Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century
Laura Otis
An interdisciplinary study that traces contemporary notions of "the web" to their origins long before the Internet came into being


This compelling new interdisciplinary study investigates the scientific and cultural roots of contemporary conceptions of the network, including computer information systems, the human nervous system, and communications technology. Laura Otis, neuroscientist, literary scholar, and recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, demonstrates that the image of the network is centuries old; it is by no means a modern notion. Placing current comparisons of nerve and computer networks in perspective, Otis explores early analogies linking nerves and telegraphs and demonstrates the influence that nineteenth-century neurobiologists, engineers, and fiction writers influenced each other's ideas about communication.

The interdisciplinary sweep of this book is impressive. Otis focuses simultaneously on literary works by such authors as George Eliot, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Mark Twain and on the scientific and technological achievements of such pioneers as Luigi Galvani, Hermann von Helmholtz, Charles Babbage, Samuel Morse, and Werner von Siemens.

This unique juxtaposition of physiology, engineering, and literature reveals the common thoughts shared by writers in widely diverse fields and suggests that our current comparisons of nerve and computer networks may not only enhance but shape our understanding of both neurobiology and technology.

Highly accessible and jargon-free, Networking will appeal to general readers as well as to scholars in the fields of interdisciplinary studies, nineteenth-century literature, and the history of science and technology.

Laura Otis is Associate Professor of English, Hofstra University. In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her interdisciplinary studies of literature and science. Her previous books include Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics and Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.

Praise / Awards

  • "No one concerned with the history of late nineteenth-century English and American literature should ignore this book. But what is remarkable, neither should the history of telegraphy. Certainly no student of George Eliot can afford to overlook Otis's pioneering work."
    —Anthony Hyman, Isis, December 2002

  • ". . . Otis offers a formidable account of the scientific and cultural forces behind nineteenth-century networks. Drawing on her scientific training and extensive research, Otis shows how the idea of the network invigorated writers, scientists, and engineers of the period, allowing them to visualize the workings of electromagnetics, neuroanatomy, telecommunications, mass transportation, and social relations."
    —Shawn Rosenheim, Williams College, Modernism/Modernity, Volume 10, No. 1

  • "Otis elegantly demonstrates the inextricable relationship of language and science and shows how literature can materially mediate that relationship—and, conversely, how language mediates the relationship between literature and science. Networking exemplifies the exciting kind of cultural analysis that interdisciplinary work in the sciences and humanities can produce. With this book, Otis offers at once a justification and a foundation for a literary and language-based approach to the study of science and culture."
    —Patricia Wald, Duke University, Perspectives in Biology & Medicine, Summer 2003

  • "In connecting physicists, neurobiologists, engineers, and novelists in a vital cultural network, Otis reveals how the metaphor of communication shaped nineteenth-century conceptions of bodies and machines."
    Victorian Studies

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Copyright © 2001, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 280pp.
  • 27 drawings.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11213-5

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  • $89.95 U.S.