Blinded by Science

In praise of the bolder world of the first Internet.

By Bruno Maddox|Thursday, April 27, 2006
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS

I write to you this morning with tidings of a most somber and dispiriting nature. If the Business section of The New York Times is to be believed—and after everything they've been through of late, one would imagine that organ is taking extra care to be accurate—executives of Western Union announced yesterday that this nation's telegraph system has been retired after a century and a half of service. Apparently, the last telegrams were sent last week. The final dozen included messages of heartfelt condolence, some birthday greetings, and in a first for the system, missives from several people simply trying to be the last person ever to send a telegram.

The article was written by a member of the Associated Press who seemed unaware—at least he didn't mention it—that the very organization that puts food on his table and provides him with an office was itself an artifact of the telegraph. Once the telegraph had made it possible, in the mid-19th century, to receive news from overseas in something approaching real time, New York newspapers formed the AP as a syndicate. Foreign correspondents back then were just as skilled at running up astronomical room-service bills as their modern counterparts. It seemed only logical, given that all the stringers would be delivering essentially the same news at the same time, that there be only one of them. Perhaps it was some lingering fraternal bitterness that led the AP to announce the death of the telegraph with such good humor. The article's headline was a sidesplitting tour de force: "Western Union—STOP—Ends Telegram Service." LOL, as we say these days.

Then again, it could just be the fact that nobody talks about the telegraph anymore if they can possibly help it. We are living through a media revolution, spelled I-n-t-e-r-n-e-t, which pundits never tire of reminding us is just as profound as the invention of the book, the camera, or even—sometimes—language itself. Yet we avoid the comparison with the media revolution that the Internet most resembles: the telegraph.

How similar is the Internet to the old Victorian telegraph system? On a superficial level, extremely. Just like the Internet, the telegraph was a global web of wire-linked nodes operated by people at desks tapping purpose-built clickers with their right index finger. Just like the Internet, the telegraph endured a period of feckless infancy when its usefulness seemed limited to the transmission between distant points of the message: "Check it out, I'm sending you a message!" Businessmen were influential early adopters in the case of both media—deriving comfort, prestige, and occasionally profit from a stream of real-time stock quotes piped directly into their offices. Both media had been in mainstream use for about a decade before someone figured out that the existing technology actually had far higher bandwidth than was initially realized (for the telegraph, the discovery of duplex and quadruplex transmission). And in the case of both revolutions, the pioneers were rewarded with unprecedented levels of wealth that would make their high school friends wake up in a pool of sweat at four every morning wondering what kind of sick, sadistic God would bestow such fortune on a pigeon-chested geek who couldn't even throw a football properly. Samuel Morse, for instance, inventor of the telegraph itself and the eponymous code, was eventually compensated for his intellectual property with the still nontrivial sum of $80,000—this in an age when men holding court behind ice buckets in the corner booths of Manhattan nightclubs could comfortably brag about pulling in a cool $2,000 a year.

I could go on. Not indefinitely, perhaps, but at least for a while. Suffice it to say that the technology, ontogeny, and social impact of the Victorian telegraph are so eerily similar to those of the Internet, it's a wonder the founders of Google aren't mincing around in frock coats doing lines of snuff. At the very least, you would think the birth of the telegraph would occasionally be one of the historical advances that the Internet revolution is likened to. Yet it isn't.

Why not?

Because the comparison, ultimately, is not flattering.

For one thing, the construction of the global telegraph network required feats of physical heroism that no Mountain Dew–slurping genius from Northern California could even begin to emulate, no matter how many evenings a week he condescends to play Ultimate Frisbee with the interns from the marketing department. The Internet was born with an infrastructural silver spoon in its mouth in the form of a preexisting global telephone network; before the telegraph could happen, a nonmetaphorical web of electric cable had to be spun around the planet—literally.

Establishing the basic telegraph connection between Europe and America, to take just one example, was an epic, decades-long process of trial and error that makes Tolstoy's War and Peace look like a 15-second Super Bowl commercial. Laying 2,500 miles of cable would have been an impressive, nay, herculean, achievement even without the troublesome presence, between the two continents, of a treacherous body of water. Terrible things happened. They'd be halfway across and the cable would snap or suddenly unspool into some undersea trench along with hundreds of thousands of dollars of hard-won seed capital. In one particularly heartbreaking attempt, two ships met mid-Atlantic, each having laid half the cable, only to find that they'd put down cable sheathing from different manufacturers and that the two halves of the link wouldn't, as we say, interface. Little wonder that when the line was finally finished in 1858, cannons boomed, church bells rang, and headlines proclaimed the dawn of a new era in human understanding—reflecting a sense of optimism that endured undimmed throughout the few short weeks before the linkup stopped working.

As an intellectual triumph, the telegraph eats the Internet's lunch. Whereas the Internet has grown by a series of incremental realizations—Hey, what's to stop me from viewing this Web page graphically?! What's to stop me from using my TV cable instead of my phone line?! What's to stop me from putting a Webcam in my shower?!—every step forward in the telegraph's development required that something else had to be invented first. In order to lay cables underwater, somebody needed first to discover the only kind of rubber—gutta-percha, from a tree native to Malaysia—that could waterproof the wire effectively, and somebody else needed to invent a machine that could apply gutta-percha evenly to inconceivable lengths of cable. Before messages could be sent and received from rural villages in British India, somebody had to invent a telegraph pole that wouldn't immediately be devoured by ravenous white ants. And perhaps most impressive of all, before the telegraph could even be considered a means of interpersonal communication, somebody—Samuel Morse—needed to think up a system by which the infinite variety of concrete, abstract, and usually self-serving statements that a human being might wish to share with a species-mate could be reduced to pulses of electricity.

Again, I could go on. But I shall choose the path of mercy. My point is merely this: We've been here before, and the apocalyptic awe with which we tend to appraise our situation is out of proportion to the scale of this revolution. It's beyond debate that the power of the Internet is transformative—this very morning I myself received a crate of foul-smelling omega-3 fish-oil capsules that I ordered only yesterday from a mom-and-pop wholesaler in deepest Massachusetts. But to hail this transformation as unprecedented is to do our mustachioed ancestors a disservice—an act of wanton disrespect made only more unseemly when one considers that they were born and lived and went to their graves without ever once waking up on a birthday morning, scraping the ice off their laptops, and receiving salutations from a distant land in the form of an abysmal, not-quite-functioning cartoon of chickens—one year it was elephants—either attempting, or pretending, to dance.

For shame.

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