The Victorian Internet

This week I’ve been entirely obsessed with The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage where he traces the history of the telegraph; from the laying of the Transatlantic submarine cables, to the tales of fraudsters that used the telegraph to find their marks, to those that used this budding technology to find the person they’d soon marry.

There’s so many exciting moments in this book that it’s difficult to contain my excitement. For example, Standage notes how the technology was ignored for many painful years and yet there was this moment in time when the idea suddenly clicked and the telegraph became essential:

Expansion was the fastest in the United States, where the only working line at the beginning of 1846 was Morse’s experimental line, which ran 40 miles between Washington and Baltimore. Two years later there were approximately 2,000 miles of wire, and by 1850 there were over 12,000 miles operated by twenty different companies.

As I was reading this thing it dawned on me that the Internet that we’re using today is really just an extension of the Internet that Morse built; we’re using the same wires (although the system has been improved many times over). The telegraph, telephone, television, and Internet — they’re three different platforms for navigating the same network of machines and people.

With all the talk of the Cloud™️ and with all the convenience of Wifi it’s easy to forget that the Internet is a collection of wires at its heart, buried deep. You can even see the wires that connect San Francisco to Libya, and Libya to Malaysia. In fact, Standage quotes an event that was held in Morse’s honor where one commentator argued that “the breadth of the Atlantic, with all its waves, is as nothing.”

On that note, the night I finished The Victorian Internet I chatted with my dad who happens to live in England more than 5,000 miles away. We talked about motorcycles, work, anxiety, and our hopes for the near future. But it was as if we were in the same room together.

During this conversation I thought about the generations who have built this system of cables and technologies so that those 5,000 miles between my father and me were like nothing at all. I imagined all the wires and satellites between us, carrying our messages diligently, effortlessly across the world.

In an article from 1881 Standage quotes the Scientific American and how “the touch of the telegraph key welded human sympathy and made possible its manifestation in a common universal, simultaneous heart throb.”

And I couldn’t help but cry big dumb tears after we’d finished talking and my father hung up. What a wondrous thing this all is, I thought. My grandfather’s father knew a world without electricity and yet here I am communing with his great grandson in a form that could not be described in any other way besides ‘magic.’


Letter of the Week

Heldane Display is a new family by Klim “inspired by the renaissance works of Hendrik van den Keere, Claude Garamont, Robert Granjon and Simon de Colines.” But I particularly like the Text variant — it looks like a series of letters made for drafting a constitution or forming a government.

Here’s Heldane Display: check that lowercase b and t:

And here’s Text:

I’m always impressed by the little blog posts that Klim publishes and the sheer restraint of the type specimens. You can tell that it’s from Kris Sowersby when there’s not a hint of color anywhere to be found. Also? The small caps are a pure wonder.