I Shall Call You, First Internet: New Media’s Past and Future, Week 6

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Normally I don’t write lectures longform, but rather as a series of bullet points. Enough detail to keep me focused, but not so much detail that I end up reading a monologue.  Today however I had a satellite video interview thing with an Australian current events show, and in order to make my 4am call had to wake up at 2:30 — hilarious, considering I’d then need to teach at 9:30. Knowing I’d be a blithering mess by the time I got to class, I decided to write out this week’s lecture, hence this post because wtf else was I supposed to do with it.

A common misconception about the Victorian age is that it was boring, and that people then were so backwards, and so technologically unsophisticated, that all anyone did was sit in parlors, occasionally axe-murder their parents, and run away screaming the first time they saw a moving picture show. This is a compelling story, because of LOOK HOW FAR WE’VE COME, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not how it was. For example, what we now describe as THE CINEMA wasn’t some overnight revolution. Just as the printing revolution actually occurred in degrees, there was all kinds of visual cultural artifacts to “prepare” people for the task of watching films. Here, look at these white people talk:

During the magic lantern era, there were even precursors for horror films: Phantasmagoria shows, essentially hybrids between light shows and magic shows. Scary or otherwise macabre images would be projected onto walls of smoke or other spooooky media in order to strike “delighted terror” in the heart of the audience. People still do this, because it is fun to be afraid!

Jesusween 1799 style

Ok, you might be saying. Cool story and all, but aren’t we talking about the telegraph today? And the answer is yes, we are talking about the telegraph today. But as we learned in Cook’s “The Gutenberg Myth,” new technologies don’t –in fact can’t– emerge in a vacuum. So, if we want to think about what the telegraph was and why the telegraph mattered, it’s important to consider the wider cultural and technological context. And the world of the 19th and early 20th century was rich with communication and entertainment technologies — technologies which initially seem out of step with the popular image of the Victorian era as being mostly sleepy and technologically backwards.

So keep in mind that the telegraph was not a singular shining beacon of innovation in a swamp of prehistoric ignorance. The “them” of yesterday isn’t all that different from the “us” of today. In many cases, we’re still doing now what we used to do then — it’s just that now, we’re able to do these same things faster. Except when we can’t!

All that said, let us now turn to the telegraph, specifically the first half of Tom Standage’s excellent The Victorian Internet.

BUT THERE IS ALWAYS A CATCH. Before we can discuss what the telegraph accomplished, we have to consider what facilitated its success. Namely electricity, a point that connects back to last week’s discussion of the printing revolution. As Cook emphasized, until there was a cheap and reliable source of things to print on, printing could only ever be a small scale operation. In other words, movable type was important, but paper was too, perhaps even more so. Similarly, until humans wrapped their lizard brains around electricity, the telegraph could only exist in theory. Quoth Standage:

The breakthrough came in 1820 [17 years before Morse started peddling his electric telegraph machine] when Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish physicist, observed that electric current flowing in a wire gives rise to a magnetic field, a phenomenon known as electromagnetism. This magnetic field can then be detected through its effect on another object: As Oersted discovered, it will cause a nearby compass needle to move. For the first time, there was a reliable, repeatable and practical way to detect electricity (…)

Two new inventions quickly followed: the galvanometer, which indicates the flow of current by the deflection of a rotating needle, and the electromagnet, a coil of wire that behaves just like a permanent magnet–but only so long as current is flowing through it. together with the voltaic battery, either could be used as the basis of an electric telegraph (Standage 23-24). 

Which once again bounces nicely off the Cook: technological advancements are rarely entirely new, and are even more rarely devised from start to finish by a single individual. There are groupings of people who help catalyze the process, either through innovation or smart marketing or both, but even these early adopters and/or amplifiers depend on the ingenuity, expertise, and of course capital of others. This is as true of the so-called Gutenberg Revolution (which was neither a true revolution, nor solely Gutenberg’s) as it was of the invention of the telegraph. For example Morse and Cooke, the two names most frequently associated with the invention of the telegraph, knew comparatively little about the technologies they helped popularize. In fact, and delightfully, neither men knew all that much about electricity, and each found themselves stumped by the same problem, namely figuring out how to send electrical currants through long wires — a problem that had been solved years earlier by American physicist Joseph Henry. In other words, Morse and Cooke needed help throughout the process, as does everyone who helps nudge technology along.

Really, the history of the telegraph, like the history of all new technologies, is a history of institutional failure and personal embarrassment. In this case, these failures eventually snowballed into a runaway success. But the road, like most roads worth traveling, was cobbled together by doing it wrong.

Because even after Morse and Cooke and Co. got the telegraph working, there was still a great deal of reluctance, if not outright resistance, both from the government and from the public. There was just no obvious, immediate, user-friendly social use for this technology, and consequently no burning interest in its immediate adoption. Slowly its utility became more and more apparent — Queen Victoria was able to announce the birth of her son, the Duke of Wellington was able to save himself the profound embarrassment of arriving at a party without his dinner coat, a pickpocket named “Fiddler Dick” was apprehended, never again to make me snort at his name because I am 12, etc. In the end it took years before the technology set fire to the world, because it took years for the world to figure out how to get the telegraph to do the stuff people were already doing.

But once it did, the telegraph became what all great technologies become — natural and necessary, at least to those privileged enough to benefit. Americans were particularly taken, and proceeded to fall over themselves in the attempt to wire the entire nation as quickly as they could underpay immigrant workers to build the necessary infrastructure.

One major component of that infrastructure was underwater — at least, that was the goal. Initially this posed a major problem, as water and electricity tend not to mix. But there was money to be made, dammit, and where there is money to be made, solutions are sure to follow — at least eventually, as the following video will attest. It is like watching a romantic comedy, where two soulmates keep being pulled apart by hijinks!

Discussion: So — what connections can you draw between the Cook and the Standage? How does Cook help provide a framework for understanding Standage’s approach? How might we avoid committing a so-called “Gutenberg sin,” i.e. obscuring historical, economic and political contingency in order to further some deterministic teleological narrative? Can I please go to sleep now??


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