Sunday, August 05, 2012

Distant Writing

A strange connection of internet links, which took me from steam engines to steampunk, delivered my attention on a couple of excellent histories of the electric telegraph.

The first is "The Victorian Internet" - a 1998 book by Tom Standage, describing the world's first online communication system.

The second is a most detailed account of the early commercialisation of the telegraph in London in the late 1840's "Distant Writing" by Steven Roberts.

Whilst some consider the telephone to be the most significant communications invention of the Victorian Era, it should be realised that the telegraph was already providing a service, a full 30 years before Alexander Graham Bell received his 1876 patent, and it was the telegraph network infrastructure that allowed Bell and several other notable contributors, to perfect the transmission of audio signals by wire.

It is technically ironic that analogue telephony arose from substantially a system of digital signalling, and how modern broadband, to carry our digital traffic has essentially been laid on top of the analogue voice network - at least for the last mile.

Standage's book describes how as far back as the 1890s - we had all the modern trappings wee associate with the internet,  from online shopping, social networking, romance, image transmission (facsimile) and hacking.

It is also noteworthy, that much of the punched tape apparatus developed for high speed telegraphy was adopted by the early computer pioneers for paper tape input and output into their machines - a trend that was to last right up until the mid-1980s, when magnetic disks became the preferred choice of portable data exchange. It was no surprise that the BASIC interpreter that Micro Soft  (note spelling)  delivered to Altair for their 8800 home computer system was supplied on a paper tape.

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