also, people who are avid to Internet, mobile services and products should read it too. The book will stimulate your thoughts especially on the correlations between telegraph and Internet, telegraph and people’s behaviors and even the business theories of new inventions in the future.


Christensen, C.M & Anthony, S.D & Roth, E.A. (2004) See what’s next. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.

Gackenbach, J. (2007) Psychology and the Internet. Interpersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications. Oxford, Elsevier.

Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet. US, Walker.


2 Responses to “Book Review – The Victorian Internet”


  1. Book Reviews « COM546 : Evolutions - 04/26/2011

    […] Coco: The Victorian Internet […]

  2. Week 7 : Frameworks and Theories « COM546 : Evolutions - 05/10/2011

    […] Coco: The Victorian Internet […]

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