Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I’m Jason Feifer. The year is 1868, and the greatest minds of the day have gathered for a banquet. They’re here to celebrate Samuel Morse’s retirement and really, there is a lot to celebrate. Samuel Morse created the first commercial telegraph system enabling people many miles away from each other to communicate in almost real time, which is something that simply had never been possible before. I mean, before Samuel Morse, if you wanted to send information to someone you had to write it down on a piece of paper, and then have that piece of paper physically carried away by foot, or horse, or boat, or raven, or whatever. Anyway, getting your message to its destination could take days or weeks or months. Then Samuel Morse came along and cut that time down to minutes, to minutes. So that called for a real slammer of a banquet.
Tom Standage: And everyone’s saying how wonderful he is and how he’s changed the world, and all of these great and Victorian speeches used to go on forever and you could read them all in the newspapers of the day. I mean, they’re incredibly, incredibly floral and just went on and on and on.
Jason Feifer: That’s Tom Standage. He’s an editor at the economist, host of the excellent podcast, Secret History of the Future and most relevant for our purposes, author of a book called the Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers. And Tom says that this banquet for Samuel Morse’s retirement went pretty much according to plan, up until the time that a man named William Dodge stood up to give his speech. Because William Dodge had come to bury Morse, not to praise him. Dodge frankly was fed up with the telegraph. Here’s Tom reading part of the speech.
Tom Standage: “In the old days it was much easier for business people comparatively they had an easy time,” he said, “But now all this has changed and there are doubts whether the telegraph has been so good a friend to the merchant as many have supposed.”
Jason Feifer: You always know something’s going to be good when it starts with in the old days, and the problem according to Dodge was that the modern businessman now has a lot more information to respond to. Life is no longer as simple, customers are now needier because they expect to be continually informed by telegram, markets move faster and must be responded to.
Tom Standage: “And the merchant goes home after a hard day of work and excitement to a late dinner trying amid the family circle to forget business when he’s interrupted by a telegram from London, and the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message to California.” And this is the key at the end he says, “The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump. The slow express train will not answer his purpose. The poor merchant has no other way in which to secure a living for his family, he must use the telegraph.”
Jason Feifer: Now, it’s easy enough to dismiss this, stop slacking William Dodge! Welcome to the new world. And also people have been complaining about the increasingly busy pace of life for literally ever. I mean, 2000 years ago you had the philosopher Seneca bemoaning the businessmen who run down to meet incoming ships so they can get news of their investments. But at the same time, Dodge’s complaint feels entirely relatable today, doesn’t it? I mean, we’re currently having a big cultural conversation about when and whether work email can stop.
Do I have to reply to my boss at 10PM? Do we have to be looking at Slack like all the time? And this is really the fascinating thing about the history of the telegraph, even as it brought people together in ways that were impossible before, and it created an interconnected world full of new opportunities, it was also opposed and complained about and spoken of like something people were trapped in. Which is to say, the telegraph gave us the first wave of the same things people say today about the internet. For example, here is none other than Henry David Thoreau writing in his classic Walden.
Dallas Taylor: 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.
Jason Feifer: Which is basically the 1800s version of there’s nothing but nonsense on Twitter. And here’s the Chicago Current 1885.
Jennifer Miller: A telegram should be followed with a letter unless communication has been well established by wire. Letters are distributed by grown men expert in their business to a degree that astonishes anyone who contemplates the triumphs of their art. But telegrams are delivered by sleepy and stupid little boys who dream mostly of little boys in books, who went in swimming and never carried telegrams.
Jason Feifer: Which is basically their version of digital communication is inferior, write a handwritten letter. Which is I guess, it exactly what they said, but they still say it today. And here’s the Washington correspondent of the New York Times August 19, 1858.
Dallas Taylor: How will its use is add to the happiness of mankind? Has the land telegraph done any good? Has it banished any evil? Mitigated any sorrow? Is it of any consequence that you of New York should know on Tuesday rather than on Wednesday that Jones smashed the nose of Thompson in Congress on Monday? Upon the whole is any more money gained or lost by the cotton speculators of New York and New Orleans because they know the variations of both markets five minutes, rather than five days before their operations take effect?
Jason Feifer: Which is well, there are so many parallels wrapped up in that one, though that last one really takes you by surprise, doesn’t it? There’s definitely money to be gained or lost by knowing how a market moved five minutes instead of five days after it happened, right? Just to be sure we called up the Wall Street Journal is Bill Power, who edits a monthly section on funds and ETFs, and we put that quote to him.
Bill Power: First of all of course, that’s a 401k investor, you probably should move in 1800s time.
Jason Feifer: Honest to God that is what Bill said immediately after we read him that quote, it takes a special person to default to 401k humor. But then he said, “Yeah, five minutes instead of five days can make a lot of difference.” Because for real the telegraph was no joke, and it very quickly led to everything. Businesses boomed, there were hoaxes, sorted love affairs, a general feeling of information overload and distrust. The telegraph was humanity’s first experience with mass connectivity, the first time information knew no geographic boundaries and much like today, people just couldn’t anticipate how these changes would impact us.
But many of them knew one thing for sure, they didn’t like it. So on this episode of Pessimist Archive we’re going to dive into this first wave of telecommunications pessimism, because if it can teach us one thing, it’s that the things we think are unique today have actually been with us for generations. It’s a trip into the earliest form of the internet, one made of dots and dashes instead of ones and zeros, and it’s all coming up right after the break.
Artificial Intelligence. We talk about it, we think about it, there’s plenty of pessimism about it today, but what’s the big takeaway here? What do we need to know now?
Alex Sheen: Experts are predicting that within a decade, a majority of businesses are going to be impacted by AI in one way or another. Paying attention today will get you ahead of the competition tomorrow.
Jason Feifer: That’s Alex Sheen host of the podcast AI Element, which is made by the company Element AI. On the AI Element, Alex sits down with influencers across several industries to investigate how AI is being used to disrupt and innovate. They talk about what an AI strategy looks like, what AI can and can’t do, how AI can be used for social impact and more. If you’re interested in AI, and especially if you’re interested in how AI can impact your business this is the podcast for you. You can find the AI Element Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts or at elementai.com/podcast.
I am really excited about this sponsor because it is a podcast that I have enjoyed listening to for years, it is called the a16z Podcast. And if you’re interested in the future or innovation or the impact of technology on our world, then you will be interested in what this show has to say. The a16z Podcast is produced by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and I will tell you, I have had the pleasure of talking with a bunch of partners there over the years and they are smart. The a16z Podcast brings you direct, undiluted expert views from the front lines of the tech industry, not just from their partners, but all kinds of experts all around the world. Its goal is to help you make sense of what’s coming, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
And the show does that through carefully curated, nuanced, high insight per minute conversations with business leaders and entrepreneurs, top industry and academic experts, as well as up and coming fresh voices and book authors who you will hear there before they go on other podcasts. The a16z Podcast dives into complicated subjects, but manages to keep it both in depth and accessible, which I’m sure is why the show is regularly in the top 10 on various podcast charts and cited in countless best of lists. Subscribe to the a16z Podcast wherever you get your podcasts if you want to stay on top of tech and the future.
All right, we’re back. So before we understand why everyone was freaking out about the idea of long form communication, let’s take a look at why a person might really want to communicate across long distances. And that person was Samuel Morse. Morse was originally a painter and in 1825 he was hired to travel to Washington D.C to paint a portrait, but while there a messenger arrived on horse with a terrible letter, it said that his wife was extremely ill. The next day another letter arrived saying that his wife had died.
Morse immediately left Washington and went home to Connecticut, but by the time he got there his wife had been buried, he’d missed the chance to say goodbye. And this gets Morse, thinking surely he figures there has got to be a better way to communicate over long distances. I mean, it is 18 F-ing 25 people, within the last 10 years this brave new world had invented photography, the stethoscope and waterproof clothing, surely they can do better than sending letters by horseback like it’s the Stone Age of 1824. And Morse is right, because something really interesting is being developed right around then.
Tom Standage: By the 1830s or so, things like the battery had been invented and the electromagnet, and that meant that you could essentially have a battery, and a bit of wire an electromagnet, and by completing the circuit with a switch, you could make the electromagnet at the other end of the circuit go click.
Jason Feifer: Now, people didn’t entirely know what to do with all this clicking, but it did make for a hell of a party trick. professors were building these devices to show students how electromagnetism worked, and in Europe, inventors were experimenting with systems for communication, but nobody had really turned it into something commercially viable. So Morse travels to Europe and develops the concept of a single wire telegraph, which could enable people on both sides of the wire to communicate back and forth. Then he and some guys develop a language made out of long and short signals, or what were called dots and dashes, which became called Morse Code. So for example, the letter A is [inaudible] and B is [inaudible], and C is-
Tom Standage: C is cookie, that’s good enough for me.
Jason Feifer: I know that one’s a little longer than A and B. So someone on one side of the wire could tap out letters using this code, and someone on the other side could translate the dots and dashes into English. It takes many years, but Morse finally gets the technology down and then all he needs is a sponsor to fund it and really blow this thing out. So he goes to Congress.
Tom Standage: He builds a prototype and he takes it to Congress, and in December 1842 he tries to get funding from Congress to build a demonstration in line. And he asks for $30,000, which is quite a lot of money at the time, and he’s considered to be essentially a complete madman. He sets this whole thing up on a desk, and he’s clicking a button on one end, and there’s electromagnetic clicking on the other end, and he says, “Look at this, isn’t it amazing? And they could be miles and miles between this switch over here and this electromagnet over here.” And honestly, people just thought he was deranged.
Jason Feifer: But give Congress it’s do I got to say, because here is a rare, very heartwarming moment in government.
Tom Standage: I mean, the congressmen took their responsibility not to give money to something crazy very seriously. And I think 70 of them chose not to vote on whether to give Morse money because as one of the put it, “They wanted to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they couldn’t understand.”
Jason Feifer: How lovely is that? Yes, there was a time when politicians were willing to say, “You know, I don’t really understand this technology so I’m just going to take a pass here.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Oh, Senator Ted Stevens.
Ted Stephens: The internet is not something that you just dump something on, it’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.
Jason Feifer: By the way no joke, series of tubes is my WiFi network name at home. Don’t hack me, okay? So Morse does eventually get the money to build out his test, and this sets off a different round of opposition. And it is really worth pausing to appreciate this new protest because it gives you a sense of where people are coming from at the time. I mean, this is a world in which news of your wife’s death shows up on a piece of paper carried by a horse, and now this painter guy is saying he can send messages hundreds of miles through a wire.
Tom Standage: They worried that it might be black magic, it might be a bad thing, should we really be meddling with these forces that we don’t understand?
Jason Feifer: And this idea of black magic would go on for a while by the way. Here’s David Hochfelder, Associate Professor of History at the University of Albany, SUNY, and the author of The Telegraph in America 1832 to 1920.
David Hochfelde…: And in Northern Alabama in the 1850s, an evangelical minister preached that the telegraph wires were stealing the lightning from the sky, and that’s what accounted for an ongoing drought. And the members of that congregation tore down telegraph lines.
Jason Feifer: Fun times, but that’s also skipping ahead. Back in 1842 Morse still hasn’t even done his first test yet, but after enough persistence he does get his money and then begins to run a wire from Washington D.C to Baltimore. Morse wants to conduct a big public demonstration, something that will show how information can move faster by telegraph line than by any other means. And he wants to prove without a doubt that this isn’t a trick, this is real, no black magic. And so he comes up with something pretty clever. The Whig Party was about to host its national convention in Baltimore, where they pick their nominees for the upcoming presidential election. Now remember how information travels back then, the typical path would be for the nominees to be selected and then for someone to hop on a train from Baltimore to Washington D.C where then they’d get off the train and announce the news from Baltimore. So Morse wants to use his telegraph to beat the train and get the information to Washington first. So he sets everything up and here we go. It’s May 1st, 1844, The Whig Party gets together argues about slavery and some other stuff and then makes their picks.
“It’s Henry Clay for president and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice president.”
And then they decide that the party slogan that year should be, “Hooray, hooray the country’s rising, vote for Clay and Frelinghuysen.” which not the catchiest thing I’ve ever heard, but A for effort on trying to rhyme with Frelinghuysen. Anyway, now it’s a race, who can get the news to Washington First? The nominees names are tapped out over the wire and arrive almost instantaneously in Washington where it’s announced.
“It’s Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen.”
And then the assembled mass wait for confirmation to see if this is actually true. So train takes off from Baltimore. Tick, tock, tick, tock, a full 64 minutes pass, and now here we go, here comes the train.
“It’s Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen.”
And then Morse drops the mic, boom! Though actually, microphones wouldn’t be invented for another few decades, so maybe Morse goes to his telegraph panel and drops this [inaudible]. Which for real is Morse code for hell yeah, bitches. Anyway, Morse follows this up with another display where he sends the now famous phrase, “What hath God wrought across the wire.” And soon his telegraph wire is open for business, the public can pay to send a message from either side of the wire from Baltimore to D.C, and business is almost non-existent.
Tom Standage: After five days, they’d taken 12 and a half cents, so it’s not really a smash hit right away.
Jason Feifer: And so begins the question of what the hell to do with this thing? Now, a similar system was also being designed in England around the same time, and over there it was paid for and operated by the railroad, which used it mostly to send status updates about the trains. But in America, telegraph technology was available on the open market, and some enterprising people start to think maybe if more cities are connected by wire, this will become more desirable. So a company springs up to connect New York and Philadelphia.
Tom Standage: They advertise in the newspapers in both New York and Philadelphia saying, “Look, you’re going to be able to send messages instantly between New York and Philadelphia. It’s going to be 25 cents for 10 words.” And business people start to go okay, I can see the point of this, I can find out what the price of something is in Philadelphia, I can tell people in Philadelphia that a ship has arrived, or there’s news or whatever.
Jason Feifer: This is 1845, and by the way 25 cents back then would equal about $6.81 in today’s money, so kind of on par with the early days of the internet when AOL would charge by the minute, remember that? I racked up $100 bill once and my parents were like, “No more internet for you.” Anyway, the success of the New York Philadelphia line inspires more like it around the country, and eventually we get a system that feels like early internet cafes. So here’s how this would work. If you wanted to send a message to someone you’d go to your local telegraph office, then you’d fill out a little form including your message and the address of the person you’re sending it to, and then you’d hand that over to a clerk. I found a promotional video from Western Union in 1951 that dramatizes this, so let me set the scene here.
A cheery, clean cut looking guy is standing at a counter filling out a form called a stork gram, which I guess was a special form to announce births or whatever. Anyway, he’s written this message on it, “Twins six pounds each both look like me. Alice doing fine. Think I will recover.” Think I will recover? What does that even? Anyway, a Western Union employee comes over to process the message.
Voice Clip (Western Union): I don’t mean to be personal sir, but congratulations.
Voice Clip (Western Union): Oh, thanks.
Voice Clip (Western Union): Did you mean to say whether these twins were boys or girls sir?
Voice Clip (Western Union): How could I have forgotten that? They’re are boys.
Jason Feifer: Somehow I don’t think that guy would have been as happy about girls. So then the message would be handed over to a telegraph operator who type it out on the wire, and then another telegraph operator in another city would receive and translate the message and then type it out onto a card, and then a messenger would take that card to its final destination and that’s the system.
Voice Clip (Western Union): And you want to send it through regular telegram of course?
Voice Clip (Western Union): Oh, sure. This is news.
Jason Feifer: So let’s review. Samuel Morse dreams of sending fast, long distance messages. He identifies the technology. He’s considered crazy. He builds it. Everyone’s like, “Oh, cool. But now what?” Then some entrepreneurs jump in, connect more cities and now everyone’s like, “Oh, cool. My wife gave birth to twins, but I think I’ll recover.” And doesn’t this sound great? The world is connected, the modern era begins to take shape. Give it to me, Diana Ross. (singing) But let’s remember, not everyone was so excited.
Dallas Taylor: 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.
Jason Feifer: That again, was the man, the myth, the bearded guy at the pond, Henry David Thoreau from his book Walden. And we’re going to dive deeper into what he’s talking about in a second because it’s now time to ask our ever present question. In the face of this revolutionary new technology, what are people so upset over? The answer lies in a big gray zone because like I said before, the telegraph brought us many of the same things that today we associate with the internet, and it’s not always easy to carve a clear line between the good and the bad. So I’m going to lay out some of the biggest issues and reactions and we’ll try to make sense of it all. And let’s start with Thoreau, by the way, our voice of Thoreau along with a few other things in this episode is that of Dallas Taylor.
He’s the host of a great podcast called 20,000 Hertz, which is about the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. My favorite is history of the NBC Chimes, you know [inaudible], but the show goes absolutely everywhere from Sonic branding, to slot machines, to Disney parks. It’s really an exploration of the world around us, so if you love sound check it out 20,000 Hertz. And okay, here’s Dallas reading a longer excerpt of Thoreau’s Walden where you can hear that Maine and telegraph quote in greater context.
Dallas Taylor: As with our colleagues so with 100 modern improvements, there’s an illusion about them. There’s not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but 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.
Jason Feifer: So all right, what’s Thoreau talking about here? To find out I picked up the phone at my home in New York and I called Laura Dassow Walls to see if New York and Indiana have anything important to communicate.
Laura Dassow Walls: So my name is Laura Dassow Walls and I teach at the University of Notre Dame in the English department and the history and philosophy of science program. And I’m the author of Henry David Thoreau: A life, a biography that came out for Thoreau’s 200th birthday.
Jason Feifer: Laura says it’s important to understand a few things here. One, Thoreau was not an isolated crank, he had a ready audience of people who shared his views. Two, the telegraph at the time wasn’t seen as just a means of communication, it was also ushering in something of a new world order. The telegraph and the railroad were expanded around the same time and like I had said before, the telegraph enabled train companies to run their trains on time. That meant every locality had to sync up to the same clock which was a new thing back then. I mean, the world until then just wasn’t always in agreement about exactly what time it was, and it didn’t really matter one way or the other, but now Laura says the world began moving from sun time to clock time.
To Thoreau, that felt like a distancing from what’s natural. And the third thing to understand is this, although Thoreau was complaining about the telegraph here, that wasn’t really his main target. He was fascinated by technology and always wanted to know how things worked. In his diaries, he talked about walking along the telegraph lines in wonder and studying how it worked, but he saw potential for its misuse. Which is to say that he had a very particular idea of what communication was for and what it wasn’t for.
Laura Dassow Wa…: I think the point there is less about the telegraph than about modern media and the kind of if you’re using it to communicate trivia, and then it degenerates into a kind of speech for its own sake.
Jason Feifer: Basically, he figures that people will use the telegraph to communicate stupid things. The telegraph will distract us from important speech, he figures and replace it with speech just because, and he offers an example of this in Walden.
Dallas Taylor: We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks near 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.
Jason Feifer: Take some NyQuil and telegraph me in the morning Princess Adelaide, nobody cares about your whooping cough. So what did Thoreau think was a more appropriate use of the wires? for him the question really was what should be happening instead of communication over the wires.
Laura Dassow Wa…: It’s like slow reading, or slow food, or slow anything against a universe where everything just has to speed up, speed up, speed up. So that you lose the capacity to slow down and actually either dig a little deeper into causality or to human relationships or to the natural world or to elevate yourself to the true kinds of spiritual meaning.
Jason Feifer: This reminds me of something people still say today, which is like, “Ah, people waste their time tweeting about their breakfast or Snapchating pictures of their butts and what a waste. They’re wasting their time. Their name is wasting MC waste face and they’re wasting away in their own waste.” I mean, one of our loudest pessimists today is MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who seems to have made a career out of infinitely repeating this argument. A few years ago for the New York Times for example, She wrote this ridiculous essay about how she was walking around a mall with the comedian Aziz Ansari, and all these fans would come up asking to take a selfie with him, but instead Aziz would try to talk to these people. She wrote.
Jennifer Miller: He inquired about their tastes and music, what they liked about his performances, his stand up, his sitcom Parks and Recreation. His fans were mollified, but they were rarely happy. They had to walk away with nothing on their phones.
Jason Feifer: To which Turkle is basically like, “Aha! The phones have replaced conversation. There is one correct way to communicate, and that is to have an important and emotionally meaningful conversation with everyone you encounter. And these people could have had that soul enriching exchange of ideas, but instead, they’ve been programmed to just want this frivolous photo instead. Bad, bad people, bad, bad phone, bad, bad world.” And the frustration I’ve always had with that argument is, isn’t life more complicated than that? Sometimes we want a deep conversation, and sometimes we want a simple transaction, and sometimes we just want to have fun. And isn’t it fine to like another person’s work, but not actually want to have any meaningful interaction with them? And more importantly, technology didn’t create this contradiction, it’s human, it’s always been there. So I put it to Laura.
To expect that people will always use something in a meaningful way is it seems to me to misunderstand how people use anything. Because it’s not like face to face conversations were all exceptionally meaningful, all right. It’s not like this is…
Laura Dassow Wa…: Yeah, he wrestled with that one too. He would anticipate a conversation with Emerson or with other friends and sometimes they were wonderful clearly, he was a great conversationalist. But he had no patience with like parties where it was all very a kind of… I mean, he wanted the words to mean something, he loved people who used words in ways that responded to what we would call philosophical or academic kinds of challenging conversations.
Jason Feifer: And so I mean, what are you supposed to do with someone like that? Philosophical, academic kinds of challenging conversations are fun when it’s 3AM and you’re in your dorm room hallway, but come on, that’s not most of the time and it’s not most people. And for Thoreau, or Sherry Turkle, or anyone else to condemn technology for facilitating natural human instincts is to really, really miss the point, but let’s give Thoreau his due by shifting the conversation slightly. He was concerned, at least in that portion, about individual one on one communication, but what if we instead look at communication on a larger scale? What if we look at how entire groups of people talk about each other, or how they receive information? That’s when we get into a gray area, the princess Adelaide whooping cough area I suppose.
So, the telegraph begun enabling news to be shared at a faster rate, and that gave birth to wire services like the Associated Press. These organizations would gather and distribute news from everywhere, they were distributors of information. And at first, the stuff they distributed seemed genuinely important, wars and conflicts and business and so on, but then other stuff started going across the wire too. Here’s Tom Standage again.
Tom Standage: You might have a news ticker in the telegraph office that spitting out news all the time, and some people start to say that this is silly because people are starting to obsess with trivial stories that don’t really matter and that it’s a waste of space. And you do get this idea that maybe we don’t need all this news, maybe we don’t need to hear what’s going on, and maybe we need some kind of filter on it.
Jason Feifer: And that cost more than just information overload. In 1872, the London Times ran this really interesting piece about how England and the U.S were straining their relationship by trading news stories. The paper complained that American stories contained all of these stereotypes about British people and just riled everyone up. Here’s the London Times.
Voice Clip (London Times): It is precisely the extension of the electric telegraph across the Atlantic which has facilitated the instant publication of all such words and criticisms generally, without their context, and not infrequently with malicious additions in every city of the United States. The mischief of what’s occasionally done can hardly be overstated.
Jason Feifer: And back in the States, the Washington correspondent of the New York Times was worried for a somewhat different reason. Information was moving so fast, he said that it was becoming reckless.
Dallas Taylor: So far as the influence of the newspaper upon the mind and morals of the people is concerned, there can be no rational doubt that the telegraph has caused vast injury. Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth must be all telegraphic intelligence.
Jason Feifer: For example, The Times in 1863 ran a story headlined, A HOAX EXPOSED; No Truth in the Alleged Charleston Telegram. It was the paper’s attempt to clean up a mess in which a telegram reported an accident at a military base and then that got reported in the papers, but it turns out there was no accident, fake news. And this wasn’t an isolated incident, in 1883 a hoax telegram was originally blamed for swinging an election in the U.S Senate that would turn out later to be some complicated misunderstanding. And another Times story, this one from 1862, talked about how the telegraph posed a serious security risk for the military which had come to rely upon the technology. Here’s part of that.
Dallas Taylor: If a rebel agent for example, could get control of an office between Washington and McClellan’s headquarters he could send any order he might choose in the name of the president to General McClellan, and the latter could not detect the imposition until perhaps it might be too late.
Jason Feifer: These are the earliest versions of problems we still grapple with today, cyber attacks, bad reporting, misinformation that spreads faster than the truth. Some of it was intentional wrongdoing, and some of it was just plain accidental, but all of it was the unexpected byproduct of an interconnected world. And here’s another problem that’ll sound familiar to our modern ears, a loss of privacy. There’s a great story about how the head of the army signal corpse tried to stay in the good graces of President Ulysses S. Grant, by basically spying on Grant’s daughter during her honeymoon and then sending the president constant updates about it via telegraph.
James Schwoch: Including things like your daughter boarded a ship and such and such a town and such and such time, and then was observed getting off the ship later in Portsmouth, England and then observed going here and going there. And, Grant sent a telegraph back to [Myre] and said stop it.
Jason Feifer: That’s James Schwoch, a professor at Northwestern School of Communication and the author of Wired into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier.
James Schwoch: And on the one hand of the story it’s kind of amusing, on the other hand it is the earliest story I know about stalking people almost electronically on the internet. And this whole idea that the telegraph, along with personal observation and detectives and all of a sudden could be put together into what another author James Fleming calls an ongoing web of surveillance.
Jason Feifer: And there are considerably less funny anecdotes, government officials started using the telegraph to keep track of political dissidents and striking union workers, and white settlers were using the telegraph to track Native Americans movements. After the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 when up to 500 indigenous people were killed, the local tribes even tried to protect themselves by destroying the telegraph wires.
James Schwoch: And to me these are a little bit like contemporary denial of service attacks, it’s some of the first instances you find in the world of occupied people or indigenous people striking back trying to destroy or undermine the electronic communication networks of an occupying power.
Jason Feifer: There’s a 1933 John Wayne movie that totally bastardizes this situation. In the movie, the telegraph company guys are out west building the wire and they get attacked by Native Americans. The movie is just like super crazy racist, but interestingly the big bad villain of this story is actually a white guy. It’s a character named Mr. Lynch who owns a shipping monopoly out there and doesn’t want the telegraph to compete against him, so he rounds up the natives and sends them off to fight. But don’t worry because in the end, Mr. Lynch tries to prove how pointless the telegraph wire is by grabbing it and well, here’s the result of that.
Voice Clip (Mr. Lynch): Don’t let this one fool young men, there’s nothing to this contraction. Why it won’t even work, I’ll show you [inaudible].
Voice Clip (Actor): Gentlemen, Mr. Lynch agrees that electricity is the conquering power of the age. Don’t you guys? Don’t do Mr. Lynch? Yes.
Jason Feifer: Bow to your new Lord Mr. Lynch, for his name is electricity. So lots of surveillance and loss of privacy. Did the telegraph usher in a modern experience that we’d be better off without? It’s easy to say yes, until you see how the same tracking technology could be put to good use too.
Tom Standage: The early acceptance of the telegraph and understanding it is a series of stories where its benefits are made apparent, sensational stories. So you’re going back to Britain, the story that really changed people’s perceptions was the story of John Tawell, and he was a murderer and this is in 1845. He murdered his mistress in Slough, which is a town outside London, and then when the crime was discovered he made a run for it and headed for London. And he was wearing a particular big brown coat, which meant that he looked like a Quaker people said because it was a coat that Quakers would wear. And so his description was telegraphed to London, faster than the train that he was traveling on, and it meant that when he arrived in London the police were waiting for him and arrested him. And he was then convicted of the murder and hanged, and the telegraph became known as the cords that hung John Tawell.
Jason Feifer: And who doesn’t want the cords to hang John Tawell? Suddenly surveillance capabilities sound pretty good, and they sound even better if you’re in a place without a telegraph and then you see what happens when you get wired up. Here’s James Schwoch again.
James Schwoch: It was often said that as soon as the telegraph and the railroad showed up in some town in the West, various criminals and their ne’er-do-well would move on because the telegrams in this case would report who these people were and what they had been up to.
Jason Feifer: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, that is what we want for our criminals and our ne’er-do-well. It’s just that more than 150 years later, we haven’t figured out exactly how to apply it to just those people and nobody else.
Advertisement (Andy Dick): Hey, this is Andy Dick is anybody out there with ears on? Because I have a new podcast called aDiCKted. I was basically a hot mess when it all began. I talked to doctors, therapists, you name it, I’m just a guest on my own show. It’s awkward, it’s funny, it’s serious, and of course, it’s a little whoop-de-do. Get aDiCKted to me Andy Dick, aDiCKted on Apple, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
Jason Feifer: And now, let’s look at one final concern leveled against the telegraph. It became a corrupter of morality. Though of course, the corruption was specific to a certain set of people, say like half of all people.
Voice Clip (Vocational Guidance Films): Here in this operating room, hundreds of girls receive and transmit messages on batteries of teleprinters and multiplex machine.
Jason Feifer: Yes, the girls. That clip you heard was from something called Vocational Guidance Films in 1946, but women were working in telegraph offices from almost the beginning. Typically, as the telegraph operators who would send and receive people’s messages, and this made the boys very anxious. In a magazine called Electric Age of 1887, one of the angry boys wrote that the telegraph jobs for women…
Dallas Taylor: Will break up the marriage state and result in what? Community life, polygamous life, or barbarous life?
Jason Feifer: And he probably thought that for two reasons. One is easy, we know the formula, right? Women plus work equals trouble, but the second was more specific to telegraph’s. Okay, so when someone was a telegraph operator, it was like they were in one giant chat room, like a like an old AOL chat room. And most of the time, they’re sending people’s messages along the wire, but if there’s nothing else going on, the operators who are in the chat room can basically talk amongst themselves. And that of course, includes the male and the female telegraph operators together. What followed of course, was a lot of public attention towards stories like this.
Tom Standage: There’s an example from 1886 of a woman called Maggie McCutcheon and her dad ran a newsstand and had a telegraph line in it, so you could go and send and receive telegraph messages from his newsstand. And his daughter was operating the telegraph and so she basically sat on the telegraph wire all day chatting with other operators. And she got involved with one of them a guy called Frank Frisbee, and he worked at the telegraph office at the Long Island Railroad. And so they started seeing each other and then her dad found out about it and said this wouldn’t do at all.
Jason Feifer: This didn’t end well by the way, it turns out that Frank Frisbee was married and Maggie either didn’t know or didn’t care, and she had her dad arrested for stopping the love affair because she claimed that the dad threatened to “blow her brains out.” And it was all reported in that magazine Electric Age under the headline, The Dangers of Wired Love.
Tom Standage: So you do get this concern in the 1870s and 1880s, and you get it with the telephone as well, that this is going to breach the bounds of etiquette. It was a big problem with the telephone, what happens if you’re rang up by someone to whom you haven’t been properly introduced? That was a concern that people had in the 1880s and ’90s. Also, was it proper for young women to answer the telephone in their underwear? I mean, there are all sorts of ridiculous things like this, but essentially what you see there is concern that technology is going to loosen the grip that parents have over their daughters in particular.
Jason Feifer: But also, lots of great things came from this, actual very nice romances began over the telegraph wires. There was even a novel in 1880 called Wired Love, which was about two people who meet over the wires and fall in love without ever knowing each other’s names. And the, then they discovered that they actually do know each other in real life and they don’t particularly like each other in real life. And well come to think of it, it’s basically the plot of You’ve Got Mail, or You’ve Got Mail is actually the plot of Wired Love.
Anyway, the characters in Wired Love, their names are Natty and Clem ad I’m just going to totally spoil the ending for you. In the end, Clem comes to Natty’s telegraph office and the two try to confess their affections to each other, but they just can’t seem to find the words. So Clem suggests that the two of them communicate in that same room to each other over the telegraph. So they take out the paddle and Clem asks Natty, or types it out he says, “Please tell me truly and relieve my mind, if you like me as well as you thought you would.” And here’s the rest of the scene.
Jennifer Miller: Taking the key he relinquished and without looking at him she replied, “Yes. And suppose I asked you the same question what would you say politeness aside?” “I should answer,” wrote Clem his eyes on the sounder, “That I have found the very little girl expected.” And then their eyes met and Natty hastily rose and walked to the window for no ostensible purpose. And Clem said going after her, “It is nicer talking on the wire, isn’t it?”
Jason Feifer: That last moment contains so much about this battle over the telegraph. Here are our two wired crossed lovers Natty and Clem connecting in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible before the introduction of this new technology. And pessimists like Sherry Turkle, you know that MIT professor who thinks that somehow bad to take a selfie with a celebrity, well, they might point to this scene as evidence of a problem. This couple had become so reliant upon a technology that they couldn’t confess their love to each other face to face, much like kids these days, and their texting and Snapchating and TikToking. But what if there’s a totally different way to look at it? I was really struck by something that the science writer Clive Thompson wrote about that scene. Back in 2013, he’d written about it on a blog he kept called Collision Detection and so I asked him to read a particular paragraph from his post.
Voice Clip (Clive Thompson): My wife and I frequently G Chat with each other when we’re both home at the same time, me upstairs working and her downstairs working. And we do that not merely because it’s easier than hollering up and down the stairs, but because we enjoy a different type of conversation when we’re G Chatting. This is what always frustrates me when doleful pundits claim that texting or chat is a devolved or lesser form of intimacy than in person conversation. Anyone who’s done a ton of texting and chatting knows that textual talk has expressive qualities that are not only delightful, but unachievable if you’re sitting with someone and conversing face to face. Textual chat is not a substitute for in person talk of course, but vice versa is equally as true.
Jason Feifer: I’d said at the beginning of this episode that the telegraph and modern internet are criticized in a lot of the same ways and are blamed for a lot of the same things, and why is that? What do we make of that? I think Clive nails it right here, technology doesn’t create human actions, really it unlocks them. It gives us more ways to be who we are.
Tom Standage: Technology doesn’t change human nature, it just amplifies different aspects of it. And so that’s really what’s happening here, that the technology allows aspects of human nature to become more visible.
Jason Feifer: Because frankly yeah, not all of human nature is good, but not all is bad. So yes, sometimes we tell each other smart things. And sometimes we tell each other dumb things, and sometimes we push ourselves and each other beyond the limits. We have triumphs, and we make mistakes, and as we develop technology that amplifies our voices, we amplify both sides of us as well. Should we try to do better? Should we improve ourselves and the things we create? Yes, certainly, that goes without question. But for anyone who thinks that the internet created today’s problems, either real or imaginary, well, those people are laying their blame really, really far from the starting line. Our faults were there before and made visible by the telegraph, and they were surely there before the telegraph too in ways that may have had less of an impact.
But that also took place in a world in which people were less connected and less empowered, and whose ambitions had to be contained to the short reach of their voice. The telegraph it seems to me was all about strengthening voices, and so it would be for everything that followed from the telephone to the internet. With each cycle our voices get louder, and there are more of them, and that does create a noisy world and so it’s on each of us to sift for what we find valuable. But to say that someone’s use of their voice is invalid, whether it’s a telegraph or a selfie, or a news story, come on, nobody should be able to make that decision. Give me princess Adelaide’s whooping cough and I’ll decide if I care enough to pay attention. Give me Maine and Texas talking to each other and let’s see what comes of it.
It’s fair to say that a podcast is a direct descendant of a telegraph, and so I wonder what the pessimists of old would say about this thing I’ve just made right now. Was it worthy of our new tools? Did it match their exacting standards? I’ll tell you what, I don’t care! I’m just going to do it because the lines of communication are open, and we’ll see who listens.
And that’s our episode, but it is not the end of telegraph related pessimism, I have a fun trivia question for you. What possible objection did people have to the development of the pencil? And how does that relate to the episode you just heard? Intriguing, right? All will be revealed. But first, have you subscribe to Pessimists Archive wherever you get your podcasts? If not, please do it so you won’t miss an episode and leave us a review too while you’re at it. You can also follow us on Twitter at @pessimistsArc, that’s Arc or visit our website pessimists.co, where we have links to some of the things discussed in this episode. We also always love hearing from listeners, drop us a line at [email protected].
Thanks to the folks who heard in this episode, Tom Standage James Schwoch, Laura Dassow Walls, David Hochfelder and Clive Thompson. Thanks also to Dallas Taylor for being our Henry David Thoreau, again Dallas’ podcast about the history of sound is called 20,000 Hertz. You also heard Jennifer Miller as a reader. Shout out to Thomas C. Jepsen, whose book My Sisters Telegraph provided really helpful research. Our theme music is by Caspar Baby Pants, learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch foundation, learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. And we’re also supported in this episode by Element AI, check out their podcast AI Element. The Pessimists Archive team this episode included Louis Anslow and Chris Cornelius who by the way, were also some of the voices you heard reading archival material.
We were recorded at Degraw Sound and edited by Jack Dixon. And now finally, I have the answer to that question I posed a minute ago. So first, how is a pencil related to this episode? Here’s how. In the 1840s Henry David Thoreau ran his family’s pencil business, and it turns out he was a real innovator in the pencil field.
Voice Clip (Henry David Thoreau): For some years they were the best pencils Made in America.
Jason Feifer: And so I’d wondered, did Thoreau’s skepticism of the telegraph come in part from a protectionist instinct? Was he worried that the telegraph would hurt pencil sales? But Laura says no, there’s no evidence of that. In fact, he was willing to make a big change in his business. At some point graphite became more valuable than his pencils, so he just started selling graphite wholesale. But that whole thing got me thinking about whether anyone had objected to the development of the pencil, because for every innovation there’s somebody to oppose it. So I emailed Henry Petroski, author of a book called The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. And wouldn’t you know it, he told me that in the 1860s when erasers started to be added to the ends of pencils, and now here I’m just going to quote Henry, “Teachers objected, claiming that the convenience of an eraser integral to a pencil would encourage students to be careless, since errors in spelling et cetera, could be so easily corrected.” Even the pencil folks, even the pencil.
That’s all we got for this episode. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. My name is Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.