May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Atomic power. No one can dispute the existential impact of atomic power, from the first explosion in the New Mexico desert in 1945, hut the practical effects of atomic energy, for both military and civilian purposes, have fallen far shorter. Yes, the bomb changed our world view. Atomic energy made clear humankind’s ability to destroy itself. But as a weapon to project power, the A-bomb proved strangely ineffective. Too horrible to use except in the most extreme case, it remained a weapon of last and fatal resort but nonetheless distorted the application of conventional power. The Pentagon spent half a century worrying about how to relate the bomb, in expenditures and tactics, to conventional forces-in Europe during the Cold War, in the Middle East, and in the Third World. The initial military urgency of the bomb also limited the civilian applications of atomic power. Military reactors served as the models for civilian uses that had different requirements. Whether in the design of the equipment or the inherent danger of the fuels, atoms for peace failed. Because no failure could be tolerated, civilian atomic power quickly lost public favor. The initial promise of electricity too cheap to meter turned into concern about leaks and Three Mile Island-style near-disasters and ended with utilities and consumers paying off vast sums for shut-down plants.
The telegraph. The famous images of the last pony express riders passing linemen stringing telegraph wires is a critical turning point in human history. Save for systems of signal towers with flags or smoke, the telegraph marked the first time that communication was separated from transportation, that messages could move faster than the human body. A system of wires that carry information in electrical form, it was all there from the beginning, you could say. From Morse code to voice to video images to digital packets was simply a process of evolution. A new book on the telegraph titled The Victorian Internet argues that this crude technology changed society as much as and in ways similar to the Internet. The telegraph directed the railroad and changed the nature of war. It altered markets and politics. And, not insignificantly, it was developed by an artist. The other day at the New York Public Lihrary I came across Samuel Morse’s wonderful portrait of rhe aging, rheumy Lafayette and realized again that he was a major painter. Moreover, the telegraph was financed by the U.S. government —as was the Internet, when it began as the Arpanet.