'Time and Space Has Been Completely Annihilated'

Tech writing from an earlier era


There have been many, many times over the last few decades when a new technology delivered a certain moment of awe: the first time I saw a video stream over the Internet, or the first time I navigated a touchscreen. But what must it have been like for those in the 19th century who learned of the ability to send information -- Morse code -- across electrical lines at speeds previously inconceivable?

Writer and technologist John Battelle is researching early responses to the new telegraph technology, and says that "the invention incited an innate religious response." The machine, he notes, "as such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God." Fittingly, when Samuel Morse sent a message to open the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, he selected a Biblical quotation as his text: "What Hath God Wrought."

Inspired by Battelle's description, I decided to go looking into the archives of the Baltimore Sun, which had closely covered the progress of the Baltimore-Washington line (and whose archives are available going back to 1837 on ProQuest). I didn't find the religious sensibility he described, but what I did find pulses with an earlier iteration of the technological hope and wonder that we continue to experience today. Below are a few of my favorite clips.

April 20, 1844:

The following paragraphs, from a late letter of the Washington Correspondent of the United States Gazette, are well calculated to add to the wonder of all who have been heretofore struck with surprise by the successive developments of the magnetic power, the new and very important application of which is now in course of demonstration by Professor Morse.

I was again in the room occupied by Professor Morse, with his electro-magnetic battery applied to his telegraph. The wires (two) extend to the village of Beltsville, twelve miles from Washington. While I was there he had a connection of the wires at a distance of eleven miles, so that the termini were on the same table, making the distance of twenty-two miles for the [unreadable] to pass. ...

Mr. Morse said that, in conversing with the superintendent at the other end, he sometimes forgot himself, and was about to speak to him as though he were present, forgetting that he was talking with a man eleven or twelve miles distant. It is estimated that the electric fluid travels at the rate of 180,000 miles, or nearly eight times the circumference of the globe, in a single second. Professor M. hopes to have the wires extended Baltimore by the 1st of May. If so, we would receive the news of the nomination here the instant it was made by the convention in that city."

May 7, 1844:

We learn from the American that Professor Morse's electro-magnetic telegraph, in course of construction between Washington and Baltimore, is now in full operation a distance of twenty-two miles. When the cars from this city on their way to Washington on Wednesday were within twenty miles of the latter city, incormation of the Whig nominations for President and Vice Presedent was communicated by means of the Telegraph. The fluid traversed the whole twenty-two miles and back again -- making forty-four miles -- in no perceptible part of a second of time.

May 25, 1844:

The Washington Correspondent of the Evening Post furnishes the following account of this wonderful plan of communication. --

I paid a visit yesterday to the room in which Professor Morse is directing operations and experiments upon this new and most wonderful plan of communication. ... This invention has been so frequently and fully described that I could not hope to give a clearer idea of it than your readers probably now have. But in no account is the mode of writing indicated. The pen used may be called a three pronged fork, or so many little pointed steel [unreadable], the ink is electricity. In speaking of it, therefore, you may say that you write with a steel pen and forked lightning.

May 31, 1844:

Prof. Morse's Telegraph has already, during the first week of its operations, been proved to be of the greatest public importance. Time and space has been completely annihilated.

Image: The Baltimore Sun/ProQuest.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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