It happened today - May 24, 2015
On May 24 of 1844, which happened to be Queen Victoria’s 25th birthday, Samuel Morse demonstrated the telegraph to fascinated members of Congress. He sent a message “What Hath God Wrought?” to Alfred Vail in Baltimore and Vail sent it back. I’ve always thought that message was singularly inappropriate.
It is from the Old Testament (Numbers 23:23). But could anything be less in keeping with antiquity than the telegraph in particular and the general grandiose impulse to overcome time and space, to take control of man’s surroundings and transform his life?
We tend to associate globalization, bewilderingly rapid technological change and a profusion of cool consumer goods with our own time. We have the Internet, man. We can send messages around the globe at the speed of electricity. Even though those messages surprisingly often involve Kim Kardashian or cats who look like Hitler, we pride ourselves on living in an age of unprecedented change and confidence in change. But that’s largely because we are ignorant of past ages.
Even Jonathan Swift, 18th-century author of Gulliver’s Travels, commented on the fact that the products of the entire globe were present on an English breakfast table. The Victorians could send messages around the globe at the speed of electricity. Tourism was a major industry. Curmudgeons complained that the pace of modern life was destructive of any semblance of peace and quiet.
Beyond these specific details, the larger feeling that man had at last burst the bonds of nature and would now control his own destiny, gathering force since the late 15th century, was the characteristic Victorian mood. Do not be deceived by the sepia-tinted photos and lace doilies that now seem to us hopelessly backward. It was an age of progress, the wonders of the steam age and the miracle of electricity tamed and put to the service of mankind. It was not a question of what God had wrought, but of what man was going to.
More than 150 years later I think it’s not entirely out of place to ask: “Are we there yet?” If technology is meant to transform our lives in vastly positive ways, shouldn’t it have done so by now? What, indeed, as man wrought?