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The first global communications network: ‘the highway of thought’

To understand the explosive growth of the internet we need to look back at how early communications technology evolved into the global network of interconnected computers that today we call the internet. The story of electronic communication begins with the wired telegraph – a network that 6 Understanding Digital Marketing grew rapidly to cover the globe, connected people across vast distances in a way that seemed almost magical, and changed the world forever.

Tom Standage, in his book The Victorian Internet, looks at the wired telegraph and draws some astonishing parallels between the growth of the world’s first electronic communications network and the growth of the modern-day internet. Standage describes the origins of the telegraph, and the quest to deliver information from point to point more rapidly in the days when speedy communication relied on a fast horse and a skilled rider:

On an April day in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris about 200 monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held one end of a 25 foot iron wire in each hand connecting him to his neighbour on either side. Together the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over a mile long. Once the line was complete the Abbot, Jean-Antoine Nollet, a noted French scientist, took a primitive battery and, without warning, connected it to the line of monks – giving all of them a powerful electric shock.

These ‘electric monks’ demonstrated conclusively that electricity could transmit a message (albeit a painful one) from one location to another in an instant, and laid the foundation for a communications revolution. In 1830 Joseph Henry (1797–1878), an eminent US scientist who went on to become the first Director of the Smithsonian Institute, took the concept a step further.

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He demonstrated the potential of the electromagnet for long-distance communications when he passed an electric current through a mile-long cable to ring an electromagnetic bell connected to the other end. Samuel Morse (1791–1872), the inventor of Morse code, took Henry’s concept a step further and made a commercial success of it: the electronic telegraph was born. In 1842 Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee rooms in Washington, and congress voted slimly in favour of investing US $30,000 for an experimental telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore.


It was a very close call: 89 votes for the prototype, 83 against and 70 abstentions by congressmen looking ‘to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand’. Despite the reservations of the congressmen, the new network was a huge success. It grew at a phenomenal rate: by 1850 there were more than 12,000 miles of telegraph line criss-crossing the United States, two years later there was more than twice that, and the network of connected wires was spreading rapidly around the globe

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