What Samuel Wrought

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Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serions tilings. They are but improved means Io tin 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 … As if the main object were to talk last and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring llie 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. —Henry Thoreau, WALDEN

A generation like ours, that feels itself in danger of being engulfed by the uncontrolled flow of mass communications, can appreciate Thoreau’s forewarning. But when Walden was first published in 1854, the Western world was celebrating the rapid spread of electric telegraphy as a consummate triumph of the human spirit. Those “talking sparks” would cut through the barriers of space and time and remove them forever from between the minds of men. Beyond everything the steamboats and railroads could provide, the telegraph promised a solution to the most immediate problem of our sprawling American democracy—the union of interests over vast distances.

When the first transatlantic messages were exchanged a few years later (no references to an ailing princess, just formal salutations between Oiiccn Victoria and President Kuchanan), devout men talked of the millennium. Among other widespread demonstrations of popular excitement, New York was illuminated with such extravagant zeal that City Hall almost burned clown. The London Times reported that “since the discovery ol Colimibus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has been given to the sphere ol human activity.” The ocean cable broke several times before it was finally settled into place in i8(i(i. But news ol that ultimate success tame as an anticlimax, at least in America, where the wonder-working wires had long since been strung over longer distances with prodigious results that were still beyond calculation.

In December, 1868, a banquet was held at Delmonico’s in New York to honor Samuel Finley Breese Morse for his invention of the apparatus that had opened this electrifying new phase in the history of human affairs. He was showered with such eulogies as few living men are privileged to hear spoken for them. Amid a deluge of other tributes, William Cullen Bryant pointed to his aging friend as the man who had taken the most terrible of the elements, “the great electric mass, which in its concentrated form becomes the thunderbolt,” tamed it, drawn it through slender wires, and commanded it to serve as an obedient messenger that carried the human language. This was, concluded another distinguished speaker, “the greatest wonder and the greatest benefit of the age.” And, as the President of the United States had pointed out to Congress earlier in the year, with these new facilities for intercommunication, the principles of free government could now be broadcast with lightning speed; the messianic role of American democracy would be announced with fresh authority throughout the civilized world.

Morse had become a legend in his own lifetime, his chest a veritable pincushion for medals and awards that had come to him from all over the Western world. It was not then forgotten that, thirty years before, this bearded patriarch had been one of America’s leading artists; but it was mentioned with sadness. Daniel Huntington, president of the National Academy of Design, and whilom pupil of Morse, recalled the grief with which he had seen the “beloved master’s” sketch remain unfinished on the easel while he strung those mysterious wires around the studio, turning his back forever on the art he had served so well. Huntington never could renounce the hope that his teacher remained at heart an artist. Thus he pictured him, thirty years after his death, in a memorial portrait that showed the aged inventor still clinging to the palette he had put aside so long before. During the intervening years Morse himself had occasionally thought and spoken of returning to his easel. Once he had mastered his “thunder and lightning ‘Jim crack/ ” he would again pursue the muse and overtake her with the speed of electricity itself. But he never did. With a show of modesty altogether becoming to the great man of the moment, he explained to his banquet audience that he was. after all, but an instrument of Providence. And Providence had dictated that he sacrifice his profession of painting to serve mankind in another way.