Before the Web - Dots and Dashes

The Victorian Internet

By Tom Standage


240 pp., $22

Space flight and air travel would astound time travelers from the mid-19th century. People considered such things impossible back then. But when it comes to that gem of late 20th-century technology, the Internet, the time travelers might well say: "Been there. Done that."

They called their world encompassing web the global telegraph. Science writer Tom Standage draws apt parallels between that system and our own. The Internet that spread the Starr report so rapidly has deep roots.

Both systems grew out of the cutting-edge science of their time. The telegraph's land lines, underwater cables, and clicking gadgets reflected the 19th century's research in electromagnetism. The Internet's computers and high-speed connections reflect 20th-century computer science, information theory, and materials technology.

But, while gizmos make a global network possible, it takes human cooperation to make it happen. A century and a half ago, nations negotiated these standards through the International Telegraph Union. That same ITU - now called the International Telecommunications Union - sets Internet standards today.

Standage's insight in this regard adds depth to his technological history. It underscores the relevance to our own time of the struggles of Samuel Morse in America, William Cooke in England, and other telegraph pioneers. They made the technology work efficiently, sold it to a skeptical public, and overcame national and international bureaucratic obstacles. The solutions they found smooth the Internet's way today.

Consider a couple of technical parallels. Telegrams were sent from one station to the next, where they were received and retransmitted until they reached their destination. Stations along the way were owned by different entities, including national governments. Internet data is sent from one server computer to another that receives and retransmits it until it reaches its destination. Again the computers have a variety of owners. Telegraph messages were encoded in dots and dashes. Internet data is encoded in ones and zeros. Such a system will only work for global communication if there are global standards.

Then there's the social impact. The Internet is changing the way we do business and communicate. It makes possible virtual communities for individuals scattered around the planet who share mutual interests. Yet important as this may turn out to be, it is affecting a world that was already well connected by radio, television, and other telecommunications. The Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services would have spread the Starr report quickly without the Internet. In this respect, the global telegraph network was truly revolutionary. The unprecedented availability of global news in real time gave birth to the Associated Press and Reuters news services. It gave a global perspective to newspapers that had focused on local affairs. A provincialism that geographical isolation had forced on people for millennia was gone forever.

Some seers naively hailed this as a force for world peace. They predicted that tensions over cultural and ethnic differences would relax as people interacted in real time.

Visionaries say the same about the Internet. While communications can smooth this process, they don't automatically make it happen. As the experience of the past century and a half has shown, peace takes the will to make it work and sustained effort by all parties. This little book should be essential reading for those caught up in our own information revolution.

* Robert C. Cowen writes on science for the Monitor.

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