Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book Review: The Victorian Internet , Standage (1998)

Where Communication and Empire offered an economic and political history of the telegraph industry The Victorian Internet (VI) provides not only a social history but a sociological view of the telegraph. This rather compact book is aimed primary at readers, perhaps the majority of us born in the late 20th century and beyond) who are scarcely familiar the telegraph. Its causal tone translates into a quick read however, it is this very casualness that will force serious scholars to consult more rigorous resources.

The first half delves into the telegraph’s early history traversing multiple political geographies; beginning in France with the telegraph’s invention in the late 1700’s, to the fervent interest and subsequent improvements in Great Brittan , and finally to the United States with Samuel Morse’s development of the electronic telegraph in the early 1800’s. Rounding out the first half is a facile description of the laying of telegraph lines along with the economical and political dimensions that accompanied it.

Where VI really gets interesting is in its social treatment of the many different actors, reception and uses of the telegraph. Poor and working class, male, youths worked as messenger boys charged will delivering messages to and from customers and establishing a pipeline of sorts for future operators. Telegraphy appears to have been one of the earliest spaces for employment of (white) women, in the USA and UK, outside the home and in non domestic roles. One of the things that the VI does quite well is showing how telegraphy as new technology was understood or rather misunderstood by early adopters and illustrates that users determine much of how communication technologies are utilized whether that be for inauspicious purposes, business or pleasure and not the technology itself. Surely there are more comprehensive books that cover the history of the telegraph ,the VI succeeds in that it provides the social commentary on the telegraph’s use and users.

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