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The telegraph at Montmartre

People, companies, and governments downplaying new technology and being left behind is nothing new. Here is an example on early mechanical telegraphy and semaphores from the first half of the nineteenth century, as described by James Gleick in his excellent book The Information:

A communications infrastructure built with enormous government investment and capable of transmitting some hundreds of total words per day could hardly be used for private messaging. That was unimaginable—and when, in the next century, it became imaginable, some governments found it undesirable. No sooner did entrepreneurs begin to organize private telegraphy than France banned it outright: an 1837 law mandated imprisonment and fines for “anyone performing unauthorized transmissions of signals from one place to another, with the aid of telegraphic machines or by any other means.” The idea of a global nervous system had to arise elsewhere. In the next year, 1838, the French authorities received a visit from an American with a proposal for a “telegraph” utilizing electrical wires: Samuel F B. Morse. They turned him down flat. Compared to the majestic semaphore, electricity and seemed gimcrack and insecure. No one could interfere with telegraph signals in the sky, but wire could be cut by saboteurs. Jules Guyot, a physician and scientist assigned to assess the technology, sniffed, “What can one expect of a few wretched wires?” What indeed.

It has happened before, it’s happening now, and it will happen in the future. As much as history is a good teacher, we never learn from it.

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