It happened today - August 5, 2015

Cyrus West FieldSomebody send a congratulatory telegraph please. Today is the anniversary of the first cable laid across the Atlantic back in 1858. Much windy political self-congratulation followed before it failed the next month. But it was fairly quickly replaced, proving that globalization is old news.

The cable was largely the work of an American businessman named Cyrus West Field. And it would be, the United States being in the vanguard of progress by the 19th century (as well as being the world’s most conservative nation, a paradox that confounds its critics and sometimes its admirers). And the idea also appealed to Samuel Morse, who had thought up the telegraph in 1832, and invented Morse Code so you could use it once it got built, and was of course also American. In May 1844 Morse inaugurated the world’s first commercial telegraph line by tapping out “What hath God wrought” from the U.S. Capitol, where a plaque commemorates the feat, to a train station in Baltimore.

Which is appropriate given how the telegraph and railway shrank time and space so dramatically; within a decade there were over 20,000 miles of telegraph cable in the United States, much of it running along the rapidly spreading railway lines, especially in the North, whose dramatic economic “modernization” gave it crucial advantages over the South in the Civil War. By 1860 there were 50,000 miles of telegraph wires and 30,000 miles of railroad track, most in the North.

On the other hand, I think “What hath God wrought” was a singularly inappropriate message for a medium that man had wrought in his project of overcoming the limitations of nature including, as we got on into the 20th century, human nature. And the Victorian enthusiasm for this electronically linked world ought to give us at least some pause as we type rubbish with our thumbs about how cool we are surfing a wave of mid-19th-century hysteria.

Completion of the cable was greeted by hundred-gun salutes in Boston and New York (where torch-waving celebrants accidentally set City Hall on fire). As Tom Standage notes in his fascinating The Victorian Internet, “‘Our whole country,’ declared Scientific American, ‘has been electrified by the successful laying of the Atlantic Telegraph.’” Meanwhile the London Times enthused that “Since the discovery of Columbus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has thus been given to the sphere of human activity.” Moreover, it added with some justice, “The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country. The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1776, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.’” And by 1880 there were nearly 100,000 miles of cable across various oceans from Britain to India, Africa, Australia and of course Canada. Email, here we come.

And the global village. One early advocate for an Atlantic telegraph wrote in 1846 “All the inhabitants of the earth would be brought into one intellectual neighbourhood.” And when the U.S. Senate moved into its new chamber on January 4, 1859, U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge burbled that “the strifes and uncertainties of the past are finished. We see around us on every side the proofs of stability and improvement…. Future generations will not be disturbed with questions concerning the center of population or of territory, since the steamboat, the railroad and the telegraph have made communication almost instantaneous….”

Regrettably we experienced less improvement in what we communicated than how, from the firing on Ft. Sumter to Hitler’s radio propaganda to Kim Kardashian trying to break the Internet with her surgically enhanced backside.

By the way, Queen Victoria’s telegraph to the hapless President James Buchanan, which took 16 hours to transmit, included this banal passage: “The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest”. And Buchanan’s reply called the telegraph “an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.”

If not, doubtless TV or Facebook will get it done. Or holographs and fibre optics. Or something.