The Victorian Internet?

Discovering the parallels between the electronic telegraph (invented in 1837) and the Internet (invented 1991) was fascinating. While I have been an active ‘produser’ on the Internet for many years now, I never took the time to discover the history of this revolutionary technology. I was unaware about the far-reaching historical development and evolution that has lead to the Internet, as we know it today. Neither was I aware of the similarity in key defining characteristics between the electronic telegraph (or the Victorian Internet as Tom Standage puts it) and the magical world that is the Internet.

The truth it while these two technological inventions were from different eras they both shared one common goal: To ease the access and distribution of matter (information) across geographical boarders. Additionally these two networks shared similarities is these key areas:

  •  First users: government, the military and commerce (Empire building)
  •  Empowered journalists (democratizing)
  •  Loosening social hierarchies (democratizing)
  •  Made possible universal time zones

For more interesting comparison and facts about these two technologies, take a look at the infographic that I created (below).

Infographic 1

Note: The creation of the Internet can be accredited to a list of heroes, with roots stemming back even further than Morse’s electronic telegraph, and further than ARPANET. However for the purpose of this infographic, I chose to focus on Samuel Morse and Tim Berners-Lee as key contributors. For a detailed account of all parties influential in the invention of the Internet, click here.

Felix Stadler’s notion of ‘Information Ecology’, was food for though, his explanation of digital media as an “integrated environment based on flows of information” (Stalder 2005, p. 62), echoed the environment I imagined Morse would have dreamed his electronic telegraph would create, but was never able to see it in fruition.

This had me thinking of the Internet’s future and what great inventions I would live to see, one area that I was intrigued about is artificial intelligence. As technology continues to evolve and expand and take on human properties, where will the human be in this future? This prompted more research and I soon stumbled upon this insightful article by Alan Turning, the breaker of the enigma machine and key supporter for Artificial intelligence or what he calls “Learning Machines” (Turning 195, p.458).

Definitely something to think about, as I sign off, I leave you with this quote by Professor Jefferson’s Lister Oration.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 09.41.13


Economic History Association 2015, History of the US Telegraph Industry, accessed 03/08/2015,

Internet Society 2015, Internet Facts and Figures, accessed 03/08/2015,

Diplomacy education 2013, Ten Parallels Between the Telegraph and Internet, accessed 03/08/2015,

Encyclopedia 2015, The Telegraph, in American Eras:1997, accessed 05/08/2015,

Computer hope, 2015, Who invented the internet, accessed 03/08/2015,

Turing, A.M 1950, Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, accessed 04/08/2015, pp. 433-460,

Stalder, F 2005, Information Ecology, in Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks, pp. 62 – 66

Standage, T 1999, Mother of all networks, in Victorian Internet, Berkley Trade Ltd, NY, pp. 23 – 46


8 thoughts on “The Victorian Internet?

  1. The future! I dream of this too when the week’s content inspires change. What will we experience? If it is AI (if it can ever get to that point) how will we perceive it and utilise it? From what I have learnt, it is easy to create and think of new things, but it’s harder to predict how we will use new technology. Insight requires a shift in perception. Even the language we use to describe the process need to be changed. Like your ending quote from 1949, the same use of emotion and symbolism is still used today to describe the void between AI and Humans. The first step in reaching AI technology is to stop a talking like we’re from the old aesthetic world.

    Great reflection on this week’s content Michelle. And you already know I think your infographic is amazing.


    1. I definitely agree that we will need to create a new language to explain and understand the future that AI will bring. I have read readings from the 1990s about the future and the future and direction we went in is completely different to their utopia view of life with technology. I had fun making the infographic so to know that someone enjoyed it makes it all the more rewarding. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more info. I am going to give your blog a follow, loved your content. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The similarity that blew me away the most between telegraphs and the internet is the fact that they laid cables across the ocean floor to enable communication. I was astounded to find this out about our internet while watching a documentary a few years ago, to learn that they did essentially the same thing in the 1800s?? That’s incredible!

    It certainly is something to marvel at, the exponential growth of technology in this day and age, and to see how humans adapt to it and adapt it to us. That final quote you left reminds me of two things; first, that small quip from I, Robot when Sonny asks innocently whether the detective is capable of great works of art given that’s how he defines humanity.

    And second, the paragraph from the Sterling reading for this week in which he talks about the way the internet develops in an anarchic fashion much like the English language. Taking on and shedding elements rapidly, but somehow never shaking humanity off. Technology is a new literacy all it’s own, and that’s pretty marvellous.


    1. I also thought of the scene from Irobot, so much so that after I wrote my blog I watched the movie again. I don’t think Morse would have ever thought that we would have digital literacy, that can be seen as equally important to the undstanding of the English language. Thanks for the comment, love your youtube channel by the way, I subscribed. 🙂


  3. This was a very interesting post. Your info graphic was particularly informative. Being able to type just 8 words a minute using the telegraph seems completely ridiculous compared to our standards now. I can’t even imagine it taking that long now. Can you image typing an email at just 8 words per minute? It shows how far we have come. It is interesting that something that simple is easily taken for granted. Having said that, a statistic like “80% of all pictures are of naked women” suggests that we may not to be quite as advanced as we would like to think.


  4. What a fantastic post! It was odd to think about at first but the comparison of the current internet with the ‘victorian internet’ is quite a relevant one. Your infographic is a really powerful piece of content to drive this idea home, even as we interact with the two in seemingly very different ways, there’s common factors at the heart of the two – especially as the internet is built off the back of the telegraph network. Looking forward to seeing more infographics and what you put together in the coming weeks!


  5. You could also talk about this- Twitter/ telegrams- both come with their limitations. It is believed that the telegram cost 1,470 pounds to send a message. (who has that money) and it is incredibly hard these days to limit yourself to 140 characters for twitter. Your blog is very well written!


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