We are often told that we are living in an "Information Age," and indeed, this is a truth that seems self-evident: communications and information technologies pervade our homes, our workplaces, our schools, even our own bodies. Because you are reading this essay on the Internet, we already know that you have ready access to a telecommunications network of global proportions. Chances are that you also have similarly easy access to a cell-phone, a radio and/or (probably and) television, and a post-office. These vast communications networks have in fact become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible; you probably have never given much thought to how they work, how they got here, and who was involved in making them happen. And yet the "Information Age" of the early 21st century has a long and fascinating history that takes us well back into the 19th century, a history that is inextricably intertwined with some of the most significant moments in American history.
The purpose of this exhibit is to recognize key innovators in the communications revolution and their contributions to the founding of our modern Information Society. The history of communication technologies is as old as history itself: history is largely based on written records, and the written word is, of course, an important communications technology in its own right. A truly comprehensive and global history of communications would have to begin with the Phoenician alphabet, the early postal system in China, the use of homing pigeons in Ancient Greece, the legendary Roman roads, and the invention of the printing press, among many, many other inventions. This essay will focus on more recent developments, on the emergence in the United States 19th and 20th centuries of communications infrastructure based largely on electronic technologies.
One of the themes of this essay, and the larger exhibit of which it is part, is that technologies, and the people who invent, develop, and use technologies, play a central role in the making of history. As students, we learn a great deal about social and political history—great speeches delivered, important elections fought and won, laws written and passed—but in many ways it is the built environment of our technological systems that most shapes and influences our lives and future. Americans in particular have often sought technological solutions to our social and political challenges: in many ways the American aspiration to "build a new nation" has quite literally involved building new technologies.
Perhaps nowhere is this relationship between the social and the technological more evident than in the history of communications, for it is our ability to communicate effectively that enables many of the other developments—economic, social, political, and cultural—that we recognize as being historically significant. In the early American republic, for example, the political act of nation building was inextricably linked to the construction of a national communications infrastructure. As the historian Richard John has described, the founding fathers—Benjamin Rush and James Madison in particular—considered it "absolutely necessary" that the new Constitutional government circulate "knowledge of every kind" throughout the United States.1 Popular sovereignty required an informed citizenry—and in the late 18th century an informed citizenry was maintained through an efficient postal network. As early as 1775 the Continental Congress had established a postal system and appointed Benjamin Franklin its first Postmaster General. His accomplishments in this role have been widely recognized (particularly here at the Franklin Institute). But it was the 1792 Postal Act that transformed the postal service into a truly democratic institution: not only did it bar the government from reading or interfering with the communications of its citizens, but by subsidizing the dissemination of newspapers (often political in nature) it actually encouraged political debate (and even dissent).
The American government's commitment to an open and efficient postal system allowed the system to serve the needs of a growing population and expanding national territory. In the years between 1788 and 1820 the number of post offices grew from 100 to 4,500, and by 1828 this number had increased to 7,800, making the American postal system the largest in the world. As part of a larger "American System" of transportation and communication, it helped foster an increasingly national form of republicanism. The availability of reliable, rapid, and inexpensive communications enabled the development of a national commercial and financial infrastructure, national political parties, and national identity.
No matter how well-organized and extensive, postal networks faced inherent limitations on their speed and capacity: whether carried on foot, on horseback, or via railroad, written messages still had to physically travel from one place to another. Communication was still inextricably linked to transportation, and even the fastest and most efficient forms of transportation were (relatively) slow and expensive. Only by eliminating this dependence on physical movement—by abstracting the informational content of a message from its physical medium—could communications networks truly transcend the limitations of time and space.
One solution to the problem of moving messages was telegraphy—quite literally "writing at a distance." In the late 18th century, the French began experimenting with a "telegraph" system that could transmit information in the form of visible light using a network of giant towers, wooden indicators, and semaphore code. In theory, the speed of the network was limited only by the speed of its operators: the messages themselves moved, quite literally, at the speed of light. In practice, under the right conditions a message could travel 100 miles in under three minutes—not quite instantaneous but still a remarkable improvement.
When in 1837 the United States Senate called for the construction of its own national telegraph system, it had the French optical telegraph in mind as a model. But recent developments in electromagnetic theory suggested to some contemporary inventors an alternative solution. In 1819 the Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted, noticing that an electronic current could deflect the needle of a magnetic compass, suggested a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism. In 1825 the Englishman William Sturgeon harnessed this relationship to create the first electromagnet. By 1831 the American scientist Joseph Henry had published diagrams of a working electric signaling system that used a powerful electromagnet to ring a bell more than a mile distant. Although Henry suggested that his system could be used to construct a telegraph network, his interests were more scientific than practical, and he never turned his idea into a reality.
It was an inventor, rather than a scientist, who was to construct the first (or at least the most well-known and successful) electric telegraph system. In 1832, Samuel Morse, a Yale graduate, itinerant salesman, and aspiring portrait painter, began working on a prototype electric telegraph. His intention was to use the proceeds from his invention to fund his artistic career. Not much of a scientist or inventor (nor, for that matter, an artist), Morse worked with both Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail, a former New York University student and skilled mechanic, to construct a working telegraph system that they first demonstrated in 1838. Morse worked with Maine Congressman F.O.J. Smith to lobby Congress for Federal funding for his system, and in 1844 the first long-distance electric telegraph line was successfully constructed between Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC.
The electric telegraph arrived at contentious period in American history. Hailed as "unquestionably the greatest invention of the age," the telegraph was portrayed as a unifying force in the face of growing national disunion over the question of slavery. As James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald predicted in 1851, the telegraph would "blend into one homogenous mass ... the whole population of the republic ... it could do more to guard against disunion than all the most experienced, most sagacious, and the most patriotic government, could accomplish." Alas, Bennett was overly optimistic: the telegraph could not prevent the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, although it did influence significantly the outcome of that conflict.
In the immediate post-Civil War period, however, the rapidly growing telegraph system did play an important role in the Westward expansion of the newly unified nation. In this case the expansion of the national telegraph network coincided directly the expansion of the national railroad system. Railroads needed the telegraph to coordinate schedules, organize their operations, and prevent accidents; telegraph companies, in turn, found railway rights-of-way convenient places to string and maintain wire. By 1880 more than 32 million messages were traveling between 12,000 telegraph offices connected by 291,000 miles of wire. The telegraph facilitated the creation of national news networks, national financial markets, and national (and international) corporations. As the historian Steve Lubar has suggested, telegraphy was the "high tech" industry of the late 19th century, creating new industries, new wealth, and a new culture of innovation.2 Among the many inventors to get their start inventing telegraphic equipment were Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
By the end of the 1870s, the United States was connected to a global telecommunications network that allowed for relatively low-cost, instantaneous communication. Many of the developments commonly associated with the "communications revolution" were well in place by the end of the 19th century. But in many other ways the revolution was only beginning. The realization that communications (information) could be mechanically transformed from one medium to another—in the case of the telegraph from written word into electric signal back into written word—was of fundamental significance. All subsequent developments in communications and information technology are premised on this principle. In the 1870s, Elisha Grey and Alexander Bell transformed speech into an electric signal in order to invent the telephone. In the 1890s Heinrich Hertz, Oliver Lodge, and Guglielmo Marconi transformed electric signals into electromagnetic radiation and in doing so laid the groundwork for wireless telegraphy, radio, and television. The digital revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century has taken this abstraction of information to its logical extreme, transforming almost all information—text, image, sound, smell—into a form that can be transformed and manipulated electronically.
It is no coincidence that so many of the Franklin Institute prizes have been awarded to individuals and companies involved in communications technologies. By their very nature communications technologies have great potential to influence people, change lives, and shape history. When the Institute awarded the 1916 Elliot Cresson medal to the AT&T Corporation, for example, it was as much for the social and political implications of its telephone network—"for placing all of the States of the Union in speaking communication"—as it was for its many contributions to communications technology. As you read through these case files, try to imagine a world in which the telephone, or the radio, or for that matter, a reliable postal system, was not available. We can make no stronger argument for the significance of these award winners than the difficulty—perhaps impossibility—that you will have in doing so.