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The talking wires May 31st, 2015 by

After his wife died, and an American painter went to Europe hoping to find patrons who would commission his work. But they didn’t. Rejected and heartbroken, the painter was on a ship for New York where he met a Harvard geologist. During their long conversations on board, the painter imagined that if an electrical impulse could be sent down a wire, and systematically interrupted, then the wire could be used to communicate.

The year was 1834 and the painter was Samuel Morse, as in Morse code. In New York, Morse honed his idea for years, acquiring backers, believers and assistants, and ten years later he sat in the chambers of the Supreme Court, then in a wing of the US Capital Building in Washington and began receiving the first inter-city telegraph messages, tapped out in the dots-&-dashes code that Morse invented: the software that made the hardware run. The telegrams were from Baltimore, 40 miles away, where the Whig Party was hosting its convention, and Washington insiders were flabbergasted to learn the news as soon as it happened. (Henry Clay was nominated for president).  By 1861 there was a wire running all the way across the continent, to California, funded by the government, after President Buchanan signed the Pacific Telegraph act just as the storm clouds of the Civil War were gathering.

This is one of many stories in Simon Winchester’s The Men Who United the States, where the title playfully turns “united” into a verb. Winchester shows it would have been impossible to make such a large country so quickly, without innovations in roads, canals, trains,  and other networks of communication to link it together.

The telegraph was an electronic device. Without electricity, the wires are mute. Yet light bulbs would not be used for another quarter century, when Thomas Edison flipped the switch in 1888 in lower Manhattan, lighting 40 lucky homes and igniting the craze for commercial electricity.

However, people did know about electricity before Edison. For a couple of centuries, creative people, who called themselves “electricians” had been more or less playing with the strange form of energy, like Ben Franklin who famously shocked himself while flying his kite in the rain. The telegraph used small amounts of electricity, which could be generated by a battery.

Six different regional companies emerged to handle the traffic in Morse code, but passing messages from one outfit to another led to delays and missed communication. A wool carder and dealer in agricultural machinery, Hiram Sibley, from the wheat producing area of Rochester, New York, was frustrated that he could not receive his wheat prices instantly. So Sibley gathered other investors and they bought all six telegraph companies and combined them into a new one, called Western Union.

Radio is also electric, and amateur “ham” operators were tapping messages to each other in code, and even talking to each other over the air in the early days of the 20th century.  It was a few years before people got the idea of staying on the air regularly, for a listening audience. This was when the word “broadcasting” acquired its modern meaning, by using an agricultural metaphor. Until then, “to broadcast” meant to sow seeds by tossing them by the handful.

The first radio station in the world was built, not in New York or London or San Francisco, but in the agro-town of Madison, in 1916. The station beamed weather forecasts to Wisconsin farmers and to ships on the Great Lakes. That station is still operating, using the call letters WHA, on campus of the University of Wisconsin, a land grant college created for public agricultural education. Land grant colleges in the other 49 states also have radio stations.

Nowadays, large impact innovations are often triggered by main economic sectors, which 100 years ago was agriculture. Now ICT innovations come from the communication sector itself (which has grown as a key industry). Yet no matter how small agriculture shrinks as a fraction of the GDP or the labor force, farming is still almost our only source of food.

Large scale communication networks, electronic and otherwise, took clever minds, but also years of thought, work and a lot of money. In almost every case, as Winchester keenly points out, that money came from the Federal Government.  They were public investments that paid off.

Information networks are now evolving faster than ever. Many people are surprised when I tell them that smallholder farmers in Africa and South America now have cell phones. In their communities, agriculture is still driving the economy, and new tools for communicating, like cell phones, may also help to link people together and to create a better living.

Further reading

Winchester, Simon 2013 The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Harper Perennial. 463 pp.

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