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.