Behind the wire

25th September 1998 at 01:00
By Tom Standage
Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson #163;14.99.

Today, says Tom Standage, "even a child could build an electric telegraph.All you need is a battery, a bulb, and some wire to connect the two." It was not always so easy.

Until the invention of electricity, the telegraph had to rely on a system of towers that made semaphore signals to each other using wooden arms. This had one big defect - you couldn't use it in the dark or on misty days.But it was an improvement on the ancient method of sending messages by horse.

The first wooden telegraph was demonstrated in 1793 in France by Claude Chappe. He wanted to call it tachygraphe, Greek for fast writer. But a classical scholar friend persuaded him to name it "telegraph" (far writer).As with today's Internet, the new invention's usefulness for military purposes was immediately spotted.

In both cases, the new technology spanned continents and shrunk the world.At first ignored, the telegraph soon changed business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and "inundated its users with a deluge of information". Secret codes and romance blossomed over the wires. The network's benefits "were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by sceptics".

Starting in 1746 with Abbe Nollet's fiendish experiment - which involved passing an electric current through a long line of monks connected by iron wires - Standage gives a brisk, readable and clear account of the telegraph's development.

With fascinating sections on the role of the idiosyncratic Samuel Morse, and about how persuading people to use the invention was so much harder than developing the science to build it, Standage's book also covers topics such as its use in war and peace, the social impact of the telegram,the tendency for information overload and how cranks, cheats and spies exploited the new technology.

This amusing and well-illustrated little book is an exciting read that will appeal to all who are curious about inventions.

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