Fans of science fiction are fond of recalling a remark by novelist Arthur C. Clarke, to the effect that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I am currently typing these sentences onto a laptop, where I am also currently watching a grainy YouTube video of the legendary magician Harry Houdini, performing one of his legendary escapes -- from a straitjacket, in this case. Houdini is probably the most famous stage magician of the twentieth century, as witnessed by the fact that his name is familiar to my generation although he died almost a century ago. If Houdini were to suddenly reappear in front of me right now -- in the flesh, I mean, and not merely on YouTube -- how would I explain to him that the way in which all of this is taking place? To someone who has been dead for a century, the notion of the standard laptop computer and wireless internet connection in 2011 would surely seem like magic. Yet it is possible to explain every technological development that has made watching a video on YouTube possible today in terms of nineteenth century and twentieth century technological developments, which have permitted this remarkable convergence of media to take place. The MacBook I have weighs precisely 4.7 pounds, while the Gutenberg Bible weighed over 50 (Lester 122). But this MacBook is in itself a publishing house like Gutenberg's (which is typesetting the text of this paper at this very moment); it is able to depict moving visual images on YouTube; it is able to intercept communication invisibly through the air via wireless internet. But what is most astonishing about the MacBook is to realize that all of its constituent elements were, in principle, understood in the nineteenth century, despite the fact that if it were demonstrated to anyone in 1874 (the year Harry Houdini was born) it would seem like a form of magic that would mystify even Houdini himself. I would like to trace the developments that made the sudden explosion and convergence of electronic media in the present day possible, by going back to the nineteenth century. I will focus on three areas: the ability to transmit printed information through long distances (telegraphy), the ability to transmit electronic signals through the air for purposes of messaging or broadcasting (radio), and the ability to process information mechanically (computing). I will conclude by considering how these technologies on a national level developed at different rates in the United States and the United Kingdom in that time period, in order to explain how the U.S. Army project known as ARPAnet from the Cold War could now be extended worldwide as the web.
To understand our starting point in the mid-nineteenth century we must acknowledge the long origins of the revolution in electronic media, which go back to the last paradigm shift in communication occasioned by the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 (Lester 122). The introduction of moveable type to the West made the production of books simple, and their dissemination carried with it knowledge and ideas. Without the book, the Scientific Revolution would have been impossible. As printing developed the eighteenth century would see the emergence of print journalism and ephemera, as political culture developed out of pamphleteering and the circulation of ideas. The Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century finally introduced mechanization to commerce, and also saw the birth of steamships and railroads. So by the time of the mid-nineteenth century the next big question was going to be speed of communication. The first experimental locomotive, the Tom Thumb, was designed by Peter Cooper for the predecessor of what would become the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830. Cooper developed a fuelling system that burned anthracite coal (White 86). But 1830 was essentially the experimental debut of the technology, and railroads would not come into more common usage until the 1850s. The speed of rail travel was therefore the fastest speed that human communication could attain, but the question remained of whether some means could be devised whereby the largely experimental science of electricity could be employed as a form of rapid transfer of information.
But it was essentially with the model of the railroad in mind that the first telegraph was developed by Samuel F.B. Morse in this period. Morse was a Yale alumnus, and Iles notes that "in New Haven, he often visited the laboratory of Professor Silliman, which had recently acquired from Dr. Hare, of Philadelphia, a galvanic calorimotor and his deflagrator for the combustion of metals. But it was not in producing high temperatures that Morse was to use electricity" (Iles 133). Instead, Morse harnessed the cheapest and most efficient possible use of the rapid transmission of electric current through metals like copper: copper was relatively expensive in this period. White notes that copper (important for both the telegraph and the locomotive) cost 30 cents a pound in 1851(White 30). Yet there was not much copper required for the simple principle of Morse's telegraph: copper cables would be laid from place to place, on the model of railway stations as then being designed. Theoretically, however, these copper cables could be extended to wherever one wanted to send the actual message from: Morse's famous 1844 demonstration, sending the message "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT," took the cable inside to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he tapped out the message from the rotunda. The electrical principles of all this were understood in Ben Franklin's day, though; what made Morse's invention different was that he had developed a workable conceptual means whereby such electrical transmission could also be used to transmit energy, in the development of what is still known as "Morse Code." Morse's innovation was, in the words of his collaborator Alfred Vail, to invent "a new plan of the alphabet" -- letters were distinguished between short and long electrical pulses which were input directly by the telegraph operator, and on the receiving end these would be marked down and the code translated back alphabetically (Silverman 167). There were no numerals or punctuation marks available. But Morse was able to demonstrate that the transmission of information through such means was possible, and telegraphy soon outstripped the initial paradigm of the railroad and became ubiquitous. By the mid-1860s the repeated attempts to lay a telegraph cable across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean were finally successful, and starting in 1866 it was now possible to transmit information more or less instantaneously from continent to continent.
The next stage in development, though, would be wireless telegraphy. The repeated and costly failure of the attempts to lay the Atlantic cable demonstrated that the chief limitation of the new technology was that it still physically needed to connect from one location to the other. The price of copper in this period has been noted earlier, but the cost of the first attempt to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 came to roughly 465,000 British pounds and only worked for about a month (Silverman 417). But the necessity for the wire to be present in sending and receiving the communication made the telegraph impossible to use in the one place where urgent instantaneous messages would be most needed, which was on ships. Although steam power in ocean travel in the mid-nineteenth century had sped up the speed of transport across the Atlantic Ocean, so that a journey from New York City to Southhampton in England took only little more than a week, if a ship in 1860 struck an iceberg, it could do no more to signal distress than to light flares. If somehow the instantaneous messaging of the telegraph could also be moved around without the need for the physical connection provided by copper wiring, this would certainly be useful. Indeed the efforts to discover a means of doing this were active within Morse's day, and Morse participated in them: to some degree, the electrical phenomenon of lightning (or the domestic phenomenon of static) had already shown that electricity could be transmitted across space.
Ultimately what was required for wireless telegraphy to proceed was a scientific breakthrough unconnected to the specific development of technological apparatus. This was provided by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who was merely intending to prove the hypothesis of the earlier English physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who had predicted the existence of invisible electromagnetic waves transmitted through the atmosphere but imperceptible to the human senses. Hertz had to design and build his own equipment to see if it would be possible to achieve some technological means of detecting this hypothetical physical phenomenon (Bryant 55). By the late 1880s Hertz would prove the existence of various electromagnetic phenomena, including radio waves. Yet Hertz did not live long enough to realize the importance of his discoveries, dying suddenly of an infection at the age of 36. At this point, the results of Hertz's research were taken up for evaluation by a British physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, at the…