Tuesday, June 15, 2004


Opponents of Telegraphy

Samuel F.B. Morse received a patent on the telegraph in 1844. Thoreau's criticism of the invention in the first chapter of Walden is well known:
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. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. 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. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.
The first telegraph station in Texas opened on February 14, 1854, in Marshall, near the border with Louisiana. I do not know when or where the first telegraph office opened in Maine.

Thoreau's criticism of the telegraph was echoed in England a few years later, in Thomas Love Peacock's novel Gryll Grange, chapter XIX:
LORD CURRYFIN. Well, then, what say you to the electric telegraph, by which you converse at a distance of thousands of miles? Even across the Atlantic, as no doubt we shall yet do.

MR. GRYLL. Some of us have already heard the Doctor's opinion on that subject.

THE REVEREND DOCTOR OPIMIAN. I have no wish to expedite communication with the Americans. If we could apply the power of electrical repulsion to preserve us from ever hearing anything more of them, I should think that we had for once derived a benefit from science.
Between the time Thoreau's Walden was published (1854) and the time Peacock's Gryll Grange was published (1860), a telegraph message was transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean, on August 16, 1858, but within weeks of that transmission the underwater cable was damaged, and a new one was not completed until 1866.

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