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Some of my favorite books

The Week asked me to choose a selection of my favorite books for this week’s issue. I’ll take any opportunity to recommend Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.

Even though it’s a history of the telegraph, this book is always relevant. The rise of the 1830s communication device continues to be a fantastic metaphor for each new Internet technology that comes along, from e-mail to IM to Facebook to Twitter.

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

So, whoa. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Vannevar Bush’s seminal As We May Think, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, was the first time anyone had described something like the modern desktop computer and the World Wide Web. Not so, says Alex Wright in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (@ Amazon). A Belgian chap named Paul Otlet described something called the “radiated library” — or the “televised book” — in 1934:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.

Sweet fancy Macintosh, if that’s not what we’re all doing right here on the web all day.

Much of the section in the book on Otlet was first published by Wright in a Boxes and Arrows essay called Forgotten Father: Paul Otlet. Wright’s extensive online bibliography for Glut should keep you busy for a few hours when you’re done with that. (I wish all the books I read were accompanied by such bibliographies.) I’ll also recommend a related read and one of my favorite technology books, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (@ Amazon):

It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my televised book.

Tales of the telegraph

L.C. Hall wrote an article in 1902 for McClure’s Magazine called “Telegraph Talk and Talkers, Human Character and Emotions an Old Telegrapher Reads on the Wire”. Hall’s article reveals a surprisingly wide range of information transmitted across telegraph wires between operators that has nothing to do with the messages being sent.

The piece begins with an account of a “fast sending tournament”, which contest reveals not only the quick sender, but the masterful:

Presently a fair-haired young man takes the chair, self confidence and reserve force in every gesture. Away he goes, and his transmission is as swift and pure as a mountain stream. “To guard against mistakes and delays, the sender of a message should order it repeated back.” The audience, enthralled, forgets the speed, and hearkens only to the beauty of the sending. On and on fly the dots and dashes, and though it is clear that his pace is not up to that set by the leaders, nevertheless there is a finish โ€” an indefinable quality of perfection in the performance that at the end brings the multitude to its feet in a spontaneous burst of applause; such an outburst as might have greeted a great piece of oratory or acting.

Many friendships were formed over the wire between senders who, judging mainly by the cadence of the code, sized up their counterparts from hundreds of miles away to the point of knowing their gender and general demeanor despite having never asked. Hall struck up such a friendship with a man called C G, whose attachment to Morse and Hall was so strong that he called out for him on his deathbed:

“Late in the evening,” said the [head nurse] as our interview was ending, “I was called into his room. He was rapidly failing, and was talking as if in a dream, two fingers of his right hand tapping the bedclothes as if he were sending a message. I did not understand the purport, but perhaps you will. ‘You say you can’t read me?’ he would say; ‘then let H come to the key. He can read and understand me. Let H come there, please.’ Now and again his fingers would cease moving, as if he were waiting for the right person to answer. Then he would go on once more: ‘Dear me, dear me, this will never do! I want to talk with H. I have an important message for him. Please tell him to hurry.’ Then would follow another pause, during which he would murmur to himself regretfully. But at last he suddenly assumed the manner of one listening intently; then, his face breaking into a smile, he cried, his fingers keeping time with his words: ‘Is that you, H? I’m so glad you’ve come! I have a message for you.’ And so, his fingers tapping out an unspoken message, his kindly spirit took its flight.”

The article closes with a bit on telegraph slang, or “hog-Morse”, when inexperienced operators slip up and send a bit of jibberish that expert receivers can nonetheless decipher from the context.

In the patois of the wires “pot” means “hot,” “foot” is rendered “fool,” “U. S. Navy” is “us nasty,” “home” is changed to “hog,” and so on. If, for example, while receiving a telegram, a user of the patois should miss a word and say to you “6naz fimme q,” the expert would know that he meant “Please fill me in.” But there is no difficulty about the interpretation of the patois provided the receiver be experienced and always on the alert. When, however, the mind wanders in receiving, there is always danger that the hand will record exactly what the ear dictates. On one occasion, at Christmas time, a hilarious citizen of Rome, New York, telegraphed a friend at a distance a message which reached its destination reading, “Cog hog to rog and wemm pave a bumy tig.” It looked to the man addressed like Choctaw, and of course was not understood. Upon being repeated, it read, “Come home to Rome, and we’ll have a bully time.” Another case of confusion wrought by hog-Morse was that of the Richmond, Virginia, commission firm, who were requested by wire to quote the price on a carload of “undressed slaves.” The member of the firm who receipted for the telegram being something of a wag, wired back: “No trade in naked chattel since Emancipation Proclamation.” The original message had been transmitted by senders of hog-Morse, called technically “hams,” and the receivers had absent-mindedly recorded the words as they had really sounded. What the inquirer wanted, of course, was a quotation on a carload of staves in the rough.

Hog-Morse reminds me of the SMS typos which occur when T9 slips up or someone fat-fingers the wrong button on the phone. I can’t recall how many times I’ve texted my wife “good soon”, by which I meant that I’ll be “home” shortly. It’s also reminiscent of gamer typo slang, like pwned, teh, and su[.

For more on the telegraph, particularly as it relates to contemporary communication technology, I highly recommend The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. Also related: send Morse code via SMS with your mobile phone and a 23-yo woman from Singapore holds the world record for speed texting a 26 word message in 43 seconds.

Update: The texting record was broken in July; a Utah teen texted the message in 42.22 seconds. And in an Australian speed contest, a telegraph operator beat texting teens. (thx eugene and alex)

Steven Shapin reviews Tom Standage’s A History

Steven Shapin reviews Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, a “social life of beverages”. Standage is one of my favorite technology/culture writers; he wrote about the telegraph in The Victorian Internet.