Wired Magazine and Charles Dickens

We think of the leading tech periodical Wired and we think of the internet and smartphone phase of technology innovation.

As always, there’s a wide-angle deeper view that helps you to avoid being “stranded in the present” (to use Professor Peter Fritzsche’s useful phrase and book title as a warning about the flaws of a no-overview sense of reality).

Think back to the famous Charles Dickens classic novel, Hard Times from 1854.

Chapter 11 of this novel talks about “electric wires.” Thus today’s copper wires and fiberoptics have a nineteenth century anticipation.

The end-notes on Hard Times inform us:

“…the wires of the telegraph which were becoming common as an adjunct to the railways from 1846-1847. During the French Wars the old wire-and-lever telegraphs had been set up between Whitehall and the main naval bases. The ‘galvanic’ telegraph had been invented by 1840, the idea of stretching the wires between tall posts by 1843, and by mid-1848 half the railways were so equipped.”

(Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Penguin Books, 1969, page 328)

The following added point will further elaborate on this chapter of the world’s wiring adding a larger comparative perspective:

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers is a book by Tom Standage. First published in September 1998 through Walker & Company, the book discusses the development and uses of the electric telegraph during the second half of the 19th century and some of the similarities the telegraph shared with the Internet of the late 20th century.

The book’s central idea posits that of these two technologies, it was the telegraph that was the more significant, since the ability to communicate globally at all in real-time was a qualitative shift, while the change brought on by the modern Internet was merely a quantitative shift according to Standage, though, by the same token, global communication was just a quantitative shift from long-distance communication.

The book describes to general readers how some of the uses of telegraph in commercial, military, and social communication were, in a sense, analogous to modern uses for the Internet. A few rather unusual stories are related, about couples who fell in love and even married over the wires, criminals who were caught through the telegraph, etc. The culture which developed between telegraph operators also had some rather unexpected affinities with the Internet. Both cultures made or make use of complex text coding and abbreviated language slang, both required network security experts, and both attracted criminals who used the networks to commit fraud, hack private communications, and send unwanted messages.