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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: The Victorian Internet

In addition to The Box, Paul Krugman also recommended The Victorian Internet, which is an account of the invention of the telegraph and the follow-on consequences.

This turned out to be a very fun read, and Tom Standage draws very appropriate comparisons between the telegraph (which heralded the true dawn of the information age) and today's internet. Interestingly enough, for instance, the telegraph was invented simultaneously by two people on opposite sites of the Atlantic, Samuel Morse and William Cooke. While both systems worked more or less similarly, Morse's superior user interface won wide-spread adoption and he became by far the more famous of the two inventors. Sounds like a familiar story, right?

It gets better. Standage continues to expound on the laying of the first transatlantic cable, complete with cable cuts, funding fiascos, as well as the initial design deficiencies which caused it to fail almost right away. He then describes the community of telegraph operators that grew around the telegraph, telegraphic romances, crimes, and common mis-understandings of the technology which obviously parallel what we see today on the internet.

All in all, a short and enjoyable book, and very much worth your time. Recommended.

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