Essay: Comment: Techno-nerds in stove-pipe hats

Internet fever? The Victorians saw it all with the new electric telegraph
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THE VICTORIANS may not have had antibiotics, aeroplanes, microwave ovens or camcorders, but they did have an Internet. Perfected in the 1840s, the electric telegraph made rapid long-distance communication possible for the first time, causing a communications revolution that is all but forgotten today. Within a few years a global telegraph network linked the nations of the world, carrying personal messages, news and business intelligence. Messages were spelled out in the dots and dashes of Morse code, and sent along wires by human operators, just as modern computers exchange bits and bytes along cables. The equipment was different, but the cultural impact was strikingly similar.

If you think Internet hype is bad today, it is nothing compared to the hysteria that greeted the completion of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. There were 100-gun salutes; flags flew from public buildings; bells rang. There were fireworks, parades, and church services. Queen Victoria exchanged messages over the cable with President James Buchanan, who described it as "a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by a conqueror on the field of battle".

Telegraph fever had arrived. Suitably telegraphic Biblical references were unearthed by preachers; books capitalising on the public's interest in all things telegraphic were rushed out; reams of bad poetry were composed. Tiffany's, the New York jewellers, bought the left-over, unused length of cable, cut it into four-inch pieces and sold them as souvenirs. Other pieces were made into umbrella handles, canes and watch fobs. For a month, according to one writer, US newspapers contained "hardly anything else than popular demonstrations in honour of the Atlantic telegraph. It was ... a national jubilee." Not everyone was convinced of the benefits of the new technology. It was criticised - as the Internet is now - for encouraging a dangerous over-dependence in its users. Some critics thought it looked like black magic; others worried that telegraph wires were interfering with the weather.

Even when the technology became familiar, many users came to see it as a mixed blessing. Businessmen were keen; but while telegraphic stock tickers and news wires enabled them to keep track of distant markets, they also led to an acceleration in the pace and stress of life that continues to this day.

One New York businessman complained in a speech in 1868: "The merchant goes home after a day of hard work ... to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London, directing, perhaps, the purchase in San Francisco of 20,000 barrels of flour, and the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message to California. The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump ... He must use the telegraph."

Lack of security was another worry. "The opportunity for fraud [in money transfers] has been the chief obstacle," declared the Journal of the Telegraph. Special codes were introduced to ensure the safe transmission of money. Telegrams often used special codes, which provided both security and economy by substituting single words for common phrases. One code book, for example, used Latin to represent various calamities: COQUARUM meant "engagement broken off", CAMBITAS meant "collar bone put out". The telegraph's development was too fast for lawmakers. Cutting a telegraph wire was made a crime, but criminals and pranksters found other ingenious ways to profit from the new technology. In 1886 a man called Myers was arrested in London for attempting to bribe a telegraph operator to delay the transmission of racing results, so that he could place bets on the winners before they were known by bookmakers. When he was brought to court, the only telegraph-related law he could be charged under related to damaging apparatus - something he clearly had not done. Altering, delaying or disclosing the contents of a telegram was made illegal soon afterwards. Later the same year a telegram purporting to come from Sala, a famous Daily Telegraph writer, claimed that a Drury Lane pantomime had been a flop. When the theatre owners read the newspaper report they sued for libel but Sala denied authorship. The identity of the sender could not be proved, any more than the sender of a bogus email can be today, and the case was eventually settled out of court.

The Victorian Internet also had its nerds. Telegraph operators formed a tight-knit and eccentric community, with their own subculture, customs and vocabulary. Operators would play chess and draughts over the wires, using a numbering system to identify the squares of the board, and would exchange jokes and gossip for hours. Thomas Stevens, a British telegraph operator stationed in Persia, shunned the locals in favour of telegraphic interaction with other Britons. "How companionable it was, that bit of civilisation in a barbarous country," he wrote of his telegraphic friends thousands of miles away.

The online community included a large number of women. By the 1870s, a third of the operators at the main telegraph office in New York were female. In Britain, female telegraphers were usually the daughters of clergymen, tradesmen and government clerks, and were typically between 18 and 30 years old and unmarried. As a result, in most offices, female operators were segregated from the men, and some companies even employed a "matron" to keep an eye on them. They were still, of course, in contact with their male colleagues over the network throughout the working day. "Ordinarily an operator can tell a woman the moment he hears her working the wire," wrote one telegrapher in 1891. "He tells by her touch on the key. Women, as a rule, do not touch the key of their instruments as firmly as men do." Many working relationships flowered into online romances. Some flourished; others ended when the operators met for the first time. A novel, Wired Love, about an online courtship, was published in 1879 - beating today's email romance novels by over a century. In the 1840s there was the first online wedding, with the bride in Boston and the groom in New York.

In our Internet-obsessed era, these tales remind us that while technology changes, human nature does not. Given a new invention, there will always be some people who see only its potential for good, while others see opportunities for crime, romance or money-making. The Victorian Internet was surrounded by hype and scepticism, and brought unforeseen social and cultural consequences. It stretched the definitions of community, redefined what was socially acceptable, and led to fame and fortune for some and ruin for others. We can hardly expect today's Internet to be any different.

'The Victorian Internet' by Tom Standage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 14.99).