Live Wires

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 2, 2019

When electricity was still a novelty, it was discovered that a slight electric impulse could be passed down a long line of people, all holding hands. You might think that some bright person, with this knowledge, could have figured out, that here was possibly a new way of transmitting messages virtually instantaneously. If human flesh could do the job, then perhaps some other substance (or “medium”) could be substituted. But that is the wisdom of hindsight. In actual fact, it took the better part of a century before the very first words were sent over any distance by electric current. By then, of course, it had been found that metal wire was the best material for the purpose.

In the meantime, however, other forms of communication were being developed, which had nothing to do with electricity. One of the most impressive of these was also the most simple – a “semaphore” system by which communications could be relayed visually over long distances very speedily from one watching point (usually on some high eminence) to the next, with mechanical “arms” by day, or fires at night. This of course had been anticipated long before, by Indian “smoke signals,” and also, at sea, by strings of flags flown by ships, using complex codes. One of the most famous flag messages was that which emanated from Lord Nelson’s flagship before the 1805 battle of Trafalgar (a stunning victory, in which, however, Nelson himself was killed). It said: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

But far more famous are the first words officially sent by telegraph, in 1844: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.” (Or, as we would say today, “LOOK WHAT GOD HAS DONE!”) If this sounds Biblical to you, it is indeed a direct quote from the King James Old Testament Book of Numbers (Chapter 23, verse 23).

The message was sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore by Samuel Morse, using – what else? – Morse Code. But almost all the details of this story are in dispute – starting with whether Morse was really the inventor of this wonderful device. And then, how did he get the idea to use those impressively appropriate words? He said it was suggested by Annie, the young daughter of his old college friend, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, who just happened to be the (very first) U.S. Commissioner of Patents, and had helped Morse get the funding he needed. But Annie said it was her mother, Nancy, herself the daughter of a prominent New England family. But, as far as that famous expression is concerned, let’s give the credit where it really is due. Surely it belongs to whoever wrote the Book of Numbers. And the traditional author is: Moses.

In any case, as you know, communication by wire was soon all the rage – although Henry David Thoreau wasn’t so enthusiastic, observing in Walden (1854) that, although there might soon be a telegraph connecting Maine and Texas, “It may be that Maine and Texas have nothing important to communicate.” Nevertheless, New York definitely felt it had something important to communicate to San Francisco, an impulse which gave rise, only a few years later, to the brief but sensational life of the Pony Express, which filled the gap in getting fast word to the West, but was rendered obsolete, after only 18 months of operation, by the completion of Western Union’s transcontinental telegraph – which reached the West Coast on October 24, 1861 (a crucial time indeed, with the nation already plunged into Civil War).

But here again, we have an instance of technology seeming (from our viewpoint) to lag deplorably. It took another 35 years (until 1895) for communication along wires to begin to be replaced by radio, or “wire-less” (thanks to a young Italian named Marconi). But that new medium could still transmit only by Morse Code. It wasn’t until the1920s that “voice radio,” as we know it today, came into wide use.

Before leaving wires and their effects upon our history, however, I must mention another kind of wire which had nothing to do with communication, but in fact was employed for the purpose of separation. Barbed Wire was successfully developed in 1874 by Joseph Glidden, a Midwestern businessman. For the first time, cattle could be effectively confined, without building expensive wooden fences. This meant the end of the “open range,” as enjoyed and exploited by generations of ranchers and cowboys – and where even the deer and the antelope could now no longer play.


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