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THE VICTORIAN INTERNET: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers;\o7 By Tom Standage; (Walker and Co.: 228 pp., $22)\f7

May 23, 1999|KENNETH SILVERMAN | 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.

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