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Globetrotting on a copper thread

Like the Internet, the transatlantic cable promised everything

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On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sat at his incomprehensibly modern device in Washington, D.C., and sent the first official telegraph message: "What hath God wrought!"

Each morning, I spend about 30 minutes deleting urgent and confidential e-mail messages from the son of the late president of the Democratic Republic of Zaire, asking me to take temporary possession of $65 million. I'd like to help, but I'm so busy refinancing my mortgage at unbelievable rates and learning how to dramatically reverse hair loss, that I just don't have the time.

What hath God wrought, indeed?

So, modern communication has some drawbacks. But don't mention them or you'll risk sounding like that old spoil sport, Henry David Thoreau, who once had the nerve to notice, "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Obviously, he didn't anticipate that Viagra prices could get this LOW!!!

The urge to reach out and touch someone predates modern technology by several years, of course, but technology electrified that urge in the mid 19th century. Suddenly, wires began stretching between cities and states, zipping messages faster than any horse or train could possibly carry them. It wasn't long before investors saw the importance of wiring together the nations of Europe, running a telegraph across Siberia, and even laying cable along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

A spectacular new novel by John Griesemer called "Signal & Noise" captures this audacious period in all its triumph and failure. Though it bristles with historical detail, the story stays focused on Franny and Chester Ludlow, characters Griesemer has invented to run through two parallel obsessions of the age: communicating with the living and communicating with the dead.


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