Science and technology have always played a major role in the development of the United States. The birth of the nation nearly coincided with the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Industrial Revolution helped to transform the United States from a nation of farms and small towns to an industrial power and an urbanized society. Today, technological change is transforming the country again as jobs move away from traditional industries like manufacturing to service industries. People are so used to technology as a fact of everyday life that it can be hard to appreciate how sweeping the changes have been in the United States in a relatively short time.
Throughout most of human history, most messages could travel from place to place only as fast as they could be carried on horseback, by ship, or, by the 19th century, by rail. Then, in the 1830s, Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph, a machine that used electricity to send messages in code over wires. In 1844, the first telegraph line was strung from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. Morse’s first message on the new line was “What has God made!” Morse’s invention changed the speed of communication forever. For the first time in history, reliable messages could move faster than people.
Few inventions have changed life as quickly as the telegraph. Within ten years, 23,000 miles of telegraph wire crisscrossed the country. Messages that used to take weeks to travel from one coast to the other now could be flashed across the continent in minutes. Speedy communications made railroad travel safer and allowed businesses to operate far more efficiently and profitably over long distances. By allowing news to travel quickly, the telegraph helped to unite the rapidly expanding nation.
Thirty years after the first telegraph line opened, another inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, began toying with the idea of transmitting human speech telegraphically. Like his father and grandfather, Bell was a speech teacher. In 1872 he started a school for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. The following year, he became a professor of speech at Boston University. While he was teaching, Bell began experimenting with various devices to help the deaf learn to speak. During the course of this work, the idea for the telephone began to form in his mind. By 1874 he had the basic concept. Two years later, on March 10, 1876, Bell succeeded in sending a voice message to his assistant over a wire in his laboratory. The first sentence communicated by telephone was “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.”
Over the next several decades, Bell’s ‘toy’ became a necessity of both business and personal life. By 1930, the United States had one telephone for every six residents. Today virtually every home and business in the country has at least one telephone. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the telephone. Information – personal, business, scientific, and technical – could now be transmitted over long distances faster and more easily than ever before. This speed in communication accelerated the rate of scientific and technological change as well as of economic growth. In personal life, telephones allowed people to stay in closer touch with friends and family members. Ironically, the telephone contributed to the breakup of multigenerational homes, as it made it easier for family members to live alone without being isolated from one another and from help in times of emergencies.
The communication revolution that was begun by Morse and Bell continues today with innovations like the Internet and wireless communications. Indeed, it is hard for Americans to remember a time when they could not get in touch with nearly anyone at any time.