The First Internet: How the Victorians wired the world

Posted on by Mike Evans

The World-Wide Web has been with us for little more than 20 years, with the enabling internet existing for just a few years longer. Yet the WWW has fundamentally changed the face of the world. It is now difficult to imagine life without the instant communications and the flow of information that we take for granted. Together with the cellular phone, which predates the world-wide web by only ten years, the web now keeps us in touch wherever we happen to be. We are, though, in the early stages of realising the potential of the internet, both for good and evil.

Anyone living in 1857 would have held a similar retrospective view of the telegraph. The telegraph was the world's first internet and it had far more impact than we can imagine. It was every bit as revolutionary as the world-wide web, perhaps more so since it speeded communication from ten or twenty miles an hour to the instantaneous. By comparison, the internet is just the icing on the cake. Until Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the fastest means of communication was the railway and then only for the previous ten years. Before that it was the horse, just as it had been in the Roman Empire and earlier.

Inter-continental communication

Yet within 20 years the telegraph had spread throughout the major industrial countries to provide instant communication across land masses. Soon after that the transatlantic cable heralded the first steps towards inter-continental communication and, within a few more years the British, in particular, had woven together at enormous cost a physical internet to span the world. 

In the garden of this riverside house in Hammersmith, West London, the world's first telegraph, using eight miles of cable encased in glass insulation, was constructed by Sir Francis Ronalds in 1816.

If we look on the telegraph system as the first internet, the telephone, which followed in 1876, can be thought of as first means of instant communication for the masses. The telegraph, because of the need for coding and an intermediate operator, was the preserve of the specialist, just as computers were before 1970. 

The telegram, the public incarnation of the telegraph, was a service rather than a personal means of communication. However, with the advent of the telephone we could communicate directly, just as we can these days with our cell phones and chat applications.

Hammersmith, 1816

For the origins of modern electronic communication we need to go back almost 200 years. In 1816, Sir Francis Ronalds constructed the first working telegraph in the garden of his riverside home in Hammersmith, West London.

I pass this house, now the home of the William Morris Society, almost every day.  Ronalds laid eight miles of cable, with glass insulation, in an elaborate criss-cross fashion around the garden. In doing so he proved that long-distance electronic communication was possible.

Ronalds saw the potential, unlike John Barrow who, as secretary to the Admiralty, wrote that "telegraphs of any kind are now [after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars] totally unnecessary, and that no other than the one now in use [a semaphore telegraph] will be adopted".

Ronalds didn't patent his invention and it was left to Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke to popularise the innovation some twenty years later. It amuses me to think that the story of world-wide communications started in this quiet garden in Hammersmith, next to the Dove public house which was already ancient when Ronalds constructed his telegraph. Every time I pass its gate I tip my hat to the true father of instant long-distance communication.

You will find the Ronalds house, birthplace of electronic communication, cheek by jowl with the ancient Dove public house and the Doves Press (the far building) where Lower Mall meets Upper Mall in Hammersmith. The Dove itself has been owned by local Chiswick brewery, Fullers, since 1776. It was here that James Thomson composed the lyrics of Rule Britannia and where Charles II entertained Nell Gwynne in the 17th century. (Photo Mike Evans)

See also my article on the nearby Doves Press and the drowning of a typeface. The Ronalds house, The Dove and the Doves Press are all clustered together at the narrow conjunction of Hammersmith Upper and Lower Mall in West London. The nearest stations are Hammersmith (District, Piccadilly, Hammersmith & City Lines) or Ravenscourt Park on the District Line.

My thanks to Justin Blanton of for linking me to the YouTube video at the head of this article and prompting my thoughts on communications over the past 200 years.

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In the Prime of Life: Why does Amazon keep hassling me?

Posted on by Mike Evans

I used to think Amazon Prime was a brilliant idea: Under £50 a year for free shipping and a bit of preferential treatment. Then it went up to £79 and, in recompense, I was given "Prime Instant Video", which I didn't want, and the ability of borrow Kindle books, which I don't use. Trouble is, Amazon doesn't believe I don't need these goodies and persists in assuming that because I don't use them I don't know about them. Mad old me.

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BTS: Big Thumb Syndrome to strike in the New Year

Posted on by Mike Evans

Are you suffering from BTS? If you regularly use your thumbs for typing on the iPhone (who doesn't?) you'd better watch out. Big Thumb Syndrome could be about to strike. The humble thumb has always been a pretty useful digit but it has assumed a major rôle in our lives since the advent of the virtual smartphone keyboard. So much so, in fact, that the bit of our brain that overlords the thumbs in growing. The delightfully named Dr. Ghosh at the University of Zurich says so: "The digital technology we use on a daily basis shapes the sensory processing in our brains."

It's the somatosensory cortex he's talking about here. It's just plain getting bigger. And who's to say that our thumbs won't start to balloon in size as they become more central to our daily communications. This phenomenon is likely to be called Big Thumb Syndrome, so hold off buying those winter gloves, you might need a size larger.

Thumbs are just the start, read more here

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Apple Watch: Extraordinary sense of taste and balance

Posted on by Mike Evans

Photo: Apple

Photo: Apple

The past year has been awash with smart watches yet none has captured the public's imagination. How many smart watches have you seen being worn in the wild?

All this is about to change, according to John Martellaro, writing for The Mac Observer. Referring to an incisive article by Mark Hibben at Seeking Alpha, Martellaro says that the forthcoming Apple Watch will so change people's lives that no other device on the wrist will do, and that will bring incredible success:

In addition to the engineering resources Apple can bring to bear on a new product category is Apple's extraordinary sense of taste and balance. In the case of the Apple Watch, its inner technical workings, which we'll get very excited about, are wrapped in a fashionable design. That leads to a corresponding physical affection for the device that leverages the technology.

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Meet Mr. Gadd, 83, of Fontwell Magna in Dorset

Posted on by Mike Evans

"Meet Mr. John Gadd, 83, of Fontmell Magna in Great Britain. He keeps a diary. He keeps the most incredible diary I have ever heard of. It is huge,  as in 21,000 pages, filling 151 volumes, and also contains some 33,000 photos and ephemera. The diary dates back 66 years to 1947 and contains some four million pages."

These words are written by Nifty the Notebook Addict who writes a fascinating blog about notebooks and all things scribbly. I never cease to be amazed at the quality and quantity of esoteric information that comes into my inbox every day. While the established print media disappears inexorably behind its self-defeating paywalls, hundreds of thousands of individuals throughout the world now have their own voice. And, in the main, they write more interesting stuff than the paid hacks of the press ever did.

The Parker 51 had a hooded nib which was relatively stiff but wonderfully smooth, quite unlike most fountain pens we are used to. This vintage Parker from  is similar to mine except that mine has a brushed aluminium cap, a sign of the basic model, which I much prefer

The Parker 51 had a hooded nib which was relatively stiff but wonderfully smooth, quite unlike most fountain pens we are used to. This vintage Parker from is similar to mine except that mine has a brushed aluminium cap, a sign of the basic model, which I much prefer

Nifty's notebook blog strikes a chord with me. I subscribe to several other similar sites because I have always had an interest in journals, notebooks, pens, pencils and stationery in general. In my younger years I could spend hours in stationery shops, back in the days when there was really interesting stuff around.

Nowadays everything is bubble packed and stripped to the minimum; gone are the tooled binders, boxes of carbon paper, gummed envelopes (heaven preserve us from self-adhesive envelopes that lose their stick after a month or two) and paperclips by weight.

Pens, in particular, have been a lifelong passion. In this I follow my grandfather, Harry Evans, who had a rare collection of fountain pens dating back to his earliest days at the beginning of the last century. They were all bequeathed to me, unfortunately at such an early age that I failed to appreciate them. For my part, my first real pen was a Parker 51, back in the 50s when this was the pen to be seen with. It cost me all of £6.30, or six guineas, at Boots The Chemist in the Manchester Stock Exchange building.

I don't know what happened to this paragon of penmanship but it obviously dropped off the perch somewhere along the line. It was replaced with a long succession of Watermen, Scheaffers, Pelikans and Montblancs; but no pen ever provided the sense of satisfaction I derived from the Parker.

Miraculously, only last weekend, I found an exact replica of my old Parker at The Penman in the Portobello Road market. It is reconditioned expertly and writes like a dream; but it cost 13 times more than I paid for the original all those years ago. Of course, six guineas was two weeks' wages in those days, a quite enormous sum to spend on a pen. Now, £80 is almost petty cash. Were it still made, the 51 would probably be priced north of £300.

As a result of this surprise purchase I have made a resolution to write a page of notes every day, just to keep my calligraphy skills in harness. If you don't use it, you lose it: And this applies to handwriting as well as any other skill. Reliance on keyboards means that eventually none of us will be able to write fluently, Parker 51 or no.

I'm grateful to Nifty for reminding me of this. Mind you, I have a long way to go before I fill 21,000 pages with notes. Sad to say, my daily journal is kept in the Cloud via the estimable Day One app. I confess that, unlike the single-minded Mr. Gadd of Fontwell Magna, I have never managed to keep a handwritten journal going for more than a week or so. But with Day One I am now nearing four years of doings, all without missing a day. Sometimes technology helps; it's just that it's nice to have the best of both worlds. Welcome back, dear Mr. Parker 51, the best pen ever made.

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Landline: Is it time to bury that clunky old phone?

Posted on by Mike Evans

These days I seldom use the landline phone at my home and, perhaps in sympathy, it seldom rings to disturb my peace and quiet. Twenty years ago I had persuaded myself I needed four lines: Two for voice, one for the fax machine (what's that?) and one for the dial-up modem. This was the last word in modernity in 1995. It turned out to be the apogee of the landline and it has been downhill ever since.

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Mac Security: Making life harder for those with evil intent

Posted on by Mike Evans

It is nearly ten years since I abandoned Windows and bought my first Mac. Better security that came with Apple's computers was one of the most compelling reasons for the change and I took some comfort in the fact that in 2005 Macs were still a niche product. There were so few of them out there, relatively speaking, that most of us believed hackers and malware artists were less likely to target us rather than the soft underbelly of the PC world. This could have been so But, even then, OS X was inherently more secure, requiring a password before the installation of any application for instance.

A lot has changed in those ten years. Mac sales are booming, there is no longer an "Apple premium" and Macs are now reasonably priced, albeit at the higher end of the market. With this success has come more danger as criminals find it lucrative to target OS X as well as Windows. Despite this, many Mac users still do not use virus-protection software because it is intrusive and can undoubtedly cause unpredictable problems.

That said, Mac users tend to be more technically aware and take other steps to operate in as safe an environment as possible. There are some things that every Mac user should do to protect themselves and their computer; they are simply implemented and should be high on everyone's list.

Topher Kessler, writing in Macworld, highlights four security options that we should all know and implement:

While OS X is relatively secure by default, there are some additional steps you can take to ensure the data on your Mac is only accessible by you, even if your Mac is stolen.....Overall, while Apple can do very little to prevent your computer from being stolen, OS X does its best to protect the data it holds as well as offers a chance that you can pinpoint its location. With these options enabled, you can be sure your Mac's data is as safe as possible, with little to no inconvenience for you

You can read the full article here. But Toby's four points are all absolutely essential to your computer's wellbeing and your protection from identity theft or worse:

  1. Enable the OS X firewall
  2. Enable FileVault
  3. Manage your passwords effectively and securely
  4. Lock your computer and enable Find My Mac

Most readers will already have taken these steps, as I have. In particular, FileVault, which encrypts your internal disk (or connected external disks) is an essential protection. It means that even if your computer is stolen and the disk removed for inspection (to circumvent the login lock), data cannot be viewed. I've been using FileVault for many years and have not had the slightest problem. It just works, silently and efficiently.

Similarly, password management is vital. I employ 1Password, as do most savvy Mac users. Not only does it encourage you to create really secure and unmemorable passwords, it manages the whole kit and caboodle brilliantly. All you need to unlock this potential is, as the name says, one password. This should be secure but something you can remember and it should under no circumstances be used elsewhere. 

In addition to Topher's four cardinal precautions, you need to be aware of the security risk that comes with using your Mac in public, particularly on free wifi networks. "Free" often means unmanaged and, if you leave the door of your computer ajar, nasty people could gain access to your data while you are sipping your latte. 

Christopher Breen addresses this problem in another Macworld article. He discusses ways to exclude intruders, particularly by turning off sharing that you might have enabled for a specific reason in the past, and the nuclear option of paying for a VPN (virtual private network) account.

These days, though, I tend not to use public wifi because of the various security scares. With fast 4G cellular networks available in larger cities, it now makes more sense to stick with your phone or iPad's mobile service and enable a hotspot to feed your Mac. In most cases, 4G is actually faster than most public wifi services. Christopher also recommends this and you can read all his advice here.

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Desktop Clutter: How Hazel can clean things up automatically

Posted on by Mike Evans

I've been using Hazel's automated features for years but I am the first to admit that I merely scratch the surface of this deeply capable application. So I was all eyes when I saw that Harry Guinness at Tutsplus has produced a detailed guide to getting Hazel to tidy up my the desktop of my Mac. As he says:

Hazel is a great app for automating file management in OS X. You can assign certain folders for Hazel to watch and then perform specific actions if the files within meet set criteria. Hazel can automatically put videos in the Movies folder and audio tracks in the Music folder. It can also, as you’ll see, do a whole lot more. In this tutorial I’ll demonstrate how to create the ultimate workflow for keeping a Mac clutter free—or at the very least, keeping the clutter organised—using Hazel and a dedicated Inbox.

Armed with Harry's step-by-step instructions I shall be commanding Hazel over the Christmas holidays and hope to start 2015 with a pristine, uncluttered desktop. I plan to make just one tweak to Harry's sage advice. Instead of putting the Inbox in my computer's user folder I will place it in Dropbox. I keep all my current data on Dropbox so that it is available wherever I am and on either of my two Macs (MacBook Pro and MacBook Air). 

Read the full guide to uncluttering your desktop here

If you are not already familiar with Hazel, try this guide first

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Soundbars: Readly leads me to the right choice

Posted on by Mike Evans

Last weekend the elderly Denon speaker system that has boosting the weedy sound of my television for the past eight years finally gave up the ghost. I had been meaning to replace it for some time but was stalled because of laziness and a lack of knowledge of what to replace it with. Apart from other considerations, the Denon's age meant that it lacked HDMI ports and the ability to work seamlessly with modern smart TVs.

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Apple's Genius: Comes top in consumer rights survey

Posted on by Mike Evans

A survey of tech retailers by British consumer-rights group Which? puts Apple on the top bar when it comes to knowledge and explanation of consumer legislation. Mystery shoppers got a satisfactory result from Apple Genius bars on nine out of twelve visits. And Apple managers scored a full ten out of ten for knowledge and helpfulness.

Other retailers, including Argos and Richer Sounds, scored poorly while Amazon was rated poor for telephone support from managers. 

Which? highlighted the fact that many retailers failed to explain the terms of the Sale of Goods Act which gives consumers the right to partial refunds or service for up to six years from the date of purchase. 

Read more here

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Cinema Display: When can we expect a 5K external display?

Posted on by Mike Evans

My 24in Apple Cinema Display is well past its sell-by date. It soldiers on, with no Thunderbolt port and old-fashioned USB 2 connectors, but I have long wanted to upgrade. The arrival of the 5K iMac looks like a good starting point for the development of a really scintillating 5K display to go with the new Mac Pro and with the range of Apple laptops. But, for very good technical reasons, such an external display is a long way away.

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Preparing your Mac for a serious bit of travel

Posted on by Mike Evans

We all have our own travel checklists and making sure my laptop is catered for always comes high on mine. Arriving in a strange country with no charger, for instance, is a major disaster unless you have an Apple store around the corner. But there are many other things you ought to do before travelling and Harry Guinness has produced a valuable Tuts+ tutorial on getting your laptop ready for the road. Here's just one thing most of us overlook:

If you’re away and the Mac goes missing—whether it’s been lost or stolen—you need to make it easy for anyone who finds it to contact you. One of the best ways to do it is to use a custom lock screen message. Anyone who opens the Mac will see it.

Read the full article here

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Size Matters: The incredible shrinking iPhone 6 Plus

Posted on by Mike Evans

You know what? My iPhone 6 Plus is shrinking. Every day it gets smaller and now it looks perfectly dinky in its dark grey silicone case. I have had it about my person for all of two months and the size shock has well and truly subsided. Like a pricked balloon. Instead, the 5.5in screen is the new norm. I've even compared it with friends' "small" iPhone 6 devices and, frankly, there isn't that much difference, certainly not enough to make me feel that the 6 is in any way superior.

And here's another thing. Despite also buying a full-size iPad Air 2 "for use around the home", I find it is the convenient iPhone 6 Plus that has become my default pick-up device. For instance, at first I would take the Air 2 up to bed so I could read a few chapters on that wonderful, large screen. Then I found myself preferring the 6 Plus. It is lighter and just so much easier to hold. I now invariably read books and news on the 6 Plus and do not miss the larger screen.


Reading magazines is certainly possible on the iPhone 6 Plus but more rewarding on an iPad. The long format of the iPhone screen is not ideal for publications such as this and results in wasted space top and bottom

Reading magazines is certainly possible on the iPhone 6 Plus but more rewarding on an iPad. The long format of the iPhone screen is not ideal for publications such as this and results in wasted space top and bottom

The only time when I feel it better to open the Air 2 is when viewing magazines in the Readly app. In order to get the best out of magazines, the larger screen of the Air 2 makes it possible to read a full page without feeling tempted to zoom in or, perhaps, split the page into two.

Admittedly, some popular applications, especially writing and productivity apps, do still work better on the iPad. In particular, there was initially a lack of support for landscape use in many products. Gradually, though, this impediment is being removed as more developers come to realise that the iPhone 6 Plus is nothing less than a small iPad. There will soon be no real difference between iPad and iPhone apps.


It isn't surprising to read that the new iPhones are beginning to cannibalise sales of iPads, especially the mini. Or that users are consuming more content on the new iPhones. Owners of the iPhone 6 now view content 72% of the time on the new device compared with only 55% of the time with the old 5 and 5S. And those fortunate individuals who chose the 6 Plus are happy to view content 80% of the time on the larger screen. I would say that these figures neatly mirror my own experience.

As I said, every day the iPhone 6 Plus appears more normal and less of an odd-ball. I am sure many people who felt the Plus was too big now realise it was a mistake to settle for the smaller iPhone 6. I have certainly not regretted opting for the Plus, despite a couple of minor quibbles.

Quibbles of the true addict

First, I am now less inclined to leave the 6 Plus in a pocket all the time, especially when around the house. The 5S was the perfect pocket size; the 6 Plus is just a tad long. This brings me to the second, connected quibble. Because the bigger phone is not always in my pocket it is easier to forget to pick it up when leaving home. This happened occasionally with the 5S but, invariably, I had always an iPad mini in my bag and could manage a day without the phone.

Now, because the 6 Plus combines the talents of both phone and tablet, I have occasionally found myself setting off with absolutely no way of keeping in touch. Call me an addict, but I cannot manage a day without electronic communications, especially now an Apple device of one sort or another represents my only access to books and news. I am seriously considering sticking a pay-as-you-go SIM card in my old 5S and then leaving the phone at the bottom of the bag for emergency duties.

Apple has never been afraid of cannibalisation and I imagine the evidence of iPhone 6 Plus sales harming iPad numbers is hardly causing a blip on Cupertino's radar. After all, the 6 Plus is more expensive than the Air 2 and, with the demise of the 32GB middle memory option, there has been a significant shift to 64GB, something that will benefit Apple's bottom line in a big way.

After two months living with the new iPhone, my advice is unequivocal: Get the iPhone 6 Plus if you possibly can.

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Amazon's Echo might just prove a winner

Posted on by Mike Evans


The new Echo cylindrical speaker from Amazon is a unique beast. Apart from usual the speaker rôle of playing music, the Echo incorporates a Siri-style intelligence. It responds to the "wake word" (another one for the Oxford English Dictionary next time round) which is "Alexa", not to be confused with "Siri". 

Alexa listens for your every utterance and attempts to answer all your desires, including the usual Siri-style information but also ready to add items to your shopping list and other useful tasks. Echo is being launched in the USA and potential buyer can request an invitation that will allow them to buy the speaker for $199 when it is available in the next few weeks. Prime members can snap it up for only $99 for a limited time. 

Echo sounds like an interesting concept. Unlike the phone flop, Amazon could have a winner on its hands this time. When it gets to the UK I could be tempted.

Read more here

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