This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Ye Olde Trolling

An account of online trolling in the 1800s


Recently, while re­search­ing an on­go­ing project, I came across a fair­ly amus­ing ac­count laid down in the an­nals of ob­scure gam­ing his­to­ry. It’s an ear­ly ac­count of mul­ti­play­er gam­ing tak­ing place across an elec­tron­ic net­work. It also de­picts a pos­si­ble ac­count of 19th cen­tu­ry trolling.

It came as a slight sur­prise that, as ear­ly as the 1870s, tele­graph op­er­a­tors were play­ing games over the es­tab­lished net­works. One such ac­count is de­pict­ed in Sam Johnson: The Experience and Observations of a Railroad Telegraph Operator, a book by John Albert Clippinger that was pub­lished in 1878. The book is a col­lec­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences from rail­road tele­graph op­er­a­tor Sam Johnson. One of Sam’s mem­o­ries was of play­ing check­ers over the tele­graph wire on un­used chan­nels with an­oth­er tele­graph of­fice op­er­a­tor in the overnight hours.

BidwellRailroadOfficeThe modus operan­di was as follows:

Walt and Sam each had a checker­board, with spots num­bered from one to thirty-two. All the check­ers were placed on both [men’s] boards. If Walt want­ed to move from one to three, he would make the fig­ures on the [tele­graph] line ‘1 to 3,’ and make the move on his own board, and Sam would move the same men on his. When Sam played he would move his own men on his board, and Walt would make the same move on his. They played on a line that was not used at night and so they did not in­ter­fere with business”

Sounds pret­ty cool to me. It could be viewed as an ear­ly ex­am­ple of net­work mul­ti­play­er gam­ing. It seems that peo­ple will al­ways find ways to goof off at work! The ac­count goes on to say:

Now and then some op­er­a­tor who was lis­ten­ing in would make fig­ures [for a move], while Sam or Walt was wait­ing for the oth­er to move. But as these moves were al­ways ‘wide of the mark’ they caused no confusion.”

There you have a de­pic­tion of ole fash­ion troll at­tempts, ladies and gen­tle­man. Like most trolling ef­forts, these were pret­ty much in­ef­fec­tive. However, all it takes is the right sit­u­a­tion for trolling to ac­tu­al­ly get the best of even the most ra­tio­nal folks.

People start­ed to gath­er at the re­spec­tive tele­graph of­fices of Sam and Walt as word spread of these nov­el games. The book goes on to de­tail the night “two hot­ly con­test­ed games had been played.” Both Sam and Walt had won one game each, and one more game would have de­cid­ed the cham­pi­onship among the du­el­ing check­er enthusiasts.

rr_telegraph_operBoth com­bat­ants played very cau­tious­ly and slow­ly, each plan­ning deeply in­tri­cate ma­neu­vers to en­trap the oth­er. Sam and his back­ers had ‘dug a pit’ for Walt, and were anx­ious­ly await­ing him to fall into it, when, sure enough, the in­stru­ment clicked off the fig­ures [they] want­ed. Sam im­me­di­ate­ly made the next move.”

Hold on,” said Walt, “it is my move.”

No, sir” said Sam, “you just this mo­ment moved so and so.”

That won’t do,” replied Walt, “I had you in an un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion, and you have adopt­ed this un­der­hand­ed way to get out of it.”

After a few more gen­tle­man­ly words of dis­agree­ment, things got a bit heat­ed. Both Sam and Walt gave up the game that night — es­sen­tial­ly rage quit­ting the con­test. Walt had writ­ten Sam the next day ac­cus­ing him of un­fair play­ing. Sam replied that he was “not guilty” and told Walt that he was be­ing un­fair. No more check­ers were played be­tween the two af­ter this.

The book continues:

It af­ter­ward oc­curred to Sam that prob­a­bly some dis­in­ter­est­ed op­er­a­tor had ac­ci­den­tal­ly made the fig­ures he want­ed, and thus caused the con­fu­sion and misunderstanding.”

He told Walt of his thoughts, but Walt was hav­ing none of it; he turned it around as a par­tial con­fes­sion of guilt on Sam’s part.

They were nev­er warm friends af­ter­ward,” this par­tic­u­lar en­try in the book says, wrap­ping up the account.

We will nev­er know for cer­tain, but it does seem en­tire­ly plau­si­ble that a third-party tele­graph op­er­a­tor es­sen­tial­ly crashed their friend­ly com­pe­ti­tion. I like to think it was some­one who knew the two and was just do­ing it for laughs.

This is a great ac­count of some long-distance game-playing with the avail­able tech­nol­o­gy. It’s also a bit en­light­en­ing to see cer­tain pat­terns es­tab­lished in mul­ti­play­er gam­ing so ear­ly on… if only today’s gamers could be as po­lite as Sam and Walt.

(Source: Sam Johnson: the Experience and Observations of a Railroad Telegraph Operator)

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

Latest posts by Josh Bray (see all)

Scroll to top