When Samuel Morse established the first commercial telegraph, in 1844, he dramatically changed our expectations about the pace of life. One of the first telegraph messages came from that year’s Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, where the delegates had picked Senator Silas Wright as their vice presidential nominee. The president of the convention telegraphed Wright in Washington, D.C., to see if he would accept. Wright immediately wired back: No. Incredulous that a message could fly almost instantly down a wire, the delegates adjourned and sent a flesh-and-blood committee by train to confirm Wright’s response—which was, of course, the same. From such beginnings came today’s high-speed, networked society.
Less famously but no less significantly, the telegraph also transformed the way we think about the pace of our inner life. Morse’s invention debuted just as researchers were starting to make sense of the nervous system, and telegraph wires were an inspiring model of how nerves might work. After all, nerves and telegraph wires were both long strands, and they both used electricity to transmit signals.
Carl Zimmer on measuring the speed of thought.
Technology has long shaped our metaphors for the mind.