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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Hath God Wrought, the Book

I just finished reading Daniel Walker Howe's recent history of Antebellum America that goes by the title of today's blog.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize in history and it is a mighty read indeed...all 850 pages of it.  But the book, despite its length, was a great read; more a story than a dull historical tract.  Howe makes the premise that two technology revolutions were fundamental to the changes in the United States during the time period he covered: 1812 to 1848.


The first revolution was in transportation.   America moved from the slow plodding of foot and horse travel to the swiftness of canals, steamboats, and railroads.  This tied the ever-expanding geography of the country together.  The plunging cost of shipping (whether raw materials, agricultural products, or finished goods) made a business-driven society possible.

The second revolution was in communications, more specifically the telegraph.  For the first time in history, communications over long distances became instantaneous.  While we often feel like we are living through the biggest communication revolution that has ever happened, I think it takes second place to the telegraph.  Our expectations have always been for instantaneous communications.  But when the telegraph was invented, people had no prior experience to prepare them for such an amazing technology.


The U.S. Government, which initially was reticent to fund the telegraph, finally put up seed money to build the first demonstration line.  On May 24, 1844 Samuel Morse (pictured at right), in the offices of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. typed the message, "What hath God wrought", to his colleague in Baltimore who echoed it back to him within a minute.  Observers understood immediately the significance of the invention.  The message, by the way, was chosen from a biblical text (Numbers 23:23) and was selected by Nancy Goodrich Ellsworth, who suggested it to her daughter Annie. Morse was in love with Annie and was hence disposed to listen to her suggestion.  (Nancy Ellsworth's husband was Henry Levitt Ellsworth, head of the patent office and a friend of Morse.)

The telegraph was used immediately by business  for stock and commodity prices, the news establishment (it led to the Associated Press being formed in May, 1846), governments, and finally private citizens.  Markets in cities like Chicago and New York could start to transact business on a near real-time basis.  The railroads soon picked up on the technology to schedule the smooth flow of trains.

But I digress.  The point is not to focus on the telegraph but rather on Howe's book and its central hypothesis that technology shapes history.  Howe didn't say this but I might wonder if these two technology revolutions accelerated the gap between the mercantile North and the plantation and slave-owning South, making the Civil War all the more likely.  Technology can have far-reaching effects, often created by the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Today, the Web is creating similar far-reaching changes and we cannot foresee what the unintended consequences may yet be.  It would be interesting to get a peek at the history books that will be written in another hundred years to see what comes of it all...or, maybe not.

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