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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