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The telegraph, which now seems a curious relic, was once cutting-edge technology, every bit as hot, Standage reminds us, as today's Internet. Rapid delivery of messages to distant places was a wild dream for most of history; only on the eve of the French Revolution did a workable system come into existence. That first mechanical telegraph used visual signals relayed along a series of towers; but already scientists had experimented with signaling with electricity, which was thought to travel instantaneously. By the 1830s, Samuel Morse in the US and William Cooke in England had independently developed workable electric telegraphs. Curiously, neither had much initial luck finding backers. Morse's first demonstration of his device to Congress drew no support; even after a second demonstration won him funding, many congressmen believed they had seen a conjuring trick. Despite some dramatic successes--aswhen British police wired ahead of felons escaping by train and had them arrested in a distant city--it was some time before the telegraph was more than a high-tech toy. But by the mid-1840s, both British and American telegraphy companies were showing profits, and by the end of that decade, growth was explosive. And by then, the elaborate culture of the telegraph system was taking shape. Telegraph operators and messenger boys became familiar parts of the social landscape. There was a growth industry in telegraph-based jokes, anecdotes, seams, and even superstitions. The charge per word transmitted made messages terse; the expense made most people use them only to report deaths in the family or other grave news. Technical improvements--notably in the laying of submarine cables--eventually led to a worldwide network. Standage, most recently (and suitably) editor of the London Daily Telegraph's technology section, competently relates all this, and the eventual erosion of the telegraph's power by the telephone--which was at first seen merely as an improvement in the telegraph. A fascinating overview of a once world-shaking invention and its impact on society. Recommended to fans of scientific history.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1998
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Walker