Can the telegraph teach us anything about the future of software?

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage tells the fascinating story of how the telegraph came about, changed the world, then disappeared.

The telegraph revolutionized communication, bringing down message exchange times from days, sometimes months, to mere minutes. It enabled new kinds of businesses and scams. It connected lovers and changed the outcome of wars. With the telegraph came the telegraphers, the people operating the networks.

It is the story of the telegraph operators that I found particularly interesting because it contains a powerful lesson for those of us working in tech in the present day.

The rise of the telegraph

The first telegraph line, the now famous Washington, D.C., to Baltimore line, was built in 1843. From there, it spawned a network that, in a few decades, spanned across the continents. Such a vast network needed people to run. A new class of workers emerged: Telegraph operators.

Crucial to the working of what quickly became a fundamental technology for business and private communication alike, telegraph operators were skilled, respected, and well paid. To work as an operator was more than to have a job, it was to be part of a community of people, connected and connecting through electrical impulses. “It didn’t matter who you were,” writes Standage, “as long as you could send and receive messages quickly.”

Modern day telegraphers

As I read the book, I couldn’t help drawing parallels between Victorian telegraph operators and modern-day software developers.

Like telegraph operators, software developers are well paid and respected. Some programming languages and tools have strong communities around them, most of which are friendly and welcoming.

In the 1850s and 60s, there was a seemingly insatiable demand for communication, and operators could get a job anywhere along the expanding network. Some became wandering workers, moving from node to node, the great-great-grandparents of today’s digital nomads.

Where Victorian businesses were hungry for faster communication, today’s businesses necessitate ever more refined software products and support. As such, developers enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, with the confidence that, no matter the fate of their current employer, they’ll always land on their feet and find work.

There’s a certain hubris that comes along with having a well-paid, secure, and trendy job. It’s easy to become complacent and imagine things will always be the same. I wonder how many telegraph operators felt confident about the prospect of a long career in the industry.

Alas, we know the age of the telegraph was brief.

The fall of the telegraph

As telegraphy grew in popularity and the demand for high throughput increased, inventors devised automatic telegraphing machines that were faster than humans and could be used by unskilled operators.

The final blow came by the hand of a new technology, built by pairing the existing telegraph lines with the “right sort of electrical trickery” to transmit not sequences of dots and dashes, but voice: The telephone.

The heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker was over; telegraphers’ brief tenure as members of an elite community with mastery over a miraculous, cutting-edge technology had come to an end.

– Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet

Operators were instrumental in the establishment and flourishing of the telegraph network. The very same network that carried the telephone signals which made them redundant.

The future of software developers

The rise and fall of telegraph operators should be a cautionary tale for us software developers.

It’s tempting to think our time will last forever. After all, software has been eating the world for quite some time without showing any sign of slowing down. But if the history of technology teaches us anything, is that there’s always a new innovation around the corner.

I don’t think there’s any cause for alarm just yet. But that’s the thing: One never knows when the next revolution will occur.

In fact, could it have begun already?

It’s never been easier to create a website, be it a personal landing page or e-commerce. No-code platforms make building non-trivial apps as simple as dragging and dropping boxes and arrows. GitHub offers an “AI pair programmer”. It might not be that good right now, but if there’s one thing we know about single-purpose AIs, it is that they improve, fast.

There could be a day when coding proficiency is as much a given as literacy and numeracy are today. Everyone might easily build the things we software developers are paid to do right now, and only a relatively small number of people will work on highly advanced software applications.

The software bonanza might not last forever. What’s your plan B?


Cover image is a remix by the author of “Telegraph Road” by SFB579 Namaste.

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