What Hath God Wrought

The telegraph was an even more dramatic innovation in its day than the Internet

On May 24, 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, tapped a message into a device of cogs and coiled wires, employing a code that he had recently devised to send a biblical text: “What hath God wrought.” Forty miles away in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and returned the message. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world. Read more »

When Our Ancestors Became Us

In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life

It is a commonplace that the American Revolution determined the political destiny of the country. Far less noted is the fact that the Revolution’s consequences, profound as they were, had little, if any, impact on the daily existence of most Americans. The social structures and economic realities that had determined the everyday lives of the British subjects living in the colonies continued to determine the existence of the American citizens of the new Republic.Read more »

Post Haste

The urge to move documents as fast as possible has always been a national pre-occupation, because it has always been a necessity. Fax and Federal Express are just the latest among many innovations for getting the message across.

Reaching out and touching someone hasn’t always been easy—especially if it was necessary to hand that person something in the process. Yet there have always been Americans who absolutely and positively had to have it the next day, week, month, at any cost, and this in turn has always drawn others with the dollars and determination to make it happen.Read more »

Hindsight, Foresight, And No Sight

Late in 1876, William Orton, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, rejected an opportunity to purchase from Alexander Graham Bell and his associates all patents relating to Bell’s telephone for $100,000. Since Bell’s patents are generally considered the most valuable ever issued by the United States Patent Office, Orton’s refusal to buy them earned him an odd immortality: he is the man who made the worst decision in American business history. Read more »

Inventing The Telegraph

Incidents in history are usually significant only in combination with a succession of other incidents. Isolated incidents can assume importance only when they summarize an epoch in one dramatic moment or when fuller knowledge of the event might alter interpretations. Read more »

O.k. The Last Word

When did we start saying it? And why?

FROM THE OIL FIELDS of Indonesia to the tulip fields of Holland to the rice fields of Brazil, a traveler overhears conversations sounding something like this:

FIRSTNATIVE : “Unintelligible unintelligible unintelligible, okay?”

SECONDNATIVE : “Okay.” Read more »

The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

As Lincoln lay dying from an assassin’s bullet across the street from Ford’s Theatre through the grim night of April 14, 1865, frequent bulletins on his sinking condition clicked between the major American cities along the country’s spreading web of Morse telegraph wires. News of his death in the morning spread from city to city within minutes. Yet eleven days passed before the tragic tidings reached Great Britain and Europe when the steamship Nova Scotian from New York docked in England on April 26. Read more »

Tales From The Black Chambers

THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF CODES AND CIPHERS HAS PLAYED AN EXCITING AND OFTEN CRUCIAL PART IN AMERICAN HISTORY

By choice, cryptographers are an unsung and anonymous lot. In war and peace they labor in their black chambers, behind barred doors, dispatching sheets of secret symbols and reading encoded messages from the innermost councils of foreign governments. Few tales have leaked from those rooms. Read more »

Billy Mitchell In Alaska

Early in his military career, the apostle of air power blazed a trail through the wilderness, forging the last link in a telegraph line to the edge of the Bering Sea

Few figures in American history have been surrounded by more controversy than General William Mitchell. He is a man chiefly remembered for his outspoken advocacy of air power in an age when most military minds were still firmly rooted in the earth, and for a visionary’s indifference to the feelings of his more conservative superiors, which led to a sensational court-martial.