The Victorian Internet: A series of tubes

Appropriately enough for the nation that pioneered the first telegraphs, the French had their own twist on the use of pneumatic tubes. For of all the tube networks built around the world, the most successful was in Paris, where sending and receiving pneus became a part of everyday life in the late nineteenth century. Like the pneumatic tube networks in many other major cities, the Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

So, in 1879, a new pricing structure was announced: For messages travelling within the Paris tube network, the price was fixed, no matter how long the message. Faster than the post and cheaper than sending a telegram, this network provided a convenient way to send local messages within Paris, though the service was operated by the state telegraph company and the messages were officially regarded as telegrams.

Messages were written on special forms, which could be purchased, prepaid, in advance. These could then be deposited into small post boxes next to conventional mailboxes, handed in at telegraph counters in post offices, or put into boxes mounted on the backs of trams, which were unloaded when the trams reached the end of the line. Once in the system, messages were sent along the tubes to the office nearest the destination and then delivered by messenger. Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today’s e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.) No enclosures were allowed to be included with messages, and any messages that broke this rule were transferred to the conventional postal service and charged at standard postal rates.

The scheme was a great success, and the volume of messages being passed around the network almost doubled in the first year. The network was further extended as a result, and for many years messages were affectionately known as petits bleus, after the blue color of the message forms.

Could this be where Senator Stevens got his “series of tubes” idea about the Internet? Perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all.

The Victorian Internet: You had me at …. . .-.. .-.. —

“Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, tells the story of a “pretty little romance” that took place at a remote station out in the desert at Yuma, Arizona… There was nothing to do, it was unbearably hot and very difficult to sleep, so unsurprisingly the operator at the station, John Stansbury, turned to the telegraph wire for companionship.

An acquaintance soon sprung up between Stansbury and the operator in Banning, Californian, known as “Mat,” whom Stansbury described as a “jolly, cheerful sort of fellow.” They soon became firm friends and agreed to spend their vacation together in the mountains hunting and fishing. Every detail of the trip was arranged, with Mat insisting that they take rubber boots for fishing, even though Stansbury said he was quite happy in his bare feet. But at the last minute Mat pulled out of the trip, having decided to take the train to vacation in New Mexico instead, a trip that involved passing through Yuma, Stansbury’s station. But by the time Mat arrived at Yuma, Stansbury had been taken ill with a fever and was quite delirious.

“During the days of my agony I was vaguely aware of gentle, womanly hands and a kindly female presence in my sick-room,” Stansbury later wrote. “And when I returned to the conscious world I was not surprised to find a fair and pleasant face beside me. Its owner said that she had been on the train when I was found stricken down, and had stayed to minister to my sore need. The idea may seem preposterous, but I believe the foundation for my affection had been laid while the unconsciousness of fever was still upon me, and the affection grew into the deepest love as she cared for me during the days of my convalescence. After a time I ventured to tell her of my love, and to ask her if she would be mine; but I was not prepared for her answer. ‘John,’ she said, ‘do you really mean that you wish to marry a girl that insists upon wearing rubber boots?’

“‘Mat!’ I said, for I was completely beaten. Then it flashed upon me. She was the operator at Banning, and I, like a fool, had always taken it for granted that she was a man. I am not going to tell you how I convinced her that I wanted to marry her, boots and all, but I did it, and here we are on our wedding journey. The Southern Pacific Telegraph Company has lost an operator, but I calculate that I am way ahead on the deal.”

My grandmother had a brief stint as a telegraph operator in the 1920s, but by then telegraph machines had been automated. She was trained on a Simplex Automatic Printer, a typewriter-like telegraph machine that sent and receive messages via perforated tape that was converted into electrical impulses and then decoded into print on paper. The cozy human element was gone, and the operators worked in shifts around the clock, which my grandmother didn’t like so she quickly moved to the bookkeeping department. But it’s quite amazing to think that in only two generations we’ve gone from telegraph to Twitter. I wonder what’s next?

Teletypewriter, 1930.

UNESCO World Book & Copyright Day 2014

Happy World Book and Copyright Day! It is very significant that this year UNESCO chose Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as the World Book Capital of 2014. I can’t help but think it is a direct response to the ongoing terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, whose name literally means “books are forbidden.” Their stated aim is to abolish what they call Western education and impose Islamic law on all Nigerians. They enforce that law with the most brutal methods imaginable, preferring blades to guns. They have been responsible for the murder of some ten thousand Nigerians, mostly Christians but also Muslims who actively oppose them, and have succeeded in shutting down the school system in the northeast of the country.

This Easter, Boko Haram launched their most horrific attacks yet, with a string of bombings that killed nearly 300 people and the mass abduction of over 200 girls who were sitting their final exams. The school had only two guards, who were easily dispatched by the raiders. It is in the midst of this worsening nightmare that UNESCO is celebrating the power of books to foster peaceful prosperity and coexistence. Though a good education never stopped anyone from becoming a terrorist, I believe an educated public is essential to organizing a society that is capable of repelling threats like Boko Haram.

We can help by supporting literacy organizations the operate in Africa and other regions where schools are under violent threat. If these children are brave enough to risk death or abduction in order to learn, surely we can do something to help them? This year UNESCO has partnered with Worldreader, a non-profit organization that is trying to capitalize on the popularity of mobile technology in Africa to distribute ebooks and ereaders where they are needed. In places where it is simply too dangerous to go to school this is a godsend. There are also other great organizations that distribute paper books and teacher resources in Africa; here are some of my favourites. In the battle between books and brutality, let’s make sure books win.

Eighty Days: Blizzard Blog

Time passed very slowly. Each day John Jennings and a couple of the others walked back down the railroad tracks to look for the rotary plow. Sometimes they shoveled snow from the tracks, or picked ice from the rails. There was nothing else to do. The men, and three of the ten women on board, did daily exercises in the train shed. Two Dominican nuns sat in the same place day after day, cheerfully reading their prayer books. One passenger set to work with paper and pencil writing a newspaper that he called The Daily Snow, providing the latest news of the train; each issue was produced in a single copy that was eagerly read and circulated among the passengers.

—Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

That sounds like a blog, no? I guess the phenomenon of stranded travellers taking to social media is nothing new.

80 Days: Packing Light

Nellie Bly

I’m a sucker for packing lists, so when I got to Nellie Bly’s packing list in Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days, I had to post it. Nellie Bly was one of two pioneering American women journalists who raced each other around the world in opposite directions in 1889–1890. Her rather reluctant opponent was Elizabeth Bisland, a southern belle whose natural habitat was the literary salon. Both were ambitious and had fought their way in to male-dominated world of publishing, as much by necessity as by inclination. It was Bly’s idea to try to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record trip around the world, and Bisland, who was helping to support her family, had little choice but to go along with her publisher’s request to join the race.

Fashionable Bisland took a typical amount of luggage for a lady, a trunk and valise, despite only have a couple of hours to pack. Bly, on the other hand, had been dreaming about this scheme for months and had decided that by packing light she could avoid delays from the transfer or loss of her baggage. She determined to take only one bag, and a small bag at that, a little leather “gripsack,” which you can see in her photo. Yes, that’s all she took.

For her trip, Elizabeth Bisland wore her new black dress, newmarket coat, and black sailor’s cap. Into her trunk and valise she packed:

  • 2 cloth dresses
  • half a dozen light bodices
  • silk evening dress
  • hairpins
  • shoes
  • gloves
  • silk underwear
  • nightdress
  • dressing gown
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • sewing kit
  • travelling inkstand
  • books
  • paper
  • wool overcoat
  • travel rug
  • rubber overshoes
  • umbrella

That’s not an unreasonable amount of kit, especially for a round-the-world trip, and it is only the bulk of Victorian women’s clothing (not to mention the travel blanket) that would have made it impossible to carry.

Bly’s outfit consisted of a purpose-made broadcloth travelling dress lined with camel’s hair, a check Scotch ulster overcoat, and the deerstalker cap she usually wore while on assignment. She also carried a “silk waterproof,” which I gather is a kind of rain poncho. In her teeny tiny bag she carried:

  • 2 travelling caps (perhaps that includes the one she wore)
  • 3 veils
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • inkstand
  • paper
  • pens
  • pencils
  • pins
  • needle and thread
  • dressing gown
  • tennis blazer
  • small flask
  • drinking cup
  • underwear
  • handkerchiefs
  • ruchings (gathered lace or cloth worn at the cuffs and collar)
  • jar of cold cream

That’s right, she didn’t take a single change of clothing. She writes in her memoir that “After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage.” Rick Steves would be so proud. I just hope the airlines don’t get wind of this or they will drastically cut their carry-on luggage allowances!

Olympic Russian Reading Challenge


If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, the answer is Twitter, that ephemeral playground of the short attention span. I haven’t forgotten about my blog, though, and I’m back with an Olympics-inspired reading challenge that came out of a discussion of Nabokov on Twitter. I tweaked the original idea and came up with this:

Olympic Russian Reading Challenge

Gold — One massive tome

Silver — One novel or short story collection

Bronze — Three short stories or plays, or a book of poetry

It isn’t necessary to complete the challenge during the Sochi Olympics, but you will get extra Degree of Difficulty points if you do. Leave a comment with your accomplishments and bring a medal home for your country!

People of the Book: Bookish Ambition

I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.

It’s That Time of Year…

Time for my favourite church book sale! I didn’t do as well as I did in 2011 and 2012, but I certainly didn’t come home empty-handed, and I did get a couple of gems.

  • Arts and the Man: A Short Introduction to Aesthetics by Irwin Edman. I mostly got it for the clever title.
  • Totalitarianism and Antisemitism by Hannah Arendt. Alas they did not have Imperialism, which is the second volume of Arendt’s trilogy, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’ll have to find it somewhere else. If I don’t get arrested first.
  • Norton Critical Edition of The Communist Manifesto. OK, now I’m definitely going to get arrested.
  • The Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Lu K’uan Yü. Something to keep me occupied while in detention.
  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. In case I never get out of detention
  • London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Supposed to be very good. It’ll go nicely with the epic novel London by Edward Rutherfurd which I got at the thrift store a while back.
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. Requires no explanation!
  • The Vogue Sewing Book and The Vogue Sewing Book of Fitting, Adjustments and Alterations. A nice matching set of basic references.
  • A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum. Massive. Weighs 6 pounds. Entirely pre-digital; in fact it really only covers the first 100 years or so. The second century of photography won’t fit in a book!

It’s just as well I did not come home with too many books since I am running out of places to put them. I’m still waiting for someone to invent anti-gravity ceiling bookshelves…

International Literacy Day 2013

I’m not sure whether to say “Happy International Literacy Day” because as the UNESCO infographic below says, the state of literacy in the world is quite serious. Nearly a billion people lack basic literacy skills. Can this be possible, 5,000 years after the invention of writing? You would think that such a powerful technology would be spread and sought with enthusiasm, like agriculture, the wheel, electricity and the internal combustion engine. Yet this master tool of civilization cannot be used by 12.5% of the human population (not counting children under age 15). Two thirds of these are girls and women, which is a critical problem because uneducated women tend to have larger, poorer, less educated, and less healthy families than educated women. I don’t think it is a coincidence that illiteracy is highest in the world’s conflict zones, South Asia, West Asia, and Africa. The pen is only mightier than the sword when one knows how to wield it. A literate, educated population may be the best defense against oppression, extremism, and economic exploitation, which is why literacy should be a priority for development. Give people the tools and they can take care of themselves and each other.

[Click infographic for a larger version.]

International Literacy Day 2013