Hansoms and Wires

I am reading the Sherlock Holmes novels on my Kindle, about 25 years after I have read them on paper.

The stories are still entertaining. Conan Doyle is a great story-teller, although he re-uses ideas 1:1 in different novels, and once you are used to the typical plots you are able to guess the outcome. He was particularly fascinated by the abnormal and bizarre – lots of crippled or deformed people there! But that’s a digression…

I planned to read a book not related to science and technology for the sake of distraction and light entertainment, but it has been a lesson in history of technology to me. The novels introduce you to the lifestyle of a Victorian Londoner, driving hansoms and communicating by wires.  Only the last novels were written after the telephone had been invented.

Here is the catch: Sherlock Holmes worked, communicated, researched and generally organized his life in a way we would call modern. That’s probably the reason why the Sherlock Holmes TV series  manages to preserve the spirit of the ancient novels though the story is transferred to the 21st century. Today Sherlock Holmes uses an iPhone and Watson blogs. But browsing real books instead of the internet and sending (a lot of!) telegrams instead of e-mails does not make much difference. I believe people back then were as overwhelmed or stressed out by written notes are we are by e-mail. Bertrand Russell’ autobiography gave me that impression as well: Those guys wrote tons of letters and networkers like Russell had to deal with a lot of letters.

The similarities strikes me odd: normally I belabor the over-accelerated lifestyle I feel forced to comply with. Maybe the generalization is not fully valid anyway: Sherlock Holmes’ wires might be similar to text messages and e-mails. But I feel that the literary value of the average e-mail is lower than the value of the average – Bertrand-Russell-style – letter written in the 1890s. Perhaps because writing letters was the occupation of an educated minority?

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