The Steam-powered Internet FAQ: Steamnet

by Andreas Ramos

The Internet was once powered by steam. And in some places today, it still runs on steam.

Last Summer on vacation in France, we went to the post office, and, while changing some money, my travel companion noticed the pneumatic tubes. He had never seen those before. I told him that these were common in Europe; many post offices, government buildings, and companies used them. The employee puts a letter or money or whatever into a container (about the size of a liter bottle), puts it into a tube, presses a button, and the container zips off down the tube. At the other end, in a distant office, the container flies out of the tube and thunks into a padded wall. Paris and London once has a huge network of pneumatic tubes. Prague still uses a city pneumatic tube system, over 55 km, which joins the post office, some twenty-two companies, and government offices. The pneumatic tubes zipped containers around the city, delivering letters, small items, money, and sometimes, cats. I don’t think it was pleasant for the cat. This was the steam-powered Internet, before computers.

The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage (Walker, 1999), describes the arrival of the telegraph in the 1850s. Everything we think of today with the net and the web is old stuff; it all happened 150 years ago when the telegraph was invented. Online romances, chat rooms, sigs, well-paid high-tech workers, women in high-tech: all of this happened 150 years ago.

In the 1790s, the French invented mechanical telegraphs, using signals and signal towers spaced every ten kilometers, to send messages. Napoleon could send messages across Europe in a matter of hours. Within a few years, visual telegraph tower networks cris-crossed all of Europe. The main users were the military and the stock markets. The telegraph towers were on high points, so we still have places named Telegraph Hill and so on.

By the 1830s, Samuel Morse and others were trying to invent devices that could send signals via electricity and wires. This would allow signals to be sent regardless of daytime, weather, or distance. People didn’t pay much attention to the first telegraphs: it was used for chess demonstrations and so on. Just as the US government financed ARPANET and the first internet connections, in 1844 the US government put up the money ($30,000) (thus they were the first high tech VCs) for the Washington-Baltimore telegraph but it was a financial disaster. It did not earn enough to cover its costs (after three months, it had revenues of $193, but had cost $30,000 to build.) (Do you notice now that the current web industry was invented in the 1840s? Massive funding for projects without a business plan, no revenue models, and it ran at a huge loss.)

Slowly, more telegraph lines were built and the revenue model was improved: they learned they could make money by sending stock prices, business transactions (B2B,) and government communications. By 1850, twenty different companies had over 12,000 miles of telegraph wires. So the race was on for broadband. Eleven different networks radiated from New York City. Some bankers received as many as ten telegraphs per day.

In the 1860s, the Pony Express was the first casualty of the new telecoms industry. The telegraph’s market space was bank transactions, money transfers, Congress, the police, news, election returns, death notices, ship departures and arrivals, and medical consultations.

At first, telegraph operators used paper tape to read the message stream, but they soon learned to listen to telegraphs, so skilled operators could send and receive without paper tapes. This meant that job interviews, character references, etc., became irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was the skill in sending and receiving. The technical skill also paid well.

Which meant that telegraph operators were the first high-tech skill jobs that were open to women. Sarah Bagley was the first woman telegrapher in 1846. Soon, 30% of telegraph operators were women.

Telegraph operators moved from place to place, always able to get a job based on their telegraph skills. They were known as boomers (today, we call them web masters.) This was the beginning of the transient high-tech workforce.

Telegraph offices of course were the first 24/7 offices. The traffic and the global time zones required around-the-clock staff.

Chat rooms and the online social life was also invented in the 1860s. Telegraph systems were like the spokes of a wheel. Every message that was sent along one spoke was heard by every telegraph operator along that spoke. During slow hours, telegraph operators chatted with each other, swapping stories, jokes, news, rumors, and played chess and checkers.

Telegraph operators added their initials at the end of transmissions, to identify themselves. These signatures were called “sigs.” All sorts of local abbreviations, similar to today’s LOL and BTW, were invented.

Meetings were held online, with hundreds of telegraph operators, strung out along a 700-mile line, in attendance.

Friendships arose between people who never met in person. Online romances were common and sometimes, when they met for the first time, these came to an abrupt halt.

Ella Cheever Thayer’s novel “Wired Love” (1879) was based on online romances. An article entitled “The Dangers of Wired Love” (1886) told the story of George McCutcheon, who installed a telegraph in his newsstand and set Maggie, his 20-year old daughter, to operate it. Soon, she was flirting online with several young men. Soon, she was involved with Frank Frisbie, a married man. Father yanked out the telegraph, but Maggie found a job at a nearby telegraph office and resumed the online affair.

Marriages were performed online, with the minister telegraphing the ceremony, and the bride and groom, apart in different cities, taping “I do.” All of the telegraph operators along that line were present online at the wedding.

The book doesn’t mention computer bugs. Several years ago, I looked into the origins of bugs. Many books claim that US Navy captain Grace Hopper found the first bug: it was a moth that was trapped in a computer (You can see her original log book, including the moth taped to the log book, at However, bugs were much older than that. In 1905, Vibroplex introduced a cheap telegraph key. It was widely sold and many new telegraph operators came online. Experienced operators were frustrated at the errors made by the newbies. The Vibroplex keys had a name plate that included their logo: a lightning bug with little sparks flying off. Yes, the Vibroplex keys were called bugs. A bug was a new user who made mistakes. (You can see pictures of the Vibroplex and the lightning bug at The expression “bug” as a problem was in use in 1889. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Pall Mall Gazette (11 Mar, 1889, 1/1) “Mr. Edison, I was informed, had been up the two previous nights discovering ‘a bug’ in his phonograph, an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”

In 1858, the first transatlantic cable connected Europe and America. People thought the telegraph would result in mutual understanding, “peace and harmony throughout the world…,” and a better life. The national celebrations bordered on hysteria: hundred-gun salutes, parades, fireworks, church bells, and sermons. In New York City, they got carried away with torches and City Hall was nearly burnt down.

A second transatlantic cable was set up and it earned a thousand English pounds on its first day (probably about ten thousand US dollars today.) By the early 1850s, the system began to be overloaded. In London, the Stock Exchange and the Central Telegraph Office had the highest traffic in the world. The two buildings were 220 meters apart. An engineer invented the pneumatic tube delivery system to send messages back and forth between the two buildings. By 1870, pneumatic tube systems had been built in all of the world’s major cities. New York’s system connected all of the post offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It was New York as well that sent the first cat by tube.

The wealthy, the aristocrats, and bankers installed telegraph lines into their homes.

The Victorian internet was based on telegrams, transatlantic cables, pneumatic tubes, and bicycle messenger boys. A message could be sent from London to Bombay and a reply could be returned in less than four minutes.

Other industries were transformed or destroyed by the telegraph. The Pony Express was shut down, throwing thousands of low-tech ponies into unemployment, along with unemployed carrier pigeons. Writers expected the newspapers to become obsolete. In fact, newspapers were radically transformed and they flourished. Previously, newspapers had been local affairs, with society news and “cat-stuck-in-tree” items. Regional, national, or international news was weeks or months late and had little interest. With the telegraphs, newspapers became the “last-mile” link into the home and delivered news about famines in India, floods in Brazil, the price of kangaroos in Borneo, and battles in the Crimean. Paul Julius Reuter set up a pan-European news agency, growing it out of his former carrier pigeon news service. The Associated Press news agency was created in the USA. This changed society: until then, one lived locally. The telegraph introduced the global community.

It also introduced instant decision making. Previously, diplomats and businessmen could take months or even seasons to reply to events. This allowed consideration and judgment. With the telegraph, reports and decisions could be made in a matter of hours or minutes. Wars and battles were won by telegraph. Many of us remember that business correspondence by mail could take weeks (“Allow two-three weeks for delivery.”) Now, via email, things happen within the hour. It only takes about two seconds for an email to go from California to New York.

Instant information affected prices and warehousing. Manufacturers were transformed from local suppliers into regional, national, or international suppliers.

Monopolies arose. Western Union bought up competitors and established a monopoly that carried 80% of the traffic. And in words that may seem familiar, Western Union claimed that their monopoly was in the interests of the public. Service was standardized and delivery was assured.

With a telegram, one doesn’t need to use a street address. Mr. Thomas Johnson, care of the telegram office in Perth, was sufficient. Soon, telegraphic addresses were developed, and one registered at a telegram office. More than 35,000 telegraphic addresses were registered in London by 1889. Of course, these had an annual fee, so it raised quite a bit of money. Which means that email addresses are nothing new, and we can expect these to last for quite some time.

In 1871, Samuel Morse, in his eighties, retired and in celebration, all of the telegraphs in the USA were silenced so he could send out his goodbye to everyone.

The telegraph led to a greater, deeper transformation: the electrification of society. By building telegraph wires everywhere, people began adding telephones (1880) and electric lights. What was once thousands of individual villages became societies, working from dawn until late at night, using electric lights and telephones to stay in touch.

My Comments to the Book

Much of what we think today about the net and the web was actually invented over 150 years ago. Practically all of the dotcom hype from Wired, Business 2.0, and various Wall Street pundits incl. George Gilder, Nicolas Negroponte, and others was already written (and none of it happened) 150 years ago.

The Victorian Internet (that patchwork of telegrams, pneumatic tubes, messenger boys, and so on) was new in the 1800s. There had been nothing like it before. It was based on electricity, which was invented at the same time. Previous communication took weeks or months, which suddenly collapsed into minutes. People only dealt with other known persons; now they dealt with people whom they may never meet. Society had been slow and local, now it became hyper-accelerated and global. Information overload has been a feature of modern life for 150 years now.

Much of today’s hype will not happen because it has already been tried. Many current business models failed over 100 years ago. The successful ones are not new.

What’s next? The Pony Express, telegrams, pneumatic tubes, messenger boys, carrier pigeons, email, the web: all of these are communications, ever faster, ever more flexible, more global, more personal. The next step is smart phones with email and web with you anytime, anywhere.

Microsoft, Macintosh, Linux, and Java seemed so important several years ago; we now realize that they were just parts of a particular device, the desktop computer. Who remembers the Vibroplex or any of the telegraph key manufacturers? When the underlying technology changes, the surface tools also change.

The future of computering is ubiquitous communications, delivering email, news, shopping, and business, in your hand, anytime, anywhere. When the Palm Pilot (an early smart phone) was introduced, its designers figured that the desktop computer was the primary computer and the Palm was the secondary computer. Now, it’s the other way around: the Palm is the primary computer and the desktop computer is a backup device.

One hundred and fifty years of history is about to repeat itself.