Technology's Role In Romance Dates To The Telegraph

Modern technology has enabled people to find love without the old fashioned rituals like meeting in person or talking on the phone. And the anonymity of social networks has also opened up opportunities for fraudsters and fakes. The movie and TV show Catfish have told versions of this story. But when tech journalist Clive Thompson recently rediscovered a novel from 1879, he found that people have been finding love and anonymity through technology at least as far back as the telegraph.

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATFISH")

NEV: A couple of years ago, I fell in love online. Turns out my crush wasn't who I thought she was. I was heartbroken.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The MTV show "Catfish" looks into the anonymous world of online dating. It's a phenomenon in the news this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Straight ahead, navigating the world of online dating. How to avoid getting hooked through a hoax.

LYDEN: Remember the drama involving Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o? His online girlfriend he had never met, and who never actually existed?

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOWS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...being duped into dating a fake online woman...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: So this is in uncharted territory, really.

LYDEN: Uncharted territory, or maybe not. Clive Thompson, a tech journalist, recently rediscovered a novel about anonymous online dating, only it was published in 1879, when being online meant the telegraph.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEGRAPH)

LYDEN: Instead of text messages and tweets, the language of the day was Morse code. And the book was called "Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes" written by one Ella Cheever Thayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: It's about a telegraph operator named Nattie who escapes the dull life in her dingy office with an online romance with her anonymous suitor. But is he all that he appears? Is he even really a he? Don't worry, we won't give away the ending. But the novelist was drawing from her very own real experience as a telegraph operator.

So we did a little digging in the archives this week and found a newspaper headline from 1891: "Cupid Among the Wires. How the telegraph operators make love to each other."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) There are numerous cases on record where the contracting parties have passed through all the symptoms of love right up to the altar without having seen each other or been in each other's society in a parlor to any extent worth speaking of.

LYDEN: So, yeah, we might not spend all that much time in the parlor anymore. Maybe some things have changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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