TCS Daily

New Machines, Same Worries

By Nick Schulz - March 1, 2002 12:00 AM

"One of those achievements beyond the reaches of the soul."

No, that's not a review of "The Lord of the Rings." That's the editorial judgment of the New York Times, and not about the passage of campaign-finance legislation either. Rather the Times is offering its assessment, almost 150 years ago, of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph.

The history of technological progress, as Merritt Ierley reveals in "Wondrous Contrivances" (Clarkson Potter, 306 pages, $22), marches in lockstep with the history of purple prose and overblown enthusiasm.

Even Progressive Era scolds were prone to overstate the marvels of technology. "I found a whole philosophy of life . . . in my bicycle," said Frances Willard, the founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, reflecting on her experience bestride a two-wheeler in 1895. She intemperately dubbed the bicycle "the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet." High praise indeed, given that the other 19th-century vehicles she knew of included the railroad and the automobile.

Mankind might well be a tool-making and tool-using species, but nothing so separates us from the lower animals than our almost comic enthusiasm for the new, new thing. This endearing trait is brought delightfully to life by Mr. Ierley as he makes a tour of the new ways in which we have contrived to get around, get in touch with one another and get some fun out of life over the past 200 years.

But of course the story is not a simple one of new-new cheerleaders roaring their approval. Alongside the enthusiasts are life's inveterate skeptics, ready to find apocalypse in the faster turn of a wheel. The artist Thomas Cole was so alarmed by the advent of a new technology that he demanded a public debate to determine whether it was "favorable or unfavorable to the morality and happiness of the United States." The potential moral hazard? Trains. Indeed, so threatening did they seem at their dawn that Henry David Thoreau was prompted to cluck: "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us." (There is a certain irony is this, now that rail systems are all the rage with Thoreau's intellectual heirs, who hate cars and favor any kind of mass transportation.)

Or consider the opinion of a British journal, the Electrician, back in '92: "It seems that we are getting perilously near the ideal of the modern Utopian when life is to consist of sitting in armchairs and pressing a button. It is not a desirable prospect." That was written not in 1992, about our compulsive computer use, but in 1892 about the "telephone herald," a subscription service and 19th-century precursor to Bloomberg, providing news and stock updates via recorded telephone messages.

The problem with both hyper-enthusiasm and hyper-gloom is the hubris of believing, in each generation, that the newest technological changes are somehow unique in their essential character and effect on life, utterly different from what has gone before. Maybe the most sensible response is ambivalence. Thomas Edison's phonograph caused Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) to tell the wizard of Menlo Park, perhaps in anticipation of Britney Spears: "I am astonished . . . at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever." A musical genius and a seer to boot.

Not that the new, new thing is always recognized as such. On the day that Orville and Wilbur Wright helped give North Carolina the moniker "First in Flight," the brothers arranged for a telegram to be sent to their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to announce their success. Upon hearing that the Wrights had flown for just short of a minute, the AP reporter on duty in Dayton, Frank Tunnison, remarked: "Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item." AP took a pass on reporting the events at Kitty Hawk.

Mr. Ierley's colorful narrative marches along at the same invigorating pace as the advances he is chronicling, although at time it marches too quickly. He presents the computer revolution of recent years almost exclusively as a new form of communication. It is that, but the computer's truly revolutionary power lies in its computational speed and vast storage space, without which such achievements as the mapping of the human genome would be impossible. And as Mr. Ierley offers us anecdotes, quotations and details from industrial history, he doesn't always help us sort through them properly, for instance by judging which reactions seemed sensible at the time and which misguided.

Even so, Mr. Ierley's charming account of what Anthony Trollope called "the great glory of the Americans . . . their wondrous contrivances" is the best kind of popular history. In an earlier day, it would have inspired someone to hop on a bicycle and send out a telegram to his friends.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

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