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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Victorian Web

No, not television. Not radio. Not even the telephone. No, the real predecessor of the Web was the telegraph, invented in 1837 by Samuel F.B. Morse. Its value was proven on May 24, 1844, when he sent the question, "What hath God wrought?" from Washington to Baltimore. This miraculous technology was introduced in Wisconsin in 1848 when the Territorial Legislature, in one of its final acts, passed a law authorizing (and taxing) telegraph lines.

Internet of the 1840s

The Milwaukee press soon reported that to be in constant contact with Washington and New York was "more like magic than reality." When the Janesville Gazette received its first news bulletins in 1848 it was full of praise for "this truly wonderful agent." Here's how it worked.

The sender printed a message on paper and handed it to an operator who typed letters as combinations of on/off signals -- "dots and dashes." These =were clicked out =on a tiny key pad (shown here) and sent across electric wires strung on poles. On the receiving end, an operator decoded the signals and printed them on paper as a telegram.

"In the early days," wrote a chronicler of the telegraph, "it was supposed to require men of especial ability, education, and intelligence to act as operators." Sounds like your IT staff, doesn't it? The first such operator in Kenosha, Charles C. Sholes, was also the town's newspaper editor. He rose to become a director of the Western Union Telegraph Co., which was the Internet of its day.

Everyone marveled that news could travel so rapidly between cities. When Wisconsin's first governor, Nelson Dewey, gave an address to the Legislature in Madison early in 1849, residents of Milwaukee were awestruck at the speed with which it reached them: a mere six and a half hours later. More than 40 miles of wire had been strung on the previous day to make the transmission possible.

Social Implications

Like the Internet, the telegraph produced consequences that did not please everyone. Henry Thoreau, always more concerned with moral issues than with popular culture, complained in Walden that the telegraph was only an "improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. 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... As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Later in the book he argued a point that still sounds true in today's perpetually connected world of status updates, tweets, and 24/7 news:

"Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?... Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels... After a night's sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. 'Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe' -- and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself."

What, indeed, hath God wrought by plunging us into this ocean of mass media and leaving us to sink or swim? But there is no turning back. We have to utilize it for our benefit or our harm, for our enlightenment or for vice, as we each see fit. By putting accurate information and authentic historical documents onto the Web, we hope that we're making a useful contribution to this brave new world.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 14, 2011
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