The Victorian Internet . . .

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In the United States, commercial telegramming has Western Union ending telegram service.

Your initial reaction is likely, “My, my, aren’t we being exceedingly retro this morning, Ed?”

Not at all, but don’t worry, this will not be a “Morse code is better than GMail” article. However, to really understand where we are and where we’re going, sometimes you have to look back at where we’ve been.

People throughout the ages want the same kinds of things. People didn’t start liking music with the iPod, or even the transistor radio. It is how they get them and how much it costs them that changes.

Before the telegraph, if you wanted to send or get a message, any message, to or from anybody, with one small exception**, somebody had to go from Point A to Point B.

You all know what a forum is. Well, imagine having to send somebody to where the forum is to get or send a message, any message, via Horse- or Sailnet. Bet that would cut down on forum traffic!

If you were really lucky and had lots of money, around the time the telegraph was invented, you could get a message from New York to Washington in a day or so, and one from London to New York in about two weeks or to India in about two months using brand new, high tech, railroads and steamships, and that was a lot better than it had been just a decade before, when only Horse- and Sailnet were around.

Of course, those times were all one-way. If you were so fussy as to expect a response, double the time, which could be terminally aggravating if your message were, “Help!! We’re being attacked!!”

Now, all of a sudden, you have this new-fangled device that not only lets you communicate in mere minutes, but it doesn’t even really matter how far away you are. That’s disruptive technology. One author has called it, “The Victorian Internet”, and if anything, that understates the impact it had.

It would be like aliens showing up tomorrow just to hook us up to the interstellar phone system.

Within 25 years of its invention, any place that was anyplace had a telegraph line. Yes, it was very expensive. Yes, it was clumsy to use. Yes, it required geeks telegraph operators to make it go. But it worked, and when speed mattered, it was the only way to go. Just ask the guys at PonyEx what happened to their business when the transcontinental telegraph was installed.
By the 1860s, you even had the equivalent of fax machines.

If President Bush got told by the alien installation guys, “It costs a million dollars a message,” do you think he’d say, “Forget about it, it costs too much?” No, of course not. You just wouldn’t have to worry about anybody spamming the aliens anytime soon.

However, other, slower means of communication didn’t stop, didn’t stop at all. Why? Because they were a lot cheaper. A Sears and Roebucks catalog would have been impossibly expensive sent by telegraph, but extremely doable using railroads, and if it took a week or two to get there, so what?

Again, to use the alien phone guys, if President Bush asked, “Don’t you have anything cheaper?” and they said, “Well, if you use the ancient Xiflaquo system, and just send dots and dashes in the Xiflaquo language, it will take two weeks to get there, but it will cost you a penny a word,” guess what every scientist and maybe even you would be busy learning.

The telegraph did not hold a monopoly on instant communications very long. The telephone was invented roughly thirty years after the telegraph. There’s no doubt the telephone is not just a different way of communicating, but a better one, unless you have a fetish for Morse Code.

Nonetheless, when it came to long-distance communications, the telephone didn’t even gain the upper hand over the telegraph until well into the twentieth century. Why? Because by then, it was the telegraph that was the cheaper way to go. When phone rates got competitive, the telegraph took a nosedive, but not until then.

A few decades after the telephone came radio, and a few decades after that came television. Neither put the fixed wire telephone out of business, the CB craze of the ’70s notwithstanding. It took almost a century after radio was invented to come up with the cellphone, and again, despite its unquestioned superiorities, fixed-line telephones held their position for a long term because, again, they were cheaper. Now that they’re not a lot cheaper anymore, they’re taking a nosedive.

Do you see history repeating itself?

What Does This Have To Do With Now?

As a technological jump, the telegraph was a much bigger one than the Internet. Samuel Morse and Charles Wheatstone would have had little difficulty comprehending the Internet, much less Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison. Sending data packets over wires is conceptually little different than sending dots and dashes. They would have been a bit more in wonder about computers, but much less than you might think. After all, they were geeks, 19th century geeks, but still geeks.

No, what would have really stunned them about the Internet was not the technology, but its cost. The Internet has been around over thirty years, but has been a disruptive technology for just a little more than ten. It’s disruptive not because it allows anybody to communicate with anyone else, you could pretty much do that almost 150 years ago. It is disruptive because it allows everyone to communicate with everyone else for almost nothing.

The Internet has another advantage, too. Not only is it cheap, it’s flexible cheap. Data is data, video, voice, words, the Internet will take it all; it’s an infoslut. If everybody can’t be a radio or TV star because nature doesn’t provide enough bandwidth, well, some extra fiber optic cables can take care of that.

However, strip away the technohype, and what remains is merely a hyped-up telegraph. What about wireless? OK, a hyped-up radio. We’re still talking about technology a century old.

And if you think the technological concepts are old, consider the motives for using/not using them. When did people start wanting to talk to each other? When did people start being rich or poor, when did they start having money?

People have always had a bad habit of thinking the world begins and ends with them, and that they invented everything that matters. Like sex, to cite the most absurd example.

If you realize that almost all “new technologies” are just new variations or improvements on old technological concepts meant to meet ancient needs and desires, you’ll have a proper perspective on the matter.

So don’t scoff at the telegraph. It really was something new and different, and it started a big bandwagon that led to what you’re reading this today.

**Yes, nitpickers, there was something called the “optical telegraph”, but imagine a bunch of guys sitting on hills waving flags at each other. Expensive on land (only France had any real network), impossible across an ocean. The optical telegraph tells
us how desperate people back then were to get information quickly.

Ed


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