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Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

By - July 10, 2012

Last month I finished a compelling biography of Samuel Morse: Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Kenneth Silverman. If you’re a fan of great biographies, or just want to learn more about the history of both our industry and of the United States during a seminal and innovative period, I certainly recommend this book.

If you had no idea that Morse was an acclaimed painter – possibly one of the top US artists of his era – well you’re in good company. I had no idea either. Born just a few years after the Constitutional convention, Morse grew up as one of the first native expressions of the new country that was America. A gifted painter, Morse never quite found his voice – his failure to create a masterpiece, in fact, drove his obsession with making his name as an inventor.

It was on a return trip from Europe in 1832, where he was studying art in Italy, that Morse came upon the idea for the telegraph. He was hardly alone, but his version of the idea turned out to be the most efficient and useful of many devised during the mid 1800s. Morse doggedly pursued his invention, convinced it was world changing. He was right, of course – but what I found most extraordinary about his story was how long Morse fought to get anyone to pay attention to his work, and, once proven, how hard he had to fight to keep claim to what was rightfully his.

Morse worked on perfecting his telegraph for nearly 15 years, and once he finally managed to demonstrate its efficacy, he endured several decades of lawsuits, public defamation, and endless commercial battles to maintain both his place in history as well as some claim to the fortunes created by his invention. In short, Morse’s life was pretty damn hellish for someone who laid the foundation for all that came after – including the modern Internet.

I can only imagine what Morse might think of the mayfly-like successes of “inventions” like Instagram, or Pinterest, or even Facebook and Google, compared with the ridicule, infamy, and commercial skullduggery he had to endure to finally see his contributions recognized, late in his life, after nearly four decades of struggle.

And it makes me wonder if our industry, for all its innovation, will ever be capable of the kind of breakthroughs that Morse represents – the man was past 50 years old when he first demonstrated his invention, and just past 80 when the world finally celebrated him as the “Father of the Telegraph.”  Imagine that – someone in the Internet industry, today, a founder with his or her first product who works on a prototype for 15 years, then introduces it at age 50?!

Of course, times are quite different today, and far faster to boot. Morse lived in a time when most of Europe was regularly at war with itself, when Britain invaded the United States, and he lived to watch the horrors of the Civil War unfold. His life spanned from America’s early, agrarian beginnings to the full bloom of the industrial age. And his invention had much to do with that shift: the telegraph shrank time and space to nearly nothing – allowing, for the first time, information to be communicated “as if by lightning.” Combined with the other great innovation of the day – the railroad – the telegraph allowed America to conquer its vast space and resources, and rise to become the most important power in the world.

When I think of the work Morse did, and the time it took him to do it, only a few people – and the companies they built – come to mind. One is Google, and the tinkering and invention Larry Page and Sergey Brin are encouraging through Google X. Another is Microsoft, which continues to drive innovation outside of its core revenue base through Microsoft Research. And another is IBM. But as much as I’d like to think that a lone inventor, obsessed to the point of near bankruptcy, might one day invent something that will forever change our world, I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore. It feels like an era that’s well over. Perhaps I’m wrong, but ….

I’ll get more into the impact of the telegraph in a review of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage (a must read for anyone in our industry, I’d wager). I finished that book a few weeks ago – and yes, I’m very far behind in my reviews here. Forgive me, I’ve been a bit distracted with family and work!

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

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8 thoughts on “Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

  1. Of all the books you’ve reviewed (the one’s listed here anyway), which two would you recommend reading first? And is Mirror Worlds a must read?

    • Anonymous says:

      Mirror Worlds is a must read, yes, though some of the stuff in the middle can be skimmed. I’d read Johnson’s book, and Jaron’s. Third might be KK’s or Gleick’s….

  2. Hmmm - 
    Been working on building efficiency since 1996 (over 15 years) – check.  
    Over 50 now –  check. 
    World changing (I believe so) – check. 
    So see a glimpse of a possible future at http://kwiqly.com .

    BUT…
    Do I agree with general sentiments of article – check

    Is it easy now ? – no – was it easy then ? no.  

    Do we throw resources at essentially pointless concepts when half of the world are starving – check.

    So the big difference:

    Morse worked in Technology when the concept was to build a better, bigger, more rational, productive society.
    We now have a bigger, more technical, but less rational society, and we have to figure out how to step back to within sustainable resource limitations.

    If Morse had an opinion on today’s society – I suspect such a  resourceful man would express disgust at our wastefulness.

    • Anonymous says:

      I certainly did get a sense from the book of how different the times were, in terms of capital (or really, government support) willing to support technologically risky ventures.
      And yes, Morse was very much a social theorist, at a time with new forms of society were being created (the French Revolution!).

  3. Tom Crowl says:

    The mechanics of the telegraph are quite simple. What Morse understood was the importance of changing the nature of transaction. This is what prompted the resulting technical revolution. NOT the ‘technical wizardry’ involved in his particular development.

    Similarly, the turmoil in payment systems is directly related to this fundamental. And if you understand some issues with scale…. so are the problems in banking and credit creation generally*.

    *Money… at its very root is a tool for the transfer of ‘decision’.

    The “lever” that will re-balance the transaction landscape is the Commons-dedicated Account. This has much more to do with the implications and added capabilities of the resulting network than with its role as a lobbying utility. (though its potential as the vehicle for the public funding of elections may have appeal as a natural response to Citizens United)

    Fortunately, it seems that some consortium of smaller, local banks may find interest and see benefit in the creation of such a network since its associated Trust Accounts would be placed in local banks only.

    I’m also naturally pleased that the Patent Office saw the clear utility of this high level capability.

    I’m 62 and homeless. (Thanks Wells Fargo!)

  4. [...] Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review) [...]