Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

"The Victorian Internet"

16 January 1999

The New York Times, January 16, 1999


The Granddaddies of All Hackers

Last month the United States and 32 other countries agreed to create new international controls on the export of data-scrambling hardware and software. Many nations fear that the most advanced scrambling, which makes it impossible for anyone without the key to decode the data, could thwart efforts by intelligence agencies to track terrorists. Though the issue is a product of the information age, battles over secret coding have far older precedents. Below are excerpts from "The Victorian Internet" (Walker & Company, 1998), by Tom Standage, in which he writes about what he calls the "19th-century precursor" to the Internet: the electric telegraph invented by Samuel Morse and Charles Wheatstone.

Cryptography -- tinkering with codes and ciphers -- was a common hobby among Victorian gentlemen. Wheatstone and his friend Charles Babbage, who is best known for his failed attempts to build a mechanical computer, were both keen crackers of codes and ciphers -- Victorian hackers, in effect. "Deciphering is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating of arts," Babbage wrote in his autobiography, "and I fear I have wasted upon it more time than it deserves."