The Telegraph or "Victorian Internet" Network

Here are several fascinating facts about the electric telegraph. The invention of the American version of the telegraph has been credited to Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844. These facts are from the book, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, published in 1998 by Berkley Books, New York.

The Death of Distance

In 1861, the electric telegraph path across the United States was completed and extended to California. Before this avenue of communication, which allowed for instantaneous communication, the means of transmitting messages (and information) between the eastern and the western U.S. was through the Pony Express, which delivered mail through a relay of riders and horses. Via the Pony Express, a message going the distance from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California (a distance of 1800 miles) took about 10 days.

An Example of Network Economics

In 1846, Samuel Morse's experimental telegraph line, which ran between Washington, DC and Baltimore, was the only working telegraph line in the United States. By 1850, there were 12,000 miles in the United States, operated by several different companies. Businesses were the first greatest users of this new technology. By the mid 1870s, there were over 650,000 miles of telegraph wite, 30,000 miles of submarine cable, and 20,000 towns and villages globally were online. Prior to the invention of the telegraph and the building of the necessary network infrastructure (which allowed for essentially instantaneous transmission of messages) a message would have taken about 10 weeks to travel from London, England to Bombay, India. The more telegraph lines that were laid and the more locations that got connected, the more  attractive it became to make use of this new technology.

A Misconception

The case of a mother wishing to send her husband tomato soup via the Internet gives one chuckles. Another true story is regarding a mother in Karlsruhe, Prussia, who arrived at a telegraph office in 1870 with a dish of sauerkraut and asked that it be telegraphed to her son, who was a soldier. She could not comprehend that this was not possible, when told so by the telegraph operator, and assumed that the telegraph could transmit objects since she had heard that soldiers had been ordered to the front by telegraph and if they could have been sent by telegraph to France why could not also her sauerkraut be sent by telegraph?

Congestion on the Victorian Internet

The telegraph networks of the 1850s were subject to congestion (as are many networks today from urban transportation networks to the Internet). The volume of messages had increased greatly due to the attractiveness of the new (at the time) communication medium. At the beginning, most telegraph messages were not routed using the shortest or most efficient path from the sender to the receiver. In London, England, the problem of congestion was amplified by business uses, with half of the telegraph messages being related to the Stock Exchange. Different approaches were applied to manage the network congestion including the use of pneumatic tubes within a telegraph office (an intranet) to distribute messages.