WOSSNAME -- OCTOBER 2006 -- PART 3 OF 3 (continued)
17) THE CLACKS IN ROUNDWORLD: IT'S OLDER THAN YOU THINK
by Annie Mac
Discworld readers commonly assume that the Clacks - especially as it
was described in Going Postal - is Pterry's take on our Roundworld
internet. But we all know the Man in the Hat is a picker-up of
unconsidered trifles, so it's very likely that he knew about, and
based the world of the Smoking GNU on, the Victorian internet.
Yes, that's right. The Victorian internet.
Way back in the nineteenth century, there was no AOL, no MySpace, no
Lavalife and no Leet, but there *was* a select yet surprisingly
large group of people around the world who took part in instant
messaging, chatrooms and long-distance electronic romance, and who
had their own secret communications codes, lingo and usernames. The
new technology of the telegraph connected people all over the world,
and people used this technology to conduct their social and business
life at speeds never before known in human history. By the 1870s, it
was possible to send a message by telegraph from London to Bombay
and receive the return message in under four minutes - less time
than it often takes to do by email in this modern high-tech era!
This marvel of high-speed communications changed many aspects of
global society - and it all started with a tiny cadre of "oddballs,
eccentrics and visionaries" who bore more than a passing resemblance
to the Dearhearts and other Discworld Clacks pioneers.
In 1746 Abbe Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French monk, conducted an
experiment in which he sent an electric shock through a mile-long
line of 200 Carthusian monks all connected by lengths of iron wire.
He was investigating the possibility of using electricity to send
messages "instantaneously" to faraway places; up to then, for all of
human history, no message could travel faster than the fastest horse
could carry it, the best time being nearly a day to cover a distance
of 100 miles. Of course there was line-of-sight messaging (bonfires,
semaphore), but the use of these was limited by terrain and weather
conditions. The sound of church bells could carry a fair distance,
but it was nearly impossible to send complex or lengthy messages
this way. Nollet's experiment showed great possibilities, but it was
some time before the technology for harnessing them existed; so
before the electric telegraph was developed, the brothers Claude and
Rene Chappe developed...well, the Clacks!
The Chappe brothers developed a number code (two or three digits per
word) and translated these numbers visually by building pivoting
wooden panels, black on one side and white on the other, and setting
a hand-worked mechanism to flip the colours from one side to the
other in sequences. The results could be read from miles away,
especially if the receiver used a telescope. Next, clockmaker
Abraham-Louis Breguet invented a system of pulleys to control much
bigger panels that were then set on the roof of a tower and operated
by a person or team inside the tower. Sound familiar?
An entry in the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica claimed that "The
capitals of distant nations might be united by chains of posts", and
suggested opening the network to paying customers. By 1840 there
were nearly 1,000 mechanical telegraph towers strung across Europe.
Not long after that, Samuel Morse invented a working electric
telegraph - he wasn't the first to tackle this, but he created the
dot-dash Morse Code that is still in use today - as did the European
team of Cooke and Wheatstone. Governments and the public were at
first sceptical about the worth of this new medium, but several
dramatic demonstrations - the long-distance announcements of
election results, the telegraphed announcement of the birth of Queen
Victoria's son Alfred (so that the Times was able to repeat it in
print to the public a mere 40 minutes later) and the crucial use of
a telegraphed description that enabled the police to arrest a
fleeing murderer - soon won over most doubters.
The laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 was a cause
for worldwide celebration (and quite a lot of bad poetry, some of it
worthy of a gonnagle in full battle mode). By 1875 cables linked not
only Europe and America, but also India, China, Japan, South America
and even Australia. First on the mass telegraphy bandwagon were the
businessmen - since ordinary folk were rarely able to afford to send
messages - but as prices came down and popularity rose, the network
grew and grew until 20,000 towns and villages were, yes, "on-line".
And that many telegraph offices meant scores of thousands of
telegraph operators, with their own new social world. Because the
most important part of telegraphy in operator terms was the speed of
transmission, and because women excelled at this sort of handwork,
the new industry rapidly became an equal-opportunity employer; and
because operators could recognise other operators by the style of
their Morse code (as unique, apparently, as the sound of individual
voices!), a new era of love letters and on-line romance was born.
Also, each operator had a two-letter "sig" based on his or her
initials - although operators often developed close friendships
over the wire without knowing each other's gender. Of course, just
as happens today, some loving couple broke up in a hurry once they
set eyes on each other in the real world! There was even a popular
novel - Wired Love: a Romance of Dots and Dashes, by Ella Cheever
Thayer, published in 1879 - that was set around an on-line
In one famous case, the telegraph operator at an Army base in
Arizona was unable to get leave to attend his own wedding in
California, so he invited his fiancee to the camp and they were then
married by their chosen minister, who was 650 miles away. The
manager of the California and Arizona lines arranged for all of them
to be cleared so that the marriage could go ahead smoothly, and
invited all operators along the line to "attend" the wedding. At
the appropriate time, the couple tapped out "I do" in Morse code.
For years afterwards, the groom would be greeted by strangers who
turned out to be operators who'd been present at his wedding.
Some operators would deliberately corrupt the code by one or two
numbers so that no-one else could understand their messages, and
some hotshot operators would hijack a particular wire for their own
exclusive use; their employers, when they found out, would "snatch"
those operators away to another office as punishment.
During quiet times and after business hours, operators on-line would
break out the IMs and chatrooms. According to a contemporary account,
"Stories are told, opinions exchanged, and laughs enjoyed, just as
if the participants were sitting together at a club." One after-hours
"meeting" was shared by hundreds of telegraph employees in 33
offices along a 700-mile "wire". Some of these "tales of the wires"
would be reported in newspapers - but the inventor Thomas Edison
noted that far more went unpublished because they were too rude or
sexually explicit. The more things change, eh? Bored or lonely
operators would play draughts (checkers) on-line. Even the so-called
modern phenomenon of the socially awkward "internet nerd" dates back
to those days: telegraphers in remote outposts often preferred
on-line chat to socialising in real life with the locals.
With the coming of the twentieth century and of the telephone, the
golden age of telegraphy wound down toward a close, but it had given
birth to patterns of long-distance commerce and social life that are
part of our everyday life more than 100 years on.
(Source: The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage)
copyright 1998, the Guernsey Press
Many thanks to Neil "Ridcully" for pointing out this fascinating
book to me!
If you did not get all 3 parts, write: jschaum111@...
Copyright 2006 by Klatchian Foreign Legion
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