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The Astonishing Spread of the Victorian Internet

As someone who studies technology and culture, I’ve noticed that we’re perpetually caught off guard when an unusually useful new innovation spreads rapidly. We tend to quickly claim that this latest fast adoption is unprecedented.

Historically speaking, however, these quick expansions might be more common than you realize. I was recently re-reading one of my favorite history of technology titles, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet. In it, Standage summarizes the astonishing rapidity with which the American telegraph network grew.

In 1846, he notes, the only telegraph in the country was the 40-mile experimental line that Samuel Morse strung between Washington, DC and Baltimore in a bid to secure congressional funding. By 1848, there were 2000 miles in the country. By 1850, there were 12,000 miles operated by twenty different companies. By 1852, there were 23,000 miles with another 10,000 under construction — a 600 times increase in six years.

There’s not a sweeping conclusion to draw from this anecdote, beyond the idea that American technophilia is far from new.

7 thoughts on “The Astonishing Spread of the Victorian Internet”

  1. Hi Cal,
    I’m a huge fan and I have enjoyed your posts over the years. I have battled with this question for so long since reading your book about deep work. You talk about developing rare and valuable skills specially those which the market values, but at what point do find yourself doing something meaningful? Yes, society would value you and compensate you, but at what costs. I know many people that are highly skilled, but hate their job/life. Is there an equilibrium in which you can develop rare and value skills while still being happy/proud about what you do?

    • I get deeply into this topic in SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU. I have a chapter on missions. I spend time with Pardis Sabeti, at Harvard, who uses new computer algorithm technology to help cure difficult diseases, etc.

      The very short summary is that developing really satisfying and effective career missions requires usually requires that you become really good at something first.

      It’s been a while since I’ve written about this, maybe I’ll do a more elaborate post on it soon…stay tuned…

  2. In keeping with technology and culture, I was wondering if you had read “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy” by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor down the road from you at the University of Virginia. Just wanted to know your thoughts.

  3. From Emerson (On telegraph and inventions)

    Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science; and such is the mechanical determination of our age, and so recent are our best contrivances, that use has not dulled our joy and pride in them; and we pity our fathers for dying before steam and galvanism, sulphuric ether and ocean telegraphs, photograph and spectroscope arrived, as cheated out of half their human estate. These arts open great gates of a future, promising to make the world plastic and to lift human life out of its beggary to a god-like ease and power.

  4. Really interesting read. It would be very information to chart the spread of the communication technology vs. the increase in the rate of productivity in the workforce. We’ve already seen the top level analysis of this. Many very recent advances (particularly social networks) spread very rapidly but don’t add anything to productivity and may actually decrement quality of life.

    It would be interesting to try to determine the characteristics of a technology that will get adopted and will actually add value or productivity.

    Also, LOVE Alberto Hernandez’s comment. I’m in your Top Performer class now and asking myself daily what person I want to interview who is in a job that I would actually enjoy. Sure, they’ve advanced farther, faster. But frankly, almost to a person they are just as unhappy with their lifestyle as I am, or more so.

    • In techno-economics circles there’s a famous 1989 paper by a Stanford economist named Paul David. It’s called “The Computer and the Dynamo.” Read it! Gets into this question about why productivity might lag so far behind technological innovation…


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