October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Despite all the recent talk, governments will never be much good at fostering new technologies
In May of 1927 a secretary rushed into her boss’s office shouting, “He did it! He did it! Lindbergh has landed in Paris!” The boss was unimpressed. “Don’t you understand?” she asked. “Lindbergh has flown the Atlantic all by himself.”
“A man can do anything by himself,” the boss replied quietly. “Let me know when a committee has flown the Atlantic.” The story, of course, is apocryphal, but it demonstrates a fundamental aspect of the human condition: Genius, that strange and potent combination of insight, faith, determination, and—almost always—youth, inheres in individuals .
That’s why, despite much recent talk, governments will never be any good at fostering new technologies: governments are nothing more than very large committees. Having to cater to the powerful, governments are wont to favor what is over what might be. Fearing accusations of wasting public money on crackpot schemes, governments must rely on senior experts, who all too often are set in old ways of thinking.
The result is a rich literature of clouded-crystal-ball pronouncements, deadend government research projects, and spectacularly missed opportunities.
But if it’s any comfort to advocates of big government, even the geniuses who make the technological breakthroughs usually fail to foresee how their creations will actually play out in the future. Like the rest of us, they are too deeply embedded in the world they know. James Watt could hardly have realized that his rotary steam engine would bring forth a whole new civilization. Henry Ford sought only to free people from the tyranny of the horse. He had no idea he was creating a profound instrument of social change.
Or consider Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse thought his telegraph would be limited to governments sending messages of extreme urgency. That, after all, is what all earlier attempts to solve the problem of long-distance communication had been about. In fact, although he was over fifty when he finally perfected his telegraph, Morse lived plenty long enough to see the world remade by the product of his genius.
Born into a distinguished New England family in 1791, Morse was trained as a painter, at which profession he scraped a most inadequate living during much of his life. He had a genius for portraiture but aspired to paint the sort of pictures he thought “important,” large allegorical canvases for which he had no more than a pedestrian talent. With much time on his hands, he dabbled in many ideas. Returning from Europe in 1832, he talked on shipboard with Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston chemist who had been researching electricity in Europe, and then and there he had his fundamental insight. “If … the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit,” he said, “I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity.”
Morse seems to have thought that most of his conception was original with him. In fact, hardly any of it was.
The problem of transmitting information over long distances was as old as empire. The Persians and the Incas developed elaborate messenger systems over established roads to hold things together. Elizabeth I’s government readied a series of bonfires across the south of England, so that news of the arrival of the Armada in the Channel could be signaled instantly to London. But it was only in the decade that Morse was born that a true long-distance communications network was devised, albeit so expensive only governments could possibly afford it.
Beginning in 1794, Claude Chappé built a series of semaphore stations between Paris and important military posts such as the naval base at Brest. They were equipped with a mast and movable crossarms with flags. Spaced five to ten miles apart and worked by four or five people each, they were like a series of giant Boy Scouts wigwagging to each other. In this way, messages could be transmitted at a rate of several hundred miles a day.
Of course, the system had numerous disadvantages besides expense. It was useless in bad weather or at night. And because each message had to be endlessly copied and repeated, the transmission-error rate was extremely high. So the search for other means to move information quickly continued and began to center on one of the great scientific curiosities of the eighteenth century, electricity.
Electricity was first recognized as a separate phenomenon in the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1747 that Sir William Watson demonstrated that it was possible to transmit it down a metal wire and that this current could cause action at a distance.
By the 1770s several people had the idea that electricity flowing through wires might be used to convey information. The first system actually built, in Geneva in 1774, used one wire for each letter of the alphabet. The current would charge a pith ball with static electricity, which in turn would attract a bell, ringing it. This alphabetical carillon actually worked, after a fashion, but it was hardly a practical system.
It was only after the invention of the electromagnet and much better batteries, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, that an electric telegraph really became possible. Instrumental in both these developments was Joseph Henry, a professor the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and later the first director of the Smithsonian Institution. He generously shared his knowledge with Morse after Morse began going to him for advice.
Henry also put Morse onto the final piece of the puzzle. Even the best-insulated wire loses electricity, limiting the distance a message could be carried. But Henry suggested using relays, electromagnetic devices that pick up the signal and generate it anew at full strength.
Morse put together a working model in one of the rooms of New York University. It consisted of batteries, seventeen hundred feet of wire coiled around the room, and, at each end of the wire, an electromagnet and a telegraph key for opening and closing the circuit. When the operator pushed down the key at one end, it closed the circuit, allowing a current to flow down the wire and activate the magnet at the other end, causing that key to click down in turn.
It was here that the only part of the Morse telegraph that was wholly Morse’s came into play—his marvelously efficient code. Morse assigned a pattern of dots and dashes to each letter, digit, and punctuation mark. Perhaps the most impressive part of the code is that Morse analyzed English letter frequencies and gave the shortest patterns to the most common letters. He had spent much time devising a means of recording the signals mechanically, his method for making the electricity “visible,” but he soon learned that the code was so simple and to use that a trained operator could easily interpret it by ear and write it down directly.
Although Morse’s model was extremely crude, it was enough to attract partners—Leonard Gale, a professor at New York University, who filled in Morse’s weak technical background, and Alfred Vail, a gifted mechanic whose father owned a prosperous ironworks in New Jersey. The Vails made a more sophisticated model to show Washington.
The government, handed the key to the future, was characteristically unimpressed, and no money was forthcoming for a real long-distance demonstration. To get money from Congress, the three men took on a fourth partner who was, conveniently enough, a congressman himself, F. O. J. Smith, known to his friends as Fog. Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, did not let a mere conflict of interest stand in the way of progress, and pressed hard for an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars to build a test line from Baltimore to Washington.
Finally, in 1843, despite many rude jokes on the floor of Congress, Morse’s project was shuffled through in the frantic final minutes of a session. The subsequent construction contract was thoroughly botched in an attempt to lay the wires underground.
After a new start the wires finally were stretched on poles and on May 24, 1844, Morse, in the Capitol building, signaled to Alfred Vail in Baltimore, “What hath God wrought!” and Vail repeated the message accurately.
The effect on the world of Morse’s success was, well, electric. Within ten years of the first message, the United States was knit together with twentythree thousand miles of wire, thousands more being added every year. By the time of Morse’s death in 1872, the telegraph reached from California to India. Because of it, railroads could operate safely at much higher speeds and much lower costs. Businessmen could operate in a national market, with vast economies of scale. The many regional stock exchanges could coalesce around the one in Wall Street, creating a market to rival London’s. Newspaper readers could learn of distant news almost as soon as it happened. The world, thanks to Samuel Morse, shrank by several orders of magnitude.
All of this, of course, had been completely unforeseen by Morse. In fact, shortly after his success, he and his partners offered to sell the rights to the federal government for a mere hundred thousand dollars. Fortunately for them, the government was even more myopic and turned them down flat.
It is a curious irony that, thirty years later, after Alexander Graham Bell successfully demonstrated his telephone, he, too, failed to grasp the immense potential. He, too, tried to sell his rights for the nice round sum of one hundred thousand dollars. But he didn’t offer the rights to the government. He offered them to Western Union, which had come to dominate the telegraph business. Western Union turned him down flat.