One of the more curious aspects of communications technology is how the 21st and 19th centuries in many ways share much more in common with each other than either does with the 20th century. Consider that the 19th century predilection to send notes and letters through the mail for same-day delivery (yes, people in major cities got mail multiple times a day back then!) shares more in common with our emails and texts than either does with a telephone call. Even the telegraph bears an eerie kinship with our modern Internet, certainly more so than either does to the telephone.
Sound weird? Click here and read and gaze at printing telegraphs; someone who spends his days tweeting or texting would find the concept and user interface much more familiar than a telephone. These were the machines that were associated with ticker tape. Indeed, it’s kinda weird that in the 19th century homes didn’t have telegraph lines hooked up to printers and typewriters, so people could send and receive messages in real time with any number of people anywhere in the world.
Perhaps the concept is much more obvious in hindsight, but I honestly suspect the only barrier was a lack of computers; rather conveniently, Charles Babbage was working on just that problem around the time the telegraph was proliferating, but his vision for analog computing never came to fruition. The original steampunk scenario is what if it had, and a computing revolution had been unleashed a century early?
That would have made home telegraphy much more convenient to use and cheaper to acquire, and we may well have segued directly from a world where people send letters to a world where people send texts, without any telephonic stage in between. The telegraph would have literally become a Victorian Internet; seriously, it is technically possible to send even our modern Internet signals over a telegraph line, albeit at a speed that makes 56k look lightning-fast by comparison.
A Victorian Usenet?
So text is about all you could send; nevertheless, text-only was enough to support Usenet, and a service like Twitter (albeit without flashy graphics) should be viable. That’s more than enough to unlock the Internet Reformation, the computer revolution, web culture, and all that good stuff we take for granted today, but over a century earlier.
Though it’s worth noting images can also be transmitted over such a network, albeit not in the seamless way we view them today; they would take a long time to load. In real life the first commercial fax services date to 1865, before the telephone! They were done over telegraph lines. Audio of course can be transmitted over the telegraph; that’s what the telephone does. At least early versions of these technologies were available by 1880 in real life.
If such a Victorian Usenet was the primary communications medium, though, it’s possible that the focus of innovation might be in improving the speed of this network. In particular I’m wondering about developments in analog computing technology, about when the transition to digital computing might take place, about how fast these copper wires can be made, and especially about the possibilities of radio once that becomes a thing by the 20th century.
Mobile Internet: actually faster in this Timeline?
I’m no expert, but it seems to me wireless radio transmission might actually be faster than a wired copper line if you already have relatively advanced computers to transmit and receive the signals. After all, in the 1900s fiber optics are a long way off. So there could be a mass shift to mobile Internet during this period, which would lead to a quantum leap in speeds, perhaps enabling greater quantities of data to be sent, such as more images and audio.
The earliest cars might incorporate computers in them that connect to these mobile networks. Would be so weird if there was a huge group of people driving electric cars (which were popular in real life in the early 20th century!) that were computerized, like Tesla Motors a century earlier. Would be even cooler if Nikola Tesla himself were running it, instead of some guy who used him as a namesake; he was involved in the electricity scene, so I wouldn’t count out the possibility of a real Tesla Motors in such a timeline. Wild.
If everyone already has these computers everywhere then radio and television become a matter of streaming audio and audiovisual feeds over the Internet, which is a matter of Internet speed and the state of audio and visual capture technology. Considering that television was a thing by the 1930s in real life, surely with computers the rise of television would have occurred even earlier.
Segueing from the 19th to the 21st Centuries
Keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that the one-to-many mass-media model that dominated the 20th century never exists in such a timeline; rather it would be the many-to-many peer-to-peer model of user-generated content familiar to us today.
For extra bonus points in such a timeline a host of advanced technologies could have advanced much faster, like in my alternate-history space-opera setting, skipping over a century’s worth of technology in a couple decades. For instance, with various fortuitous developments, including the lack of World Wars, it’s feasible to have flying-wing passenger jetliners dominate the skies by 1940 and a manned moon landing by 1950, with even more advances in the second half of the 20th century.
The multipolar world order familiar to us in the 21st century was very much present in the 19th century, and without the World Wars would almost certainly have continued through the 20th century, rather than devolving into a bipolar and finally unipolar world order. Ditto for the great-power conflict not being particularly ideological in character.
Even the way we increasingly work today and in the near future, a predominately contingent workforce where people work flexibly and independently for a variety of clients who pay them cash and have no say in their personal lives has much more in common with the pre-Fordist model of the 19th century than the corporate paternalism that characterized the 20th century, which with the benefit of hindsight seems more like a bizarre aberration than a leap into the future of work. A Victorian Internet likely spawns a gig economy, sharing economy, and all that good stuff a century early, pre-empting this entire development.
That would be one interesting timeline: one where the Victorian era smoothly segues into the networked high-tech computerized world of the present day and near future, without that awkward intermediate stage filled with so many dead ends and aberrations. For sure, that would be an interesting scenario and setting to explore. Maybe I will someday.