5/4/10 - the telegraph

In today's excerpt - some commentators say that trains and telegraphs were the two most profound inventions of any age, since they collapsed time and distance more than any invention before or since. The telegraph also almost immediately brought with it the age of mass media:

"Samuel Finley Breese Morse was a painter, inventor, professor, unsuccessful politician, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. In 1832, as he sailed home to America from Europe, he occupied himself with the idea of a device that could communicate over great distances by sending electrical signals through wires. A bit more than a decade later, by 1844, he had a design, and he then coaxed the U.S. Congress to bankroll his invention. On Friday, May 24, of that year, Morse gathered with assorted Washington muckety-mucks in the U.S. Supreme Court chamber to show how his contraption worked. Using his homemade code of dots and dashes, he transmitted a sentence, which was miraculously received by his colleague Alfred Vail in Baltimore, more than sixty kilometres away. A friend's young daughter, Miss Annie Ellsworth, had been given the honour of composing the historic message, and she had opted for the fashionably biblical 'What hath God wrought?' From the Book of Numbers, it describes God's blessing of the Israelites. In the context of Morse's invention, however, it might be taken with a whiff of irony. ... Morse's telegraph machine is rightly hailed for helping shrink the world, for enabling instant communication across entire continents, and a few decades later, for allowing messages to be transmitted around the world by transoceanic cable.

"It also revolutionized marketing. The telegraph followed on the heels of the European industrial revolution, and in North America, manufacturing had mechanized and expanded. Rural families had gravitated to cities to work in the fast-growing factories, which in turn churned out products for burgeoning urban populations. With the rise of railways through the nineteenth century, goods could be transported overland, en masse, to distant markets, resulting in more product choices in stores. And how did the telegraph fit into the picture? It allowed manufacturers to communicate instantly with newspapers in distant cities and towns, buying advertisements to attract thousands of potential new customers.

"Barely a year after Morse dotted, dashed, and dotted his way into history, Philadelphia businessman Volney Palmer opined, quite rightly, that many manufacturers had neither the time nor the inclination to place ads in dozens—or even hundreds—of newspapers on a regular basis. Palmer offered his services as a sort of middleman, buying large amounts of space in several newspapers and then parceling and selling it to businesses, who would have to create their own messages. And so ... the advertising agency was born. ...

"Inspired by Palmer's success, like-minded advertising agencies sprouted up like daisies, buying and selling vast amounts of advertising space in distant markets to expansion-minded manufacturers. Big business and 'mass' advertising had come together in a union whose rumblings would be felt throughout the nineteenth century. Outfits like Proctor & Gamble and, later, Coca-Cola were pioneers in early mass advertising and rapidly grew to become international icons. Morse's gizmo did more than shrink the world; it set in motion a new era of big-league consumerism and allowed marketing to blossom into a full-blown industry."


Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant


The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture


Knopf Canada


Copyright 2009 by Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant


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