Mark Twain, Father of the Internet

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.” —Crawford KillianMark Twain, Father of the Internet (Tyee)

I enjoy teaching Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) each year, but I hadn’t heard of Mark Twain’s story, “From the ‘London Times’ of 1904.”

Killian concludes:

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.

The story is not a particularly good technological thriller, yet the story seems to be as much about Dreyfuss Affair as it is about the telelectroscope. Given that context, I think the story is worth a closer look.

The 1954 American Quarterly article “Mark Twain and the Austrian Edison” refers to Twain’s interest in Jan Szczepanik. Szczepanik, the inventor whose death is blamed on the innocent Clayton, is not merely a character on Twain’s story, but an historical figure, among whose many inventions was a forerunner of the television called the telelectroscope.

The term telelectroscope predated both Szczepanik’s invention and Mark Twain’s story. Twain himself was an early adopter of technology, perhaps most notably the typewriter; to him, an inventor was a “poet in steel.” Yet, cynical as always, in this story he demonstrates that the wonders of technology do not change human nature. As new types of evidence emerge, twisted human nature will continue to distort reason in the service of old prejudices. The crime story exists merely to set up this political statement, on a topic of great concern to literary figures and intellectuals at the time.

If I had the time, I might also investigate what Twain was talking about when he mentioned a “new paragraph added to the Constitution in 1899.” Was that just a plot device to get around the double-jeopardy rule in the US legal system, or would the original audience have recognized it as a reference to something that was being debated at the time, just as the original audience would have understood the “French precedent” to be a reference to the Dreyfus affair?