January 31, 2005
Communication history trivia

It does give you a sense of proportion:

On Feb. 10, 1825, a young man named Samuel sent a letter from Washington, D.C., to his ailing wife Lucretia: "I long to hear from you," he wrote plaintively. The next day, Samuel received word that his wife had died the day before he mailed his letter. By the time he got home to New Haven, Lucretia had been buried for three days. The man's full name was Samuel Finley Breese Morse. He eliminated the possibility that such a tragic irony would ever darken anyone else's life by inventing the telegraph in 1844.

And on July 14, 1846, a young U.S. Army captain was posted from Charleston, S.C., to a new base in Buena Yerba in the Alta California territory. How long do you think it took him to arrive in what we now call San Francisco, as fast as the U.S. Army could muster? The trip took six and a half months.

The captain and his wife wrote letters to each other every day. In April 1847, he finally got his first letter from her; she had written it in October 1846. When this soldier, William Tecumseh Sherman, became famous for his March to the Sea in 1865, his two priorities were to destroy the railroads in the Southeast and cut the telegraph lines. He knew exactly what he was doing.

In three breathtaking years from 1866 to 1869, travel time from the East Coast to California dropped from six months to roughly two weeks?and nearly everyone who crossed the continent survived. Suddenly, food and medicine could traverse immense distances in time to save lives. Suddenly, today's New York Times described what happened in Europe yesterday, instead of what had happened two or three weeks earlier. Suddenly, people could learn that it was a matter of life and death for them to get somewhere immediately; and they could actually get there.

Now how could anyone claim, as one venture capitalist did in early 1999, that the Internet is "the greatest invention in the history of the world?" It's simply an incremental improvement in the high speed at which we already share information by phone and fax and FedEx. It's a big deal, but the telegraph and the railroad were at least as big.

From Jason Zweig's speech to Morningstar Investment Conference in June 2001

Posted by Kaushik at January 31, 2005 06:56 AM | TrackBack
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