What Hath God Wrought

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Hi, I’m James Corbett of The Corbett Report, and I’m not here right now. . . . I mean, there. With you.

Confused? Well, take a look at this . . .

[Steps aside to reveal James in screen] See? But, in truth, I’m not here either. What you are watching are the ghostly reflections of someone far away. I am not in the room with you, but you can see me. You can hear me. You might not think much about this, but . . . [Snaps fingers, revealing green screen set in studio] . . . it is one of the wonders of our era, and it has shaped the world in ways we can barely comprehend.

VOICEOVER: Media. It surrounds us. We live our lives in it and through it. We structure our lives around it. But it wasn’t always this way. So how did we get here? And where is the media technology that increasingly governs our lives taking us? This is the story of The Media Matrix.


There’s a story about the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that is not usually included in the history textbooks.

The story is that John Roworth—a trusted employee of Nathan Rothschild, the English heir of the infamous Rothschild banking family—was at the battlefield that day and, when the battle was decided and it was apparent that Napoleon had been defeated, he raced off on horseback, bearing the news across the English channel. The messenger arrived at his employers’s London office a full 24 hours before the official government courier and Rothschild, always looking for a way to turn a profit, decided to use the news to his advantage. He made a show of selling his shares at the London Stock Exchange and the public, believing the famed stockbroker had received word that Napoleon had won the battle, began selling as well. The stock market plummeted and Rothschild secretly bought up the shares at rock-bottom prices. By the time the news finally reached Londoners that Wellington—not Napoleon—was the victor at Waterloo, the coup was complete: Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the realm.

This story, like so many historical adventure yarns, has been much decorated in the retelling: John Roworth was not at Waterloo, for one thing, and there was no great market sell-off in the hours before the official news of the battle reached London. But the central part of the tale is true: Nathan Rothschild did receive early news of Napoleon’s defeat and he did “do well” by that information, as Roworth admitted in a letter the month after the incident.

But whatever this story tells us about the world of finance, it tells us something more fundamental about something far more important: power. Knowledge is power, and, as we saw in Part 1 of this series, Gutenberg had brought that power to the masses. With the printing press, knowledge could be copied and spread to the far corners of the globe faster and easier and cheaper than it ever had before . . .

. . . but it still had to be carried. On horseback, on foot, by train, by carrier pigeon. Information was still a physical thing and even the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo had to be physically transported from one place to another. But did it have to be this way? What if information could be communicated directly by electric current and sent across wires or through the air at the speed of light?

Enter Samuel Morse.

Morse was not a scientist or an experimenter, but a painter. He claimed that the idea for sending messages through electrical wires came to him in a flash of genius on a lengthy ship journey from Europe to America in 1832, and thus that he deserved credit as the sole inventor of the telegraph.

In reality, research along these lines had been going on for nearly a century. The idea of sending electrical messages through wires was first proposed in Scots Magazine in 1753 and it was demonstrated numerous times over the years—most memorably by Francisco Salvá, who in 1795 connected wires to human test subjects, assigned each of them a letter, and instructed them to shout their letter out when they received a shock.

Ignorant of this history, Morse had to rely on real scientists and inventors for his important breakthroughs. Like Professor Leonard Gale, who helped develop the technique of using relays to help the messages travel further than a few hundred yards. And Alfred Vail, a bright young machinist whose improvements to Morse’s crude prototype brought the idea into reality. Many even contend that it was Vail, not Morse, who invented the system of dots and dashes that we know as Morse Code.

Nonetheless, history is written by the winners, and Morse proved to be the winner. Getting the credit, the glory and, more to the point, the patent for the telegraph, Morse received a congressional appropriation of $30,000 to build the first telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore in 1844. He sent the first official telegraph message from the US Capitol to Alfred Vail at a railroad station in Baltimore. The message had been selected by Anne Ellsworth, the daughter of the Patent Commissioner with whom Morse was lodging while he was stationed in Washington. She chose a passage from the Bible fitting of the momentous occasion: “What hath God wrought!”

The passage, from the book of Numbers, is one of praise—rejoicing at the wonders that God had wrought for Israel—and ends with an exclamation mark. But the telegraph message didn’t contain punctuation, and so the press misreported the phrase with a question mark at the end: “What hath God wrought?” The medium had already begun to change the message.

It’s difficult for us to appreciate just how incredible it was for those who first witnessed communication from a distance with a disembodied electric ghost. In fact, it was almost impossible for people to understand this type of communication in anything but spiritual terms. Even the word “medium” evokes the specter of contact with the spirit world.

When the radio was introduced to Saudi Arabia, the country’s conservative Islamic clerics declared it “the devil hiding in a box” and demanded that King Abdulaziz ban the infernal contraption. The king saw the potential use of the radio for the development of the country, but, relying on the clerics for support, he couldn’t outright reject their council.


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