It happened today - May 24, 2016

Samuel Morse Ah, the wonders of the steam age… again. This time it’s never mind the Internet, here comes the telegraph.

For on May 24 of 1844 Morse, who for some reason I had no idea was an accomplished if not brilliant painter who supported himself with brush and canvas while dabbling in science, proved he was neither a crackpot nor a charlatan in the latter realm by sending a message from the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, choosing the strangely inappropriate Biblical text “What hath God wrought” (Numbers 23:23) chosen by the daughter of U.S. Patent Commissioner Henry Ellsworth, who had backed Morse.

Actually it was by no means the first telegraphic message. Morse’s real breakthrough was figuring out how to send messages over significant distances by including frequent relays. And with public funding he had strung a line to Baltimore in time to telegraph the May 1, 1844 nomination of Henry Clay as the Whig candidate against James K. Polk.

What is remarkable about the May 24 demonstration is that it formally opened the line. And with that time and space were shrunk in a way more dramatic than further refinements, from radio to telephone to Internet, could possibly achieve, on which I recommend Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet. (Morse himself was driven in part by having received a letter saying his wife was getting better only to rush home and find her dead; he hadn’t even known she was ill).

One advocate for a telegraph cable across the Atlantic wrote in 1846 that “All the inhabitants of the earth would be brought into one intellectual neighbourhood.” And indeed most of what we think is incredibly modern, recent and cool dates to the 19th century including instant news without reflection, brought to newspapers by telegraphed reports of incidents that one rushed to be first in print with in the hopes of beating rivals in newsstand sales for a day, as one now rushes to blog or better yet Tweet it first in the hopes of trending ephemerally.

We find it inconceivable nowadays to live in a world where news did not travel faster than foot or hoof could carry it. We suppose that life must be incomparably better because of it although if things really had been getting better as fast as we think for as long as we suppose I cannot grasp how our ancestors did not perish of physical or psychological misery if not by their own trembling hands, which they manifestly did not. So let me introduce a sour note from, of all things, a Charlie Chan novel, The Chinese Parrot, in which they manage to tune in a Denver concert at a ranch in the California desert and the owner, even though it’s his own daughter singing, complains “All the way from Denver, mile high amid the Rockies. I tell you, man’s getting too clever. He’s riding for a fall. Probably a sign of age, Mr. Eden, but I find myself longing for the older, simpler days.”

Man, you ain’t seen nothing yet, we may be tempted to respond. Wait until you see what TV or smartphones will do to the very concept of getting away from it all. But if the concept of radio ruining things now seems unbearably quaint, or of the telegraph revolutionizing them, I am prompted to ask why we are so convinced that with the Internet we can at last begin to live, or are now thoroughly unable to, or worse yet that the next stunning changely innovation will really take the economy and society somewhere we want to go.

In fact, proving I can find nostalgia almost anywhere, I’m rather sad that the Morse code invented by the same Samuel Morse is no longer in use at sea, where the French navy was the last to give it up on January 31, 1997, while the last U.S. transmission was on July 12, 1999 and was, in fact, “What hath God wrought.”

I called this an odd message and here’s why. The development of the telegraph, the astonishing shrinking of time and space that was celebrated in the 1872 poem “The Victory” dedicated to Morse (“And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,/ That Time and Space ruled man no more”) was about what man had wrought. The notion that our own powers would now transcend the conditions that had limited our existence from the dawn of time may have been inspired, menacing or both. But it was certainly not a tribute to the power of God and an inspiration to put our faith in Him. Rather, it was a kind of metaphysical Declaration of Independence by man, that from now on we would write our own ticket, control our own destiny, reshape fundamental forces to suit our will.

It is what man hath wrought, for better or worse, even as the mad rush of technology overtakes Morse’s telegraph and his code. And May 24 1844, when it became a regular commercial “thing,” is a more important date in the development of the instant global village than anything seen in our day.

Innovation, in short, is old hat. As is pride and a desire to be as gods. Somewhat older, as I recall, than the 19th century. And not, in the traditional understand, a good thing.