Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Before the Web - Dots and Dashes

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Before the Web - Dots and Dashes

Article excerpt

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. …

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