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 (though he re-uses ideas in 1:1 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 after all 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 wired telegrams.  Only the last novels had been written after the telephone has been invented.

And here is the catch: Sherlock Holmes has worked, communicated, researched and generally organized his life in a way we would call modern. That’s probably also 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 of a difference. I believe people back then were as overwhelmed or stressed 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 him had to deal with a lot of letters.

The similarities strikes me odd as normally I rather belabor the over-accelerated lifestyle I feel / felt forced to comply with. But the generalization is not fully valid any way: 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. Was this only due to the fact that perhaps writing letters was the occupation of an educated minority?

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