On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse transmitted the first electrical message via telegraph from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles. The four words of the message were “What hath God wrought?”
No matter how prophetic the message may have seemed, few people of the time realized they were on the cusp of a communications revolution. In fact, an Indiana senator wrote this after Morse demonstrated the device for members of Congress. “I watched his countenance closely, to see if he was not deranged … and I was assured by other senators after we left the room that they had no confidence in it.”
Morse, on the other hand, was sure the telegraph would work, but wasn’t sure of its application. In an 1838 letter, as Morse was still working on his invention, he wrote. “This mode of instantaneous communication must inevitably become an instrument of immense power, to be wielded for good or for evil, as it shall be properly or improperly directed.”
Morse’s invention did go on to serve society well, though it eventually gave way to a procession of innovations, which led all the way to the current phenomenon few could have imagined, social media.
There are some interesting parallels between the telegraph’s impact on 19th century society, and how social media is changing modern society, particularly agriculture.
When the first transatlantic cable for the telegraph was built from England to the United States in 1858, writers described a new world in which all citizens were now connected. The telegraph was described as an instrument that had created “an exchange of thought between all nations of the earth.”
And the social media? Kevin Ries with www.riceloop.co, speaking at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Austin, Texas, described how the online networking resource for the rice industry allows people from all over the world to share stories and ideas instantaneously.
Rice producer Noble Guedon, a fifth generation farmer with the Twitter handle of @MeGuedon said he uses social media “to interact quickly with many different aspects of the agriculture industry.”
Brian Ottis, with RiceTec said the company uses the social media to disseminate information about its products, for news retrieval and for grower recognition. It’s fast, engaging and useful.
There’s one other parallel between the social media and the telegraph - their astronomical value.
Early on, Morse offered to sell his telegraph technology to the U.S. government for $100,000, an offer that was refused on the grounds that it probably wouldn’t make any money.
An unwise decision as it turned out. In 1866, the stock value of the top telegraph company in the land, Western Union, was worth $41 million, an astounding amount of money for the time. Meanwhile the social media success story Facebook is estimated to have a worth approaching $100 billion.
We’ve come a long way since that first’ text message’ was sent 157 years ago.