Not too long ago I was sent a package of books in response to my offhanded remark that I was open to recommendations of good nonfiction. Included in the package were two books, which, like The Ancient Engineers, focus on technology which is now well over a century old: Longitude by Dava Sobel, about the development of the chronometer, and The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, about the telegraph.

Longitude had caught my eye many a time in bookstores, and had languished on my to-read-someday list for years — I love reading about exploration, and this seemed like an interesting tangent. And apparently it's done well for itself in the marketplace. Too bad it's not actually very good. Longitude is slight — small size, small page count, widely spaced lines — and even at this short length it feels padded: there's just not much to this story, not as Sobel tells it, anyway. No one knew how to calculate longitude; more accurate clocks were needed; this guy made a really accurate clock; and, um, how's it goin'? There are side bits about attempts to calculate longitude astronomically, and about how the clockmaker guy didn't get his prize money right away, but for the most part, it feels as if there were any drama to this story to begin with, it hasn't found its way into these pages. No more than in the famous Brian Bendis anecdote, anyway: "I needed some pants. So I bought some pants."

The Victorian Internet is somewhat better, in that there's a lot more to the telegraph story, or at least Standage finds more to tell: in addition to the actual development of the telegraph, there's its impact on society to detail, including such wrinkles as telegraph-spawned romances and a revolution in journalism. That said, the title comes off as a fairly shameless attempt to cash in on a modern buzzword. Yes, there is something to be said for drawing a connection between the telegraph and email. But what makes the Internet the most important technological development of my lifetime is not email. Email is terrific for those who, like me, have more facility with written communication than spoken, but aside from that (and the fact that it's free) there really isn't much to differentiate email from a phone network where everyone has voicemail. What makes the Internet such a big deal isn't a new form of point-to-point communication, but the advent of cheap point-to-world communication. The telegraph may have allowed one person to send a message to a chosen recipient; the web allows one person to publish material and have it permanently available to anyone and everyone on the network. Your homemade zine can be more widely "published" than the most widely circulated publications of the pre-web era, and not only do you not need massive overhead for printing and distribution, you don't even need a photocopier or a stapler. Of course, the biggest change wrought by technology in my day-to-day life is courtesy of an adjunct to the web, the search engine. It used to be that if I didn't know something, it meant a trip to the library and a research project that more often than not turned out fruitless. Now I can get an answer in seconds to most any question that pops into my head. Did the telegraph have a greater or equal impact than this change? Sure, I'll buy that. But then, so did the automobile. They're fundamentally different sorts of changes. Standage's claim that they're "striking similar" is, I think, well off the mark.

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