Monday, December 06, 2004

An early shock

The following is so astonishing I'm going to quote it verbatum:

"On an April day in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris, about 200 monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held one end of a 25-foot iron wire in each hand, connecting him to his neighbour on either side. Together, the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over a mile long.

Once the line was complete, the Abbe Jean-Antoine Nollet, a noted French scientist, took a primitive electrical battery and, without warning, connected it to the line of monks - giving all of them a powerful electric shock. Nollet did not go around zapping monks with static electricity for fun; his experiment had a serious scientific objective. Like many scientists of the time, he was measuring the properties of electricity to find out how far it could be transmitted along wires, and how fast it travelled. The simultaneous exclamations and contortions of a mile-long line of monks revealed that electricity could be transmitted over a great distance; and as far as Nollet could tell, it covered that distance instantly.

This was a big deal.

It suggested that, in theory, it ought to be possible to harness electricity to build a signalling device capable of sending messages over great distances incomparably faster than a human messenger could carry them."

This is from The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, a remarkable and often brilliant examination of the telegraph service suggesting all of its similarities with the modern world wide web. It's also a perfect demonstration that the medium we're all using to communicate may yet be superceded.

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