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The Victorian Internet

Samuel Morse: Inventor of the Victorian Internet

In the book “The Victorian Internet” the author, Tom Standage states that

“The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Its saga offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time.”

As we try to understand the potential of Business Networks, it is worth looking at this technology, and how it enabled the Modern World.

We all know that Samuel Morse invented the Telegraph and with it the need for his eponymous code. But Morse could have never foreseen the other business applications that would be built on his network, all of which are with us today.

  • Newspaper Wire Services
  • Wire Transfers
  • Stock Tickers
  • Futures Trading
  • Sears Roebuck and the Catalog
  • Railroads

The Network Effect of the telegraph was spectacular, for example look at the way the telegraph allowed Sears to offer products targeted at the newly connected rural areas, where people had few retail options and appreciated the convenience of being able to shop from their homes.

The company’s extensive catalogue would eventually became a fixture in American homes and changed the way people shopped. It also helped foster the growth of the mail-order industry worldwide.

My final example, Railroads, could never have been possible without the humble dots and dashes that allowed signalmen to control the points and switches. And the Railroads led to fundamental changes in commerce,  social patterns, leisure and warfare that it is impossible to imagine the twentieth century without them.

The Telegraph was a B2B revolution : consumers didn’t have one in their house, for example, and most people couldn’t speak the Code. The consumer revolution came with the telephone. However, even though they did not interact directly with Morse’s invention, the businesses that they used were transformed by it.

The internet is essentially the reverse story. Consumers have jumped in first with online shopping, banking, travel and media. Up until now businesses have been in the strange situation of having electronic commerce at their fingertips at home, but existing mainly in the Paper Age in the office.

My Mum is able to access integrated payments, logistics and supplier ratings for her purchase of gardening gloves on Amazon; but a plant manager at a $1Bn industrial facility is hunting down the provider of a crucial gasket with the phone, and approving service entry sheets on paper.

But now it is time for B2B. Just as the telephone followed the telegraph allowing consumers to use the network that had been first used by business, now the Networked Economy is following the Consumer Internet using the same wires. And since 80% of trade is essentially B2B, this will be a step change in the evolution of the Internet.

And just as Morse could never know all of the changes wrought by his telegraph: we don’t know all the other business that can be spawned by this Business Network revolution. But it will be equally transformative.

About the author
James Marland
Vice President of Network Strategy - Ariba (Twitter: @JamesMarland)

James is responsible for defining and rolling out strategies for the Network with particular focus on Europe. He joined Ariba at the launch of the Ariba Network in 1998 after previously being a Solution Consultant at SAP America. In addition he ha... Read More >>>


Rob Campbell

2013-01-27 09:06:40 Reply

good article. But I was hoping you would make some outrageous extrapolations at the end. ? anything

    James Marland

    2013-01-28 12:20:58 Reply

    How about this: the time taken to get from initial adoption to a true Business Network is compressing: Railroads were invented in 1820, but only got mass adoption about 60 years later. Telephones were invented in 1870s and got mass adoption in the 1930s. Credit cards took 30 years, the internet itself also about 20 years. My “outrageous extrapolation” is that from its birth in the late 1990s, the Business Network will get to mass adoption fastest of all.

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