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The Telegraph

December 9, 2003

A public radio commentary

My wife and I just installed broadband internet access, so now we surf the web at tremendous speeds. Less than 10% of Americans, though, have adopted broadband. Why so few, especially when a fast connection promises - if you believe its cheerleaders - nearly everything. One proponent even claimed that it would forge "a common bond" that would "stave off .. ethnic hatred and national breakups." Perhaps the 90% who have not subscribed know something special. Maybe a fast connection won't improve the world? Just look at the telegraph, whose story is a parable for our fast internet age.

The first commercial telegraph debuted in 1846 when Samuel Morse sent the message "what hath god wrought" between Washington and Baltimore. And with that he started a revolution in fast communication. Within eight years a transatlantic cable linked the United States to England and thus to the world, allowing a message to zip from the United States to India in minutes.

Indeed the telegraph changed the world. Prior to its invention, information travelled so slowly that the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 was fought between Great Britain and America two weeks after the two nations signed a Peace Treaty. The telegraph, though, ended the age of information isolation. By the late 19th century money moved rapidly around the globe as banks wired millions a year. Newspapers moved from a local focus to reports of events around the globe as foreign correspondents wired in stories. Markets changed as information moved rapidly. For example, fishermen telegraphed statistics about their catches to retailers who sold the fish before they even arrived.

The telegraph did change the world, yet its promise and hype were so much greater. An early promoter of the telegraph hailed it as nothing less than an instrument of world peace, calling the telegraph and the new trans-Atlantic cable "a living, fleshy bond between severed portion of the human family," that would "bind the human race in unity, peace and concord." Instead, the telegraph gave rise to new forms of crime. In France, for instance, two brokers bribed a telegraph operator to delay stock market information from Paris to Bordeaux, then used this inside information to buy and sell stocks at a profit.

The promise of the telegraph to solve the world's problem failed, reminding us that technology and its use reflects human nature, and thus will exhibit the good, the bad and the ugly.

The telegraph itself become obsolete with the introduction of the "speaking telegraph" - the telephone. Its debut was serenaded with cries that it would "ring in the efficiency and the friendless of a truly united people." Does that sound familiar? Maybe we should keep this in mind as the era of the telephone ends, to be replaced by the internet age.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises