dot-dash

Kenneth Silverman is co-director of the NYU Biography Seminar. He is writing a life of Samuel F.B. Morse

"The Victorian Internet" opens with a grabber--"This is the story of the oddballs, eccentrics, and visionaries who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier. . . ." Sounds like mostly bad news. Oddballs of the on-line frontier? Einstein for the big screen, lovable nut case with electrocuted hair. Luckily, these crass intentions never quite materialize. The book's retelling of the invention of telegraphy is racy and popularized but reliable. Its author, the British science journalist Tom Standage, presents no original research or new information. But he treats familiar persons and events from the less familiar perspective of the Internet.

Standage is not alone in looking back at the telegraph from cyberspace. Yet some of the best-informed genealogies of the Web, such as Brian Winston's "Media Technology and Society. A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet" (1998), challenge the very concept of a "revolution" in communications. The mistrust is healthy. Any assessment of the telegraph's impact must first be clear about how the instrument came to be and what purpose it served. No easy job, as it means discarding the romantic-nationalist myth of the heroic Lone Inventor: The telegraph was the creation of many minds and many hands. It also means seeing telegraphy as an enterprise of the early and mid-19th century, shaped by the new culture of business corporations, the rise of professional science and electrical engineering, the straining of obsolete patent laws, the differing political aims of Jacksonian America, Tsarist Russia, the monarchies of the German Confederation and wherever else the telegraph took hold.

Standage bypasses these complexities, and his tale is simpler. He begins by sketching the technological foreground. Revolutionary France developed a signaling network of intricate semaphores (optical telegraphs); around 1800, Alessandro Volta invented a battery that could generate a continuous current of electricity; in 1820 the Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovered electromagnetism. By the 1830s, these tracks converged as enthusiasts attempted to build an electrical telegraph. The most successful were, first, Samuel F.B. Morse, a down-on-his-luck American painter and professor of art at New York University; and his chief rivals, across the Atlantic, the ever-bickering partners William Fothergill Cooke, a maker of anatomical models for medical training, and Charles Wheatstone, a scientist who had experimented to determine the velocity of electricity.

Ignorant at first of each other's existence, Morse and Cooke-Wheatstone worked out unlike systems. Morse's used a single wire and recorded messages on a paper ribbon; Cooke-Wheatstone's involved several wires connected to as many needles that could be deflected to point at letters or numbers on a dial. Whether recording or pointing, the systems shared many problems, especially of sending signals over long distances and of getting funded. Morse asked Congress for money in 1838 but had to wait five years for the $30,000 that bankrolled his demonstration line from Washington to Baltimore. Cooke and Wheatstone took their needle telegraph to England's Great Western Railway, which eventually sponsored a 13-mile link between Paddington and West Drayton.

After these slow-motion beginnings, the telegraph in both countries took off. Morse's Magnetic Telegraph Co., formed in 1845, soon had poles going up toward Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and the Mississippi. In Britain proposals were advanced to link London with key industrial centers: Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool. By 1852, the United States had more than 23,000 miles of line, with 10,000 more under construction. Fifteen hundred miles of wire radiated out from Berlin, as telegraphs multiplied in Europe too. (More countries than not used Morse's system, for its simplicity and relatively low cost.)

The next great leap forward brought England and America together. Even before the telegraph proved itself on land, its inventors had tried sending messages by underwater cable--Wheatstone in Wales from a boat to a lighthouse, Morse in New York Harbor. The prospect of telegraphing across the Atlantic Ocean, however, seemed to most people a cloud-cuckoo land--Cyrus W. Field not included. A wealthy, self-made New Englander, he enlisted Morse as an electrician, got backing from both the British and American governments and set out in July 1857 to attach Newfoundland to Ireland by 2,500 tons of wire. When about 350 miles had been laid, the cable snapped and dropped into the sea.

Field raised more money and embarked again a year later. The line parted three times, but on Aug. 5, he managed to land it, spanning Europe and North America. Near-hysterical celebrations followed, apotheosizing Field as a second Columbus. His Atlantic cable was declared the supreme achievement of the century, reuniting the British and American peoples--a counter-Revolution symbolized by an electrical exchange of messages between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan. Hers took 16 1/2 hours to arrive, however. After that the cable deteriorated. Less than a month later, it went dead for good. The jubilation curdled into suspicions of a hoax.

Field may have been no Columbus, but he had the pluck of the Little Engine That Could. He tried again seven years later, setting out in June 1865 with three mega-cable drums aboard the Great Eastern, the largest ship afloat. Two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic, the line broke and vanished in water two miles deep. The techno Grail quest ended the following year, when Field sallied forth yet again and not only succeeded but also recovered and strung the lost 1865 cable, making two working transoceanic lines. "Demand for the new cable was so great," Standage writes, "that on its first day of operation it earned a staggering 1,000."

Here, midway through the book, Standage drops his narrative to describe the world-unto-itself that telegraphy brought forth. His remaining chapters, anecdotal and loosely organized, survey encryption, fraud by wire, the lives of telegraphers and suchlike matter, sometimes drifting into Oddballs Online territory: an uncomprehending Prussian who sought to telegraph her son some sauerkraut, couples married at a distance in Morse code (an entire chapter is entitled "Love Over the Wires"). Among its more consequential social effects, the telegraph allowed newspapers to give, for the first time, something like global coverage; proved an important military tool in coordinating troop movements; and swelled the flow of commercial information, accelerating the pace of business.

The final chapters return to Wheatstone and Morse, but in the 1870s. The English scientist had become Sir Charles and the now-octogenarian failed painter was deified by a statue in Central Park. But, ironically, their space-and-time-annihilating machine was in decline, outperformed by the telephone and later by the Internet, technologies that were, Standage writes, "built upon its foundations." He ends by proposing an ancestral resemblance between the worlds of dot-dash and dot-com. Among other similarities, businesses adopted both technologies enthusiastically, scam artists exploited them to make a buck; both gave rise to a high-tech jargon, stirred unrealistic hopes of solving the world's problems, became instruments for exploring "romantic possibilities." "The equipment may have been different," Standage writes, "but the telegraph's impact on the lives of its users was strikingly similar."

The statement makes better sense inside out: The telegraph differed from the Internet, but its users had a strikingly similar impact on the equipment. That is, many of the parallels Standage draws reflect the yearnings of consumers, rather than kinship between the two technologies. In hoping to sell, swindle or find love, after all, business people, crooks and singles have also used and still use the postal system and newspapers as well. Standage offers no evidence, either, of technologically determined changes in 19th century social structures to justify his outsize conclusion that "the telegraph really did transform the world." But skip the complaints. "The Victorian Internet" does not ask to be taken for more than History Lite, and makes an entertaining primer on a complex subject of increasing interest.

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