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The Victorian net The electric telegraph was the 1890s version of the Internet


She was the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. He was her young beau on a business trip in New York. When the lovers suddenly decided to get hitched, they convinced a local magistrate to perform the ceremony online, and dozens of virtual guests showed up to witness the exchange of vows.

Ah, life in the wired '90s - the 1890s, that is.

More than a century before couples began courting over computer networks, Victorian Americans like these were finding love and marriage in eerily similar places - thanks to the electric telegraph. While the movie "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is billed as the first romantic comedy set in cyberspace, their great-grandparents actually got there first.

And if you thought online schemes, racy chat rooms and relentless media hype are hallmarks of the Internet age, think again, says British journalist Tom Standage. In his new book, "The Victorian Internet" (Walker & Co; $22), Standage illuminates the fascinating, often uncanny parallels between today's global computer network and its dot-and-dash ancestor.

"Once you start looking at the telegraph through Internet glasses, you just see everything in a different way," Standish says in a telephone interview from his London office.

The Victorian Internet has struck a chord among digerati wondering whether the tele-graph's past might offer a clue to the Internet's future. Online bookseller Amazon.com is sold out of the 227-page volume. Standage says the British Broadcasting Corp. plans to air a summertime documentary based on the tale, which began - appropriately enough - as a newspaper story for Britain's Daily Telegraph.

Hyped at the time as the "highway of thought," the telegraph was invented in 1837 by Samuel F.B. Morse. In May 1844, the inventor strung a 40-mile electric wire between Washington and Baltimore, creating the first telegraph network and, by Standage's reasoning, the precursor of today's Internet. Instead of using bits and bytes, Morse used the code of dots and dashes he had invented to inaugurate the line. The first Victorian e-mail message: "What hath God wrought?"

As Standage tells it, the public and the U.S. government didn't know what to make of the new technology at first - many thought it more novelty than necessity. One of the network's first uses: online chess and checkers matches between distant opponents. Online gaming remains one of the Internet's more popular attractions today.

But public curiosity quickly turned to enthusiasm. Within two years after Morse inaugurated the network, 2,000 miles of wire linked major U.S. cities. By 1850, there were 12,000 miles of telegraph wire managed by 20 companies.

"It is anticipated that the whole of the populous parts of the United States will, within two or three years, be covered with net-work like a spider's web," wrote one 19th century observer.

Much as e-mail became the "killer app" of the fledgling Internet in the 1990s, telegrams soon began to rival postal mail in volume as the 19th century wore on.

Not surprisingly, Standage found that romance was a common theme among correspondents. Several couples used the new medium for long-distance wedding ceremonies, their "I do's" encoded in dots and dashes and witnessed by telegraph operators along the network.

The early community of telegraph operators included a large number of women, who were prrized for their dexterity as "admirable manipulators of instruments." Online courtships between lonely operators of the opposite sex became common, and stories like the 1879 novel "Wired Love," which chronicled one such romance, became best sellers.

The telegraph even made possible a sort of early chat room, Standage notes, and the level of discourse was no better than it is today. At night, when the wires were quiet, bored operators traded obscene jokes and gossip "just as if the participants were sitting together at a club," according to one contemporary account. Some of the online gossip found its way to the newspapers - but as today, much of it was unprintable.

Once, hundreds of American Telegraph Co. employees sitting in 33 officesheld a virtual meeting, tapping out their remarks in Morse code while monitoring the staccato responses of their colleagues.

Online love was soon overwhelmed by commerce. In 1872, Western Union devised a secure scheme to wire money between cities. While it was slow to catch on because consumers feared fraud, in time the public became satisfied that the the technology was safe. By 1877 Americans were sending $2.5 million a year over the wire.

The telegraph marked the beginning of the end of leisure for businessmen. As instant news became competitive necessity, there were complaints of information overload. In 1868, businessman W.E. Dodge noted: "The business man of the present day must be continually on the jump. He must use the telegraph."

And if you're looking for modern-day parallels, Standage notes that by 1880, Western Union was handling 80 percent of the country's message traffic - and critics were calling the company a monopolist.

Criminals also found a new tool in the telegraph. Unscrupulous men used the telegraph network to obtain stock prices and race results long before their brokers and bookies got the news, allowing them to make a killing on sure winners. British lawmakers quickly ruled the practice illegal, but it continued anyway.

Although it was soon part of the fabric of everyday life, Standage found, the new technology often befuddled common folk - and publishers capitalized on the interest and confusion by rushing into print dozens of books about the telegraph.

In 1870, a woman in Karlsruhe, Prussia came to a telegraph office with a plate of sauerkraut, which she mistakenly believed she could have telegraphed to her son. Another woman came in to wire $11.76 but decided to round up the sum to $12, fearing the loose change "might get lost traveling over the wire."

Is there a lesson we can learn from all this?

"I think the story of the telegraph does tell us something very fundamental, which is that when you have a new communications technology, the uses that people put it to are surprisingly predictable," Standage says "You always get the criminals, you always get the lovers, you always get the businessmen.

"To condemn the Internet as a cesspool of depravity is as idiotic as to say it's going to lead to world peace. All technologies like the Internet and telegraph do is magnify existing human tendencies."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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