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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 Hypertext.net 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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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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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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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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Phone is just an app which is not frequently used

Posted on by Mike Evans

I am fully with Horace Dediu on this:

Phone is just an app which, for me at least, is not frequently used. I communicate with my iPhone but the go-to app is iMessage or FaceTime or Skype or maybe Email or Twitter. Phone is something I use so rarely that the interface sometimes baffles me. And yes, it’s an Internet appliance. Browsing is something I do quite a bit but many of the browsing jobs-to-be-done are done better by apps. News, shopping Facebook and maps are “things which were once done in a browser."

He makes the point that when Steve Jobs launched the iPhone he described it as a combination of a wide-screen iPod, a phone and a breakthrough internet connector. These three things, says Dediu, are no longer the most used features.

Similarly, the Apple Watch was launched as a precise timepiece, a new, intimate way to communicate and a comprehensive health and fitness device. But it will develop over the coming years and who is to say what its most useful features will be seven years hence?

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iPhone 6 Plus: Is this the the end of carrying around two devices?

Posted on by Mike Evans

There's only one snag to carrying just one communications device. Occasionally I leave home without my iPhone and only realise when I've gone too far to make it reasonable to return. Now, of course, I can turn to the iPad which can do everything the iPhone can do except make cellular calls.

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John Gruber on the big-ass iPhone and the wrist wearable thingie

Posted on by Mike Evans

John Gruber of Daring Fireball has a clearish view on the new iPhone 6 and the wrist wearable thing:

I don’t know if it’s a watch. But as we get closer, everyone is saying it’s a watch. So for the sake of clarity I’ll call it a watch here, but I want my Being Right Points if it winds up being something that goes on your wrist but isn’t a watch.

If it has a screen, I’ll bet it’s square. And if it’s square, 320 × 320 pixels sounds about right to me. But here’s the thing I don’t understand: LCD screens are power-hungry. Watch batteries are necessarily tiny. I don’t see how a watch with a 320 × 320 display could get acceptable battery life, unless the screen is almost never on. And if the screen is almost never on, how is it a watch?

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iPhone 6 Plus: Huge phones are no longer ridiculous

Posted on by Mike Evans

Marco Arment today:

People holding Galaxy Notes up to their faces to make phone calls looked ridiculous in 2011. Today, making a phone call in public on a huge phone is commonplace, and how often do you make phone calls in public anymore? We also thought it was ridiculous to hold up an iPad to take a picture — a brand new phenomenon in late 2011, as the first iPad with a camera was released only six months earlier — but that has also since become ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Read the full story here

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iWatch: The next big thing is coming

Posted on by Mike Evans

A few hours from now we will be introduced to the iWatch and I do not expect to be disappointed. Apple has put so much into this project. It has recruited experts from the luxury watch and luxury good markets and already knows more about what is necessary to succeed than any other manufacture.

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A sort of complete guide to the iPhone 6 and other new toys

Posted on by Mike Evans

September has arrived and in the world of Apple that can only mean one thing, the new iPhone is due to turn up. Not to mention a plethora of other devices and software updates; as we lead up to the holiday season September is undoubtedly Apple’s action packed month. This is by no means a detailed run down of iPhone 6 rumours, but it is aimed at giving a picture of what to expect.

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Apple to enter the lucrative mobile payments field on Tuesday

Posted on by Mike Evans

Tuesday's Apple conference in Cupertino is expected to be the platform for the launch of a new mobile payments system that could be another huge success for the company. Bloomberg reports that Apple has teamed up with Visa, MasterCard and American Express for the new iPhone Wallet system. The new iPhone 6 will incude an NFC (near-field communication) chip for the first time and this will open the floodgates for a major leap in popularity of paying by phone. Along with Touch ID, which already unlocks a phone in seconds and will be extended to many apps under iOS 8, the iPhone will become the most convenient way to pay for a wide range of goods and services. 

Ben Barjarin of Creative Strategies in San Jose is quoted:

Love it or hate, Apple drives a lot of standards in the industry,” Bajarin said in an interview. “They are the mover in these markets. When they do something, the industry seems to follow.

Apple already holds credit card details for over 800 million iTunes accounts and this puts the company in pole position to develop a mobile payments system with immense potential.

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Dyson's new robot vacuum cleaner looks like it means business

Posted on by Mike Evans

I have not been impressed by the concept of robot vacuum cleaners so far. They just don't look right. Perhaps I'm biased (I freely admit to an irrational fetish for Dysons) but the new Dyson 360 Eye does look the business. If it works as well as my Dyson Animal DC59  then I definitely see one of these on the horizon. If it can be controlled from Starbucks via my iPhone I shall be in seventh heaven. Imagine. No more housework.

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Swizerland in deep doodoo as Sir Jony polishes his designer iWatch

Posted on by Mike Evans

Apple design supremo, Jony Ive, is reported to have suggested that Switzerland and its watch industry could be in deep mire when Apple finally announces the iWatch (or whatever it is to be called). Hyperbole? Probably. But even if he was jesting there's a grain of truth in the statement. I am a typical customer for Swiss watches: I love the mechanical perfection and the hewn-from-solid appearance of my IWC Fliegerchronograph. I would be reluctant to swap it for a jony-come-lately from Cupertino. But....

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