Friday, December 12, 2008

Jules Verne and the Internet

I just read the intriguing short story "In the Year 2889," written by Jules Verne in 1891. It follows a day in the life of a news mogul 1000 years in Verne's future, and it sounds for all the world to me as if he's describing the World Wide Web...a hundred years before Al Gore invented it!

This is a lovely example of how a creative writer can take an infant technology or two (the phonograph had become publicly available really only in the previous year or so, the telephone had become available in only a few localities in the previous decade) and extrapolate some fantastically prescient uses.

Enjoy these excerpts or read the whole thing courtesy of Project Gutenberg):


Every one is familiar with Fritz Napoleon Smith's system--a system made
possible by the enormous development of telephony during the last
hundred years. Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every
morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with
reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.
Furthermore, each subscriber owns a phonograph, and to this instrument
he leaves the task of gathering the news whenever he happens not to be
in a mood to listen directly himself. As for purchasers of single
copies, they can at a very trifling cost learn all that is in the paper
of the day at any of the innumerable phonographs set up nearly
everywhere.

....

The first thing that Mr. Smith does is to
connect his phonotelephote, the wires of which communicate with his
Paris mansion. The telephote! Here is another of the great triumphs of
science in our time. The transmission of speech is an old story; the
transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires
is a thing but of yesterday. A valuable invention indeed, and Mr. Smith
this morning was not niggard of blessings for the inventor, when by its
aid he was able distinctly to see his wife notwithstanding the distance
that separated him from her.
.....

In one corner is a telephone, through which
a hundred Earth Chronicle _littérateurs_ in turn recount to the public
in daily installments a hundred novels.
......

Mr. Smith continues his round and enters the reporters' hall. Here 1500
reporters, in their respective places, facing an equal number of
telephones, are communicating to the subscribers the news of the world
as gathered during the night. The organization of this matchless service
has often been described. Besides his telephone, each reporter, as the
reader is aware, has in front of him a set of commutators, which enable
him to communicate with any desired telephotic line. Thus the
subscribers not only hear the news but see the occurrences. When an
incident is described that is already past, photographs of its main
features are transmitted with the narrative. And there is no confusion
withal. The reporters' items, just like the different stories and all
the other component parts of the journal, are classified automatically
according to an ingenious system, and reach the hearer in due
succession. Furthermore, the hearers are free to listen only to what
specially concerns them. They may at pleasure give attention to one
editor and refuse it to another.