Friday, April 14, 2017

Communicating through History

How do we stay in touch with people;

How did Grandma?

On pages 144 and 145 of our local history book, “Along the County Line” are two small photos of the Sheridan sisters, Anne and Nellie. The sisters are both standing at the mailbox on a country road, we guess, in front of their farmhouse. Two pictures are the same subject though they are next to different mailboxes.

The Postal Service was one of the first government services
initiated with the founding of the country. Mail service was
the primary means of communication with friends and
relatives for the families who struck out from Europe and
the East to Settle in the West.

Anne and Nellie were each reading a letter they’d just received, perhaps from each other. The pictures remind us of a time when exchanging notes with someone involved handwriting, several days and the mail system.

The changes in the means of communicating with each other triggered this topic for our article this month.

Author/historian Stephen Ambrose wrote about changes in technology of communication and transportation early in his book, “Undaunted Courage” about the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806.

Ambrose made the case that the first half of the nineteenth century was the period when human society experienced the most change of any similar length of time, even our most recent periods. His case is that one change, by itself, earns that title for the 1800-1850 period.

There were about 5.3 million people in the United States in 1800, two-thirds of them lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic. The best highway in the country ran from Boston to New York. A light coach, carrying only passengers, their luggage and the mail took three days to make that 175-mile journey, changing horses at every way station.

Nellie Sheridan, with her sister Anne, provided us with the
definitive history of our town and the surrounding area in
their book, "Along the County Line."
It took two days to go the one hundred miles from New York to Philadelphia. Jefferson’s 225-mile trip from Monticello to Philadelphia was a ten-day trip involving crossing eight streams, five without bridges or ferries.

In 1800 nothing: people, mail, freight, merchandise, information, an idea, instructions, nothing moved faster than a horse could travel or the wind would push a sail. It took six weeks for a person or mail to travel from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast. Any bulky item such as grain, barrels of whiskey, furs, gunpowder took more than two months for that trip in wagons pulled by horses, oxen or mules on roads that barely existed.

Travel, and by extension, communications had been limited to the speed of a horse or a ship for a long time, really, since about the beginning of civilization. A Greek or Roman citizen plopped down in America, or Europe, or anywhere in 1800 would have found nothing remarkable about transportation or communications.

Many other aspects of civilization had changed little for millennia. But around the year 1800, things began to change.

The late years of the eighteenth century saw the new nation trying out new innovations in political philosophies and technology innovations began to appear too.

The first trial run of the steamboat was on the Delaware River with members of the Constitutional Convention observing. Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin in 1794 and the patent was validated in 1807.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned the steam engine being used to power a train though he never saw one. He also anticipated mechanically powered cars a full century before that happened.

Stephen Ambrose made the case that the period of 1800-1850 was the period of greatest change in civilization based on one observation. Prior to that period, society had no expectation of change. There had been little indication that anyone would live significantly differently from how their parents, grandparents and earlier ancestors had lived. Neither was there any expectation that children and grandchildren would find their lives to be different either.

The farmers’ plow, or plough if you speak English anywhere other than Canada or the U.S., seems to be Ambrose’s favorite illustration of his point. Greek farmers used a plow made from a flat board pulled by a horse or other large animal. The Romans used the same straight-board plow as did Dark Age, medieval and Renaissance farmers and all in between.

About 60 generations of farmers spent hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out for about 2,000 years looking at that straight-board plow and never did it enter any one of their minds that this implement could be improved. Never, that is until a Virginia planter, that Jefferson fellow again, thought he could improve on the design of the moldboard of that ages-old plow. He thought, no he calculated, that a curved moldboard would be more efficient and could be pulled through the ground with less effort. In 1798 he wrote to a friend that he’d been using the design for five years and felt he’d confirmed his hypothesis.
This plow at Monticello was built to Thomas Jefferson's 1794 specifications. His curved moldboard design
overturned more than 2,000 years of straight-moldboard plowing, pun intended. 

Mom used to say, “The more things change the more they stay the same.” Not always, sometimes when things change, they really change.

When the steam engine was put on rails and there was a prospect of people and things moving faster than that horse or that ship, there were the 1800-era equivalents of today’s internet trolls who poo-pooed the idea, or worse predicted that tampering with laws of nature would have disastrous consequences. A person might die if they traveled faster than 25 miles per hour was such a prediction.

Should we sympathize those with such concerns. After all, historically people had only traveled faster in special circumstances like falling off a building or a cliff and that did not generally turn out well.

But the first trains, and steamboats became operational carrying people and things faster than ever before. And who was there from the very beginning? The postal service jumped onboard from the get-go and information, ideas, letters to sisters all began to travel faster than ever before.

Travel across the western two-thirds of America took off in 1849 with the California Gold Rush. Wagon trains typically took six months for the trip. The Pony Express was carrying information, ideas and letters between sisters ten years later. The Pony Express only lasted about a year and a half before workmen finished the telegraph line to Sacramento. (You can remember the date of the Pony Express if you remember that news of Abe Lincoln’s 1860 election reached California via Pony Express.)
Stagecoach lines were the crucial infrastructure supporting the early settlement
of the west with a transportation system providing cargo and communications.

Railroads quickly connected cities in the U.S., in Europe and elsewhere allowing people to ship freight faster than ever before. The Golden Spike was hammered home at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 and freight, packages and those sisters’ letters were crossing the breadth of the continent faster and safer than thought possible just a few decades earlier.

Speed of communications had always matched and depended upon transportation, disregarding smoke signals and semaphores, I suppose.

Massachusetts painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse (betcha didn’t know what the “F. B. stood for before now) first demonstrated his telegraph between two rooms in the Capitol building in 1842. He’d been motivated to develop a faster means of communications while he was working on a painting in Washington, D.C. when his wife became sick, died and was buried back home in Massachusetts before he’d learned of her illness. He also kind of snookered some Europeans with his claim to have invented the device.

The advances of the first half of the nineteenth century enabled technology to rapidly change the way things were done and to establish an appetite for new stuff throughout society.

Alexander Bell received a patent for his telephone in 1876. Twenty-two-year-old Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his “wireless telegraphy” (radio) system to the British government in 1896. World War I was a catalyst for further development of radio.

This early radio set was installed in Harry Stevens' Nebraska-Iowa Elevator
in Sutton on June 22, 1923. Stevens picked up daily market quotes getting the
jump on his competition. On display at the Sutton Museum.
Another catalyst for radio during and after that war was early radio hobbyists who formed the American Radio Relay League which continues to speak for radio amateurs, “Hams.”

Westinghouse worked on radio during the war and began broadcasting with the call sign of 8ZZ, later KDKA which still broadcasts from Pittsburgh. Experiments with moving picture transmissions began before 1920 with General Electric’s station WRGB on line in 1928. The first national color broadcast occurred on January 1, 1954 with the Tournament of Roses Parade.

The communication of information and ideas was broadened by these technological advances, Not so much for exchanges between sisters. Sisters separated by distance faced significant charges for “long distance” phone calls preserving letter writing for a time. Calls without charges were limited to the immediate exchange.

Communications systems come and go.
There was a curious exception to call charges. People in Sutton and other county towns could make “free” calls to Clay Center, ostensibly to support business with the county courthouse. Clay Center residents still had to pay to call Sutton and other towns.
There were two phone categories, “station-to-station” and “person-to-person.” Station calls went through no matter who answered but with a person-to-person call, you told the operator the name of the person you wanted to talk to. If that person was not available, the call, and the charges did not happen. How many times did my cousin call our house asking for his sister, who would not be there? That was my signal to call back to his Clay Center exchange phone, with no charges. Of course, the operators were no dummies, but what could/did they say?

The telephone was the focus of communications throughout the
20th century and remains the basis in the 21st.
Mail continued to be the main written communications between individuals until email made the letter-writing art form nearly obsolete. Facebook, twitter and texting sequentially erased the popularity of each of their predecessors.

We now have a generation growing up that has not experienced anything but the capability to instantly contact anybody almost anywhere in the world. That alone makes the early 21st century awesome.

But has there been a cost?

Well, yes.

I have fourteen handwritten letters on tablet paper from Corporal James Rowlison to his best girl, Rhoda written from his tent while with the 82nd Indiana Infantry in the Civil War. How many emails, Facebook postings or tweets will be preserved for 150 years? Good thing? Bad thing? Up for discussion.

Historians routinely study boxes of correspondence to and from important figures of the past to learn what happened and important, often intimate details of when, how and why crucial decisions were made to cause what happened.

A letter writer exposes a lot about themselves in their correspondence to a friend, family member or business associate. I believe I know a little about what kind of a man my great, grandfather was, insights I’d never learned without those Civil War-era letters to Rhoda. I have many family letters from 100+ years ago, priceless.

On the other hand, that’s not to say we don’t learn a lot from the kinds of stuff people email to us, post on Facebook and especially the stuff that some people tweet.

This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For further information about the publication contact or call 402-984-4203.

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