Tag Archives: media history

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.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


Focused on the Rear View Mirror


Too much attention to where we have been can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s a natural impulse to look to the immediate past to make judgments about the future.  In a sense it is all we have.  And yet for all the changing norms affecting how we connect with each other, it’s still too easy to become wedded to selective memories and romanticized histories.

I seem to recall ever-widening eyes while older members of my family rhapsodized about their own childhoods on horseback, or camped out for the summer near the family’s not very successful silver mine. The stories seem to come from a Technicolor world filled with older family members that were larger than life.  One could imagine that they were not that different from those all-American stoics who patiently guided the Smith family through the giddy summer of 1904 in MGM’s Meet Me in Saint Louis.

By contrast, my adolescence seemed to unspool around a far less exciting existence seemingly shot in grainy black and white. To be sure, I have sense colorized it, especially the bits that took our family back to the wonderful mountains not too far from that old mine.  But I still marvel at the elders I’ve constructed who lived unpredictable lives in fabulous times.

There’s a point to all of this.  We tend to create memories that are equal parts history and fantasy.  After all, we are not digital devices. Accuracy of recall is a strength of hard drives, not  humans. We often select what are perceived simplicities of the past, especially forms of family intimacy that probably overstate the closeness we desire and the tensions we’d like to forget.

It’s worth remembering that too much attention to the receding landscape in the rear view mirror can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge the dominance of previously invincible media. 

Nowhere is this more true than in our preferred ways of connecting with others. We know how and when connecting works for us.  We understand our strengths, even as we puzzle over new digital platforms and their peculiar rules of engagement.  But as the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan cautioned, media types and forms of address evolve ceaselessly and irrevocably,  as relentless in changing the landscape as the flow of volcanic magma from Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea.

There’s no going back. Old forms of media don’t necessarily die out. They co-exist or become transformed.  Think of radio today, sixty-five years after television captured its place as the nation’s preferred medium.  Radio is still with us and doing reasonably well.  But it’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge previously dominant media.  In his day Plato decried the growing interest in written texts. Similarly, John Philip Sousa was none too happy to have his music imperfectly captured on noisy shellac recordings.  And yet the work of both  is alive because of the “new” media they reluctantly anticipated.

The challenge is to get the mix right for an individual life.  We need to be more conscious of the expansion of social media and cell technology have cost us and what they’ve allowed.  Choices must be made because our lives can easily be trashed and overwhelmed by media distractions.

One example: It’s easy to poke fun at online dating services. They are sold to us mostly by peddling notions of romantic love that haven’t been in vogue since the 50s.  And yet just when we think we couldn’t push ourselves any further from authentic personal relationships, a  friend beams with pride over the new person who has entered their life through a digital porthole. Cole Porter didn’t write love songs about online romance.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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