The Victorian Internet
Social History of New Media
October 5, 2009
Cyrus W. Field
The transatlantic telegraph was the product of wealthy paper trader named Cyrus W. Field and an English Engineer named Frederic N. Ginsborn.
Field had initially agreed to finance a second attempt at a telegraph cable across newfoundland, across the gulf of Saint Lawrence. Soon decided on the grander
scheme of building a cable across the atlantic.
Field established the Atlantic Telegraph company and began to receive funding from British and US governments. The company’s electrician was Dr. Edward
Orange Wildman Whitehouse. He was completely incompetent, but began building the 2500 mile cable.
Field struggled to meet his end of 1857 deadline, but hastily began releasing the cable in July. The cable was half an inch thick and weighed 2500 tons. The
expedition began in Valentina Bay (southwest Ireland) and after about 350 miles had been laid snapped. Field decided to have two ships meet in the middle of the
Atlantic and head in opposite directions. The cable snapped three times and the expedition went on hiatus.
On the fourth attempt the cable was successfully laid and Europe and America were united by telegraph. The cable was so unreliable that it took 16 and a half
hours for Queen Victoria to send a single message to President Buchanan. Less than a month after it’s completion, the cable deteriorated.
•“Our Whole country has been
electriﬁed by the successful laying of
the Atlantic Telegraph.” Scientiﬁc
The SS Great Eastern
Whitehouse was fired. New electricians were brought to the project and the massive ship the Great Eastern was employed to send the new cable out. The cable
was successfully laid on its second voyage.
The cable was successful, but as volume of its traffic increased, the telegraph began to see problems.
“The demands for the telegraph have
been constantly increasing: they have
been spread over every civilized
country in the world and have
become, by usage, absolutely
necessary for the well-being of
society.” New York Times, April 3,
Once you’ve got used to being able to send messages, very quickly, it’s very difficult to put up with delays. A cheap efficent way had to be found to transfer large
numbers of messages over those branches of the network that were prone to sudden surges of traffic.
Josiah Latimer Clark
Seeing most traffic occur with stock exchange related messages, Josiah Latimer Clark proposed a steam-powered pneumatic tube system to carry telegraph forms
the short distance from the stock exchange to the main telegraph office. Capable of carrying up to 5 messages at once, the system utilized cylindrical carriers to
transport messages. The system was powered by a 6 horse power steam engine. It took about 30 seconds for a message to get sent down the tube.
The Victorian Internet
By the early 1870s, the Victorian Internet had taken shape: A patchwork of telegraph networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems, and messengers
combined to deliver messages across the globe within hours. Within 30 years, there were over 650,000 miles of wire, and 30,000 miles of submarine cable.
Shortly after the electric telegraph was opened to the public, the first on-line wedding occurred between a bride in Boston and a groom in New York. The bride’s
father had promised her hand in marriage to someone else and when he learned of her secret plan to mary his clerk, shipped him to England on business. The two
married over telegraph.
The on-line community became extremely social. During quiet periods, telegraph operators would tell jokes, tell stories, and gossip. Some bored operators would
even play checkers.
Further marriages and flirting over the telegraph system occurred. Telegraph operators became elitist and began to use slang to insult inferior operators.
The Telegraph’s Effect
on the Newspaper
The global telegraph made the general public become participants in the continually unfolding global drama, courtesy of their newspapers, which were suddenly
able to report on events on the other side of the world within hours of their occurrence.
In the early nineteenth century, newspapers focused on local coverage. The general mentality was “somebody will send us in something about it in two or three
days.” It was common for foreign news to be weeks or months old by the time it appeared in print.
The telegraph was initially viewed as an ominous development in the newspaper world. The competition to see who could get the news first was over, but it
eventually was seen as beneficial. Breaking news could be reported as it happened, in installments- increasing suspense and boosting sales. Newspapers began to
from coalitions to distribute news.
Paul Julius Von Reuter
Paul Julius von Reuter began to assign correspondents to cover the ensuing war with the French/ Sardinians and the Austrians. Reuter reported on a battle from
three different angles on both sides. This was the first case of accurate war reporting.
The telegraph also caused harm during wartimes though. Highly sensitive information was suddenly transferrable directly to the hands of the enemy. Britain
suddenly was unable to announce the departure of their ships. On the other hand, many government officials thought it promoted wartime morale. The telegraph
provided the basis for the first global propaganda. The telegraph also began to play a strategic part during the crimean war. Far off superiors were able to assign
orders. This was occasionally a good thing, but usually a bad thing.
Some people still maintained the potential of the global internet to bring peace, but there is very little evidence supporting these optimistic claims.
Due to the information overload, many investors began to rely on the stability of gold pricing. In 1867, a telegraph operator named E.A. Callahan devised an
improved indicator of gold prices. His invention was a continuous printed record of the fluctuations in prices of stocks, printed on a paper tape by two wheels. One
wheel marked the tape with letters, and the other with numbers.
Thomas Edison improved on initial stock tickers. Though he is principally remembered for inventing the phonograph and the light bulb, it was his telegraphic
background and his enhancements to the stock ticker that gave him the economic stability to become an inventor. Ironically, his other inventions eventually lead to
the demise of the telegraph.
The telegraph faced a steady decline as user-friendly models became available. Many automatic telegraphs were created in the mid 19th century. The first was
Wheatstone’s ABC Telegraph. Next came a device developed by David Hughes. Hughes based his model of the automatic telegraph on the piano. The telegraph
had alternating black and white keys corresponding to different letters.
A huge turning point in the decline of the telegraph was Edison’s invention of the Quadraplex, a machine capable of sending four streams of traffic through a
The Telegraph faced its final days as Elisha Grey began to develop the harmonic telegraph. The harmonic model functioned using a series of reeds vibrating at
different frequencies. Electrical signals produced by the reeds would be combined; sent down a telegraph wire, and then separated out again at the other end using
an identical set of reeds. Grey hoped that the harmonic telegraph would be capable of sending 16 signals at once.
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell was also working on the harmonic telegraph and made an earthshattering discovery on June 2, 1875. One of the reeds got stuck and as his
assistant plucked it harder than usual to free it, Bell noticed that with a few modifications, his apparatus might be capable of transmitting any sound along a wire
from one place to another.
The telephone was an instant success and by 1880, ther were 30,000 telephones in use worldwide.