History Friday – The 19th Century Internet

Work continues – at a rather slow pace, admittedly – on the two books I have currently under construction, while I do research reading for them (in a small way) and work on projects to do with the Tiny Publishing Bidness. Which has just had two old corporate clients appear out of the woodwork; I don’t know how much we can do for the second, as the electronic files for their project are nonexistent, as their corporate history was produced and printed in about 1990. Thus technology marches on. I am wracking my memory, to see if I can come up with my own estimation as to when electronically-composed documents became the norm. I would guess around that time. I used to go back and generate training documents and various reports on a computer which also ran the automated music channel at EBS-Zaragoza in the late 1980s. This usually involved two large floppy disks (one for the operating system, one for my document archive) and a tiny screen of brilliant green letters on a black background. This writing process usually had me seeing white objects in shades of pink for at least an hour afterwards.

The other client is much more flexible regarding requirements for their project: a straight republication of their company history, which involved a tedious but not complex matter of taking apart one of the printed copies, carefully scanning page by page, and then reassembling a series of cleaned-up and resized photos in order. This brought me to meditating on technology generally, how things changed radically within a brief span of living memory. This last publishing project could now be done with scanner-copiers available and affordable for the home market trade – very unlike the printer/copier at one of my early military assignments; a behemoth the size of a VW bug, which probably cost about half the price of a small trainer jet.

Yes, in this precariously-blessed technological age, technology marches on. What was once a dream became a reality – and with such speed, between one decade and the next! I had a project a while ago, transcribing a series of letters from a young Yankee gentleman doing the 1850s version of the Grand Tour. Whilst in Paris, he ventured an off-the-cuff speculation that he would so much like to have a portable pocket telegraph, so that he could communicate more or less instantly with his family … of which he was very fond. This very same gentleman, upon accepting an offer of employment with the husband of his sister, was translated to the far frontier of New Mexico within a year or so of his stay in Paris. Likely he would have relished possession of his portable pocket telegraph, or a cell-phone even more. Such a device wouldn’t happen until a century and a half later … but as a mid-19th century man he was already looking to the bright future of technology, although I don’t think he realized quite how thoroughly advances in communication and transport would change everything about American life within two decades of penning his simple, homesick plaint.

The railway and the telegraph radically reshaped the American frontier and the lives of those who lived on it, as it existed between the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast in those years between the Civil War and the turn of the century. The Civil War accelerated the process – in that the transcontinental telegraph itself was completed under a certain sense of urgency at the start of the war, and the question of a route for a transcontinental railway was ultimately settled in the political secession of those who had favored a Southern route, which permitted those partisans of a northern or central route to plunge ahead. Of course, regular commerce with the Far West had not been unknown: trading ships around the Horn to the west coast and the Gulf coast, river steamers up and down the Mississippi-Missouri, and regular caravans of freight wagons moved goods of every kind from staples to luxury goods to Santa Fe, to the Mormon settlements in Utah Territory, California and Oregon. But such traffic was slow, subject to seasonal interruptions, the occasional Indian raid, and prohibitively expensive besides.
All of this changed within a relatively short space of years, once the great surge of railway construction in the West wove cities and settlements into as close a net as the East had been. Now it was possible to accomplish a transcontinental journey in days, for a fraction of the cost, and in relative comfort. Manufactured goods from the East and raw material from the West moved just as readily. Witness the boom in Western beef cattle, facilitated by the advance of various branches of the transcontinental railroad. The railways themselves encouraged settlement along their various routes. Life in a Western settlement no longer meant isolation, hardship and crushing boredom. Entrepreneurs as diverse as Fred Harvey, Aaron Montgomery Ward, and George Pullman made fortunes in relation to railway service and inestimably improved the quality of life for westerners in general.

Consider this; a solitary rancher, mine-owner, farmer or small-town entrepreneur could now receive mail weekly or even daily, rather than once a month, or whenever a ship came into port. They could order furniture from a mail-order catalog and see it delivered in weeks, rather than years. Diners in restaurants as far removed as Tombstone, Arizona, and Galveston, Texas, could dine on fish fresh-caught in the Great Lakes, seasonal fresh vegetables from the mid-west, and drink orange juice from California cooled on ice harvested from New England lakes, as they read the latest New York newspaper – and all of this facilitated by rail and telegraph services. The Fred Harvey system sent their all their restaurant and hotel laundry to be done at a single corporate facility, maintained their own dairy and ranch … and had train conductors telegraph ahead, alerting the Harvey House at the next stop how many passengers planned to dine in the restaurant and lunchroom. The editor and publisher of a news magazine in Waco, Texas could build a nation-wide following – in part because of the ease of railway transportation. The working and middle classes in the west had wider horizons because through the railroad – and well-to-do easterners also had the opportunity to indulge in tourism, exploring spectacular scenery and entrancing local customs, while lapped in luxury and comfort. The world widened, in a way that that I think was only duplicated by the internet, offering access to information, people, and to places – even if just vicariously. Discuss.

17 thoughts on “History Friday – The 19th Century Internet”

  1. Tom Standage, in his book The Victorian Internet, explores many parallels between the telegraph network and the Internet. Here’s one story he told…

    George McCutcheon was in the business of selling periodicals, and he wanted to be able to take orders on the net. He wasn’t very into technology, so he asked his teenage daughter, Maggie, to handle that part of the business. Maggie soon had the connection working, but also used it to flirt with many men she met on-line. She invited one of them, Frank, to visit her in the real world. Her father found out, and was furious…furious to the point that he threatened to kill her if she saw Frank again. Maggie had her father arrested and charged with threatening behavior.

    (paraphrased by me in a 2004 post)

  2. We could not build a transcontinental railway or the interstate highway system today. Too many bureaucratic hurdles, too many interest groups, too many lawsuits, too many regulations. That’s why our growth has ground to a halt and China is booming.

  3. William T Sherman was one of the first generals to use the telegraph in war as a primary means of communication. Liddell Hart’s biography of him relies heavily on the telegraph messages to tell the story of his campaigns. Sherman was also the commander of the army’s work to secure to the transcontinental railroad, chiefly from Indians.

  4. Mike, I am working WT Sherman as a character into one of my next books … when he was a bank manager in California in the mid-1850s. Possibly, hanging out there, on the far edge of nowhere gave him an appreciation of the possibilities of somewhat instant communications?

  5. “William T Sherman was one of the first generals to use the telegraph in war as a primary means of communication.”

    Ironically, Morse was a supporter of the Confederacy.

  6. Yeah … complicated. From that transcription job … it doesn’t seem like the family of the Yankee industrialist referred to were all that enthused about the Northern cause in the CW. One of the kin was married to a divine with a parish/school/whatever in Richmond. They were canny industrialists, and simply appalled at the extent to which the radical Black Republicans were willing to go.

  7. > simply appalled at the extent to which the radical Black Republicans were willing to go.<

    where were they going?

  8. At least one great novelist wrote a telegraph novel, or at least novella. Here’s Wikipedia on Henry James’ In the Cage (1898):
    “This long story centers on an unnamed London telegraphist. She deciphers clues to her clients’ personal lives from the often cryptic telegrams they submit to her as she sits in the ‘cage’ at the post office. Sensitive and intelligent, the telegraphist eventually finds out more than she may want to know.
    “An unnamed telegraphist works in the branch post office at Cocker’s, a grocer in a fashionable London neighborhood. Her fiancée, a decent if unpolished man named Mr. Mudge, wants her to move to a less expensive neighborhood to save money and to be near him at all times. She refuses because she likes the glimpses of society life she gets from the telegrams at her current location.
    “Through those telegrams, she gets ‘involved’ with a pair of lovers named Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen. By remembering certain code numbers in the telegrams, she manages to reassure Everard at a particular crisis that their secrets are safe from detection. Later she learns from her friend Mrs. Jordan that Lady Bradeen and Everard are getting married after the recent death of Lord Bradeen. The unnamed telegraphist also learns that Everard is heavily in debt and that Lady Bradeen is forcing him to marry her, as Everard is really not interested in her. The telegraphist finally decides to marry Mudge and reflects on the unusual events of which she was a part.”
    Now I feel I really need to sit down and read it.

  9. Helen, the protagonist of Rose Wilder Lane’s 1919 novel Diverging Roads, worked as a telegrapher, as did the author herself for a time. I reviewed the book in my essay about RWL here

  10. Newrouter – the family whose letters I was working on were New Englanders, and sort of tepidly Union, but they viewed the Republican party and Lincoln as altogether too radical, and felt that they had provoked the war with the South by going too far with the abolitionist business.

  11. That minority of highly intelligent people without means or connections have always faced the problem of how to support themselves in a manner that allowed themselves to spend their lives investigating the fascinating world in which we live. Teaching and tutoring was the usual answer, but those pursuits were almost always ill-paid, and teaching requires a skill-set of its own to which not all intelligent people are suited. From time to time, various technologies have emerged that required a substantially higher-than-average intelligence to master. Thus poor but intelligent and self-motivaed youths who mastered such technologies could command substantial compensation and the independence that comes with it. For middle-class youths whose parents could afford some education, such a skill was the most sensible investment they could make.

    During the colonial and early independence periods in America, surveying was one such technology. There was a great deal of land that could not be turned into real property with a tangible value until is was surveyed. The intelligence to be a surveyor was a distinct minority attribute. Thus Jefferson, Washington, and many others rose to prosperity and independence. Not only was the trade itself well-paid, but surveyors got to know first-hand, in advance of anybody else, when particularly worthwhile parcels of land were about to come not the market, allowing them to snap up bargains. (Very much like participants in high-tech startups getting in on friends-and-family pre-IPO offerings of stock.)

    Telegraphy was another such skill for a while. Not only did it require learning Morse code, but it required the mindset to understand electricity at a time when most people thought it was spooky and dangerous (and it was mildly dangerous, with battery acid, and the risk of shock and fire.) Itinerant young telegraph operators traveled around the country at whim, earning good money, and finding jobs always available wherever they went. Many entrepreneurs of that era, like Edison, started out as telegraphers.

    They created for a while a virtual community accustomed to communicating at a distance, hearing news of job openings and keeping up with their scattered friends. And as noted, striking up romances, as it was one of the best paying jobs available to women at that time. It was a particularly good place to find an intelligent and independent woman.

    In a number of ways, surveyors in early America, and telegraph operators in the early Industrial era were the predecessors of today’s young computer nerds.

  12. Another skilled profession that is largely forgotten now was railroad engineers who were the equivalent of airline pilots. My grandfather was an engineer, not of local switch engines but the transcontinental lines. We don’t think much of railroad engineers now. At one time, Casey Jones was an icon.

    The point about surveyors is a good one and army men learned that trade sometimes as part of map reading. The “Band of Brothers” E company of the 101st Airborne went overseas without the commending officer they had for training because he got lost on a map problem. He was replaced and later got another company.

  13. Excellent points, Mike and James. Surveying was a going technology in Texas well into the 1850s, as well. The famous ranger Jack Hays’s primary job was as a surveyer … it was just that the job tended to bring him into conflicts with hostile Comanche…

    One of the points mentioned in at least two of the books about the Harvey girls was that railroad engineers and telegraphists were considered very good catches for the girls, matrimonially-speaking.

  14. When I was a lad of 18 in 1966, I spent a summer working on a surveying crew for an engineering company.

    The crew consisted of 4 men. I was the youngest and was denominated the back chain. there was also a more experienced employee who was the front chain. The crew chief was a licensed surveyor and he supervised and recorded the data on paper. The next most senior guy was the instrument man. he used the instruments, a transit and a level, to obtain the measurements of angles and levels.

    Distances were measured using a 100 foot steel tape called a chain, after its historic antecedent the surveyor’s chain. In order to measure distances longer than 100 feet, we would plant wooden stakes in the ground, set a small finishing nail in the top of the stake and measure the distance between the nails. To do this someone (me) had to hold the back end of the chain while keeping it centered over the nail with a plumb bob. The front chain held the front of the tape with a scale that measured the tension on the tape and took the exact distance off the front part of the tape which was marked in 10ths and hundredths of a foot. The crew chief recorded the distance and the temperature. Elevations were measured by observing the markings on rods held by the front and back chains. It was tedious, sweaty work.

    Several weeks were spent in Paducah KY, where we were working on layout for I-24. We stayed in Mrs. McGowan’s boarding house. If you were economical, you could save a lot of money from your per diems. At the end of work we would retire to Heinny’s bar, and have a couple of cold Budweisers along with some of their hot sausage patty sandwiches. That was very satisfying.

    Every once in a while when I see surveyors working, I stop and talk to them. Technology has changed a lot. Wooden stakes, steel tapes, and elevation rods are gone. “Total stations” incorporating optical distance measurement, and electronic recording of distance, plane and elevation angle data have replaced a couple of crew men and paper and pencil. GPS has mostly eliminated the need to “tie” surveys to control points set astronomically by the National Geodetic Survey (f/k/a Coast and Geodetic Survey).

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