Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, was born on this day in 1791. The father of long-distance communication networks sent his first electric currents through a wire across New York Harbor in 1842, meaning that less than 90 years before near-instant communication sent banks across the country into the panics of the late 1920s and early 1930s, humans remained unable to communicate across long distances without days or even weeks of hard traveling.

The first public message (from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan) was sent across the Transatlantic Cable on August 16, 1858. (See the American Experience Web site for more information about the construction of the Transatlantic Cable.) This first cable went dead not long after, and a reliable cable was not actually completed until 1866, by which time the advantages of such communication were very apparent. Confusion over the transport of two Confederate diplomats by a British steamer, for example, nearly brought the United States and Britain to war--a misunderstanding which Secretary of State William Seward claimed could easily have been remedied by a few messages over an operational cable. As well, advocates could point to historical events such as the Battle of New Orleans, the United States' greatest triumph during the War of 1812... and a completely irrelevant conflict, having taken place after the peace treaty between the U.S. and Britain was signed (but before ships arrived to tell anyone).

Today, we face a 24-hour news cycle, instant communication through tools the size of our palms and resultant information overload. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? How do we prevent panic from overtaking reason when crisis strikes? How do we absorb and analyze the data continuously entering our streams of consciousness and articulate reasonable solutions?

Morse opened wonderful new doors; he also planted seeds that have expanded into some serious questions. (Also, his code provided the foundations of the theme song for "Inspector Morse"... no small triumph.) The manner in which we address these questions will impact the future of American (and, indeed, world) society.

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