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Mark Twain, Father of the Internet

He saw it all clearly through his 'telelectroscope.'

By Crawford Kilian 8 Jan 2007 |

Crawford Kilian, a regular contributor to Tyee Books, uses his own telelectroscope, among other purposes, to track avian flu at his website.

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Twain: 'marvelous instrument'

Mark Twain died in 1910, a lifetime before the founding of ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet and the web. So that you could read this on The Tyee, hundreds of brilliant scientists and engineers worked for years to get the clanking, room-sized computers of the 1960s to communicate with one another. You've probably never heard of them: Vinton Cerf, J.C.R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, and Paul Baran, to name just a few. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, was a latecomer.

Yet I contend that Mark Twain (one of the great science-fiction writers of all time) first conceived the Internet. Like the wizards of the 1960s and '70s, his contribution has been forgotten. But like Arthur C. Clarke, who conceived the earth satellite and could have patented it, Twain understood the idea of the Internet before the scientists did. If anything, he leaped beyond the text-based Internet to the just-dawning world of video chat and vlogging (video blogging).

Surfing the telelectroscope

Even Twain scholars seem to have missed his foresight on this subject. I discovered it by accident, in browsing through the 24 volumes of his collected works in the "Author's National Edition." In an 1898 short story called "From the 'London Times' of 1904," he describes an invention called the "telelectroscope," a gadget hooked up to the phone system: "The improved 'limitless-distance' telephone was presently introduced, and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues."

The story itself revolves around the unjust conviction of an American army officer for the murder of Szczepanik, the inventor of the telelectroscope. On death row, the officer is allowed to use the invention. That narrator, who appears to be Mark Twain himself, is a friend who spends time with the doomed officer as he surfs around the world:

" by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people, and realized that by grace of this marvellous instrument he was almost as free as the birds of the air, although a prisoner under locks and bars.

"He seldom spoke, and I never interrupted him when he was absorbed in this amusement. I sat in his parlour and read and smoked, and the nights were very quiet and reposefully sociable, and I found them pleasant. Now and then I would hear him say, 'Give me Yedo[Tokyo]'; next, 'Give me Hong-Kong'; next, 'Give me Melbourne.' And I smoked on, and read in comfort, while he wandered about the remote under-world, where the sun was shining in the sky, and the people were at their daily work. Sometimes the talk that came from those far regions through the microphone attachment interested me, and I listened."

Story too forgettable

The actual story, alas, is pretty bad. Clayton, the condemned officer, is about to be executed, and Twain, remaining in his friend's cell, looks through the telectroscope at an event in Beijing (the coronation of the Czar as emperor of China). In the crowd he sees the inventor of the device, who hasn't been murdered at all. The narrator manages to stop the execution, and within minutes Szczepanik is conversing with his supposed murderer:

"A messenger carried word to Szczepanik in the pavilion, and one could see the distressed amazement dawn in his face as he listened to the tale. Then he came on to his end of the line, and talked with Clayton and the governor and the others; and the wife poured out her gratitude upon him for saving her husband's life, and in her deep thankfulness she kissed him at twelve thousand miles' range."

Twain then describes how "for many hours the kings and queens of many realms (with here and there a reporter) talked with Szczepanik, and praised him; and the few scientific societies which had not already made him an honorary member conferred that grace upon him."

The story then degenerates into a second part about whether Clayton can be pardoned for a crime he didn't commit. (You can read it here.) It is all very melodramatic, but Twain clearly understood the basic concept of the Internet: effortless world travel through an electronic medium. Just past the centenary of his imagined "telelectroscope," we who surf the web should pause to thank America's greatest author -- a man ahead of his time in more ways than one.