Many of our current innovations in communication now sacrosanct to mobile professionals—the laptop and, most importantly, access to the Internet— arguably have extended rather than replaced the Victorian invention of the Penny Post by inviting in an even wider range of readers, writers, and speakers. The telegraph and telephone swiftly followed the Penny Post, illustrating how new inventions often stand alongside and, in time, gain precedence over what we come to see as old-fashioned or commonplace. Most sizeable English towns offered electric telegraph service by 1857, and the Post Office incorporated the telegraph in 1869. Noting parallels between the telegraph and the Internet, Tom Standage advances in The Victorian Internet that during Queen Victoria's reign, long before the advent of our information superhighway, the telegraph was dubbed the "highway of thought because it allowed people to transmit messages from one telegraphic apparatus to another almost instantly across countries, continents, and oceans. The paths e-mail messages take in traveling through cyberspace from mail server to mail server recall the journeys of telegraph messages that operators spelled out in Morse code along wires from telegraph to telegraph. As Standage observes, "Although it has now faded from view, the telegraph lives on within communications technologies that have subsequently built upon its foundations: the telephone, the fax machine, and, more recently, the Internet. And, ironically, it is the Internet—despite being considered as a quintessentially modern means of communication—that has the most in common with its telegraphic ancestor" (205).

While Standage singles out the telegraph as the predecessor of cutting-edge online technology, calling it the Victorian forerunner of the Internet and the "mother of all networks," arguably the latter epithet belongs to an even earlier information network—the Penny Post. While today we occupy a world of global communications, an electronic frontier populated by "virtual communities," the Penny Post—empowered by Ralph Allen's organized system of cross posts (1720), John Palmer's mail coaches (1784), and nationwide railway service (c. 1847)—is the engine that first made it possible to stay connected with family and friends despite their travels and emigrations. The formation of the World Postal Union in 1874, an outcome of the International Postal Congress held in Bern, Switzerland, that same year, led to a postal network that overcame national boundaries in enabling the British to correspond with most of Europe, Turkey, Egypt, and the United States for a relatively uniform and cheap international rate. More countries swiftly joined this union, renamed the Universal Postal Union in 1878, which established a model for global communications—a hallmark of computer-mediated communication today. The Internet inherits from the Penny Post and the Universal Postal Union a model of opportunity: the chance to communicate with people living in other countries long before meeting them and to interact and conduct business virtually with people one may never meet in person.

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Last modified 7 June 2010