It Started With A Wire And A Key

David Sarnoff, young telegrapher in 1908. The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.
David Sarnoff,  Marconi telegrapher and future President of RCA, in 1908.                The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.

Give those early innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying words coded in simple on-off pulses, hardly more than a long-distance doorbell.

When did we pass over the threshold into what has become the consequential change in the human condition known as the “Information Age?”  Many would perhaps place this monumental transition around the 1920s, with the popularity of radio and the early attempts to make “smart machines.”  But the real beginnings of our obsession with electronic media began much earlier, with a simpler but demonically influential breakthrough.

The telegraph began as a system of wires and keys that could send text-coded electric pulses over extended distances. Wires on poles spread rapidly throughout the eastern United States in the 1850s. And with this growing network, information began to move at the speed of light rather than the pace of a horse or locomotive.  By the civil war era Boston could “talk” to New York or Washington D.C. in real time.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons for communication, making distance insignificant. The process of shrinking the world had begun.  Gradually news came as easily from 300 miles away as from down the street.

Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s
          Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s

The change is easy to visualize with two iconic forms of communication usually built side by side.  Old images of railroads stretching across mountains and prairies usually include telegraph poles marching along the line. The single wire literally ran through each station along the route, and through the dispatcher’s desk key before exiting the other side of the building.  Telegraphy not only made train travel safer, but the thin metal wire also began to carry news from one location to the next at far greater speed. These included accounts of local happenings that were reported in the 19th Century equivalent of a “breaking” story.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons to make distance immaterial; the process of shrinking the world had begun.

Learn-Morse-Code-2015.05.02- Lincoln became addicted to telegraphy. Throughout the civil war he spent ours across the street from the White House at the War Office, waiting to hear from his generals in various battle locations which had been wired by the military.

News of Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theater spread in the east within hours. But it would take up to ten days for word of the tragedy to reach portions of the country west of the Pony Express origination point in St. Joseph Missouri.

New telegraph lines passing through New England led transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau to note that “we are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”  The same could be said about phone obsessives today.  But that’s another story. The race was on to build news networks to be known as “wire services” that terminated in most city news rooms, providing local papers with much more coverage of events that had occurred in distant cities.  To this day The Associated Press still depends on local reporters to feed local stories of potential national interest to their far-flung subscribers.

Fittingly, the most important thoroughfares in some cities carried the name of the new network that was beginning to knit the country together.  Telegraph Road is arguably Detroit’s best-known Street, and somehow fitting in a city known for technology and innovation.  San Francisco and Berkeley California have their own versions, and do many other towns.

So when you wonder when we became addicts to the effects of charged electrons traveling at the speed of light, give those early 19th Century innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying simple on-off pulses, technically little more than a long distance doorbell, but one that would eventually summon us all.