The telegraph – the Victorian Internet

Telephone, screen phone HS210, 2000
Telephone, screen phone designed by No Pic Nic in Stockholm

The early history of the electric telegraph is the story of enthusiastic amateur inventors on both sides of the Atlantic, who in the mid-1800s with superb contempt for scientific knowledge threw themselves into what they saw as a lucrative problem. It was also profitable, after a number of failed attempts and heroic entrepreneurial efforts. The investments were so great that everyone wanted the government involved in some manner, and politicians proved to be wretched judges of technology. Laying a trans-Atlantic cable was a daring and dubious enterprise with a symbolic meaning: what the American revolution had separated was about to be united.

Both in the US and in Great Britain, the public began to take serious notice of the considerable value of the telegraph when it warned the police that criminals were on their way on an express train and could be handcuffed on arrival at the station. How it worked technically was difficult to explain, however, so, according to the stories, a man who was telegraphing money rounded off the amount to an even sum “so that the change would not be lost along the wire.” Men and women met, became acquainted, and courted each other by telegraph, a romance completely at a distance.

Banks were desperate to find secure ways of sending money. Ever-greater sums were telegraphed, which reduced transaction costs drastically and eliminated business risks. Rumors and false information proved to have economic value, while lightening-fast news was considered to be a threat to the daily press. Post by pneumatic tube was developed as a supplement to the telegraph. Yes, tube post. Information about stock market prices was particularly important, so the London Stock Exchange found itself suffering from information overload – how to handle the traffic between the telegraph station two hundred yards away and the floor of the exchange? The answer was to send telegraph messages ready for transmission from the exchange to the telegraph station in capsules through pneumatic tubes so that the Exchange’s telegraph line could be dedicated for incoming traffic.

Hundreds of people spread over dozens of locations held conferences and enthusiastically authored resolutions together. It was first come, first served for those who wanted to register the most attractive telegraph addresses. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was formed to regulate standards. Governments worried about encryption. The world was joined together and when cultures came into contact with each other, world peace could not be far away, or so it was believed. And with rapid communications, the prerequisites for controlling large organizations were changed. The British generals during the Crimean war swore over the armchair strategists in London who were now able to become involved in the daily conduct of the war. Just as hackers today have their own ethics, well-paid telegraphers quickly formed their own guild with their own demands for professionalism.

Author: Bengt-Arne Vedin

Sweden, 1898, field telegraph

Sweden, 1898, field telegraph

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