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Friday, 28 July 2006

Celebrating the reversal of Babel

Counter It is sometimes enlightening to go back and read an old newspaper--in fact, it is probably far more profitable to read a newspaper 100 years after it was printed than 100 hours. This we shall do today in reflecting on the exuberance and apocalyptic fervor that accompanied the precursor to the Internet. I speak of the laying of the first transatlantic cable on August 16, 1858--which for the first time made possible the idea of instant communication throughout the world; an idea that finally came into fruition with the advent of the Internet nearly 150 years later.

The first trans-Atlantic cable was a fragile thing; it failed shortly after the following series of accounts ends. What isn't mentioned in them is the actual text of the first (test) message. Several hours in the process of transmission, it simply read, "Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men." The first actual message was one of congratulations from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. His reply read, "It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle. May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world."

Now I quote from a New-York-based reporter for the Guardian of London. Bear in mind that some of these dispatches may themselves have been amongst the first messages sent over the cable.

August 25: "At Washington the feel shown amounted to 'transport.' At Albany people were 'wild with excitement.' At Boston there was 'great rejoicing;' at Worcester 100 guns were fired; at Rochester a 'feeling of glorification' seized the citizens; Utica was illuminated; at Syracuse a band and a company of militia went about, 'spirited' speeches were made. . . "

September 1: "America has gone mad to a great degree on the subject of the Atlantic Telegraph. Besides the demonstrations we mentioned last week, there were others all over the continent. August 17th was the day agreed upon for a simultaneous demonstration. At New York the day broke with salvos of artillery, including one of 100 guns from the City-hall. At noon there was a further salute of 200 guns, the bells of all the churches were rung, youngsters kept up the fusillade throughout the streets with small arms [!], and by way of making as much noise as possible, the whistles of all the steam-engines in the city screeched continuously from twelve to one o'clock."

September 6: The prevailing topic which has almost absorbed everything else for the past month has been the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable. The people have been almost wild with the excitement, and scare a village throughout the land which has not had a celebration of the event."

Thus far the unprecedented exuberance. Now the apocalyptic fervor, as related to the Guardian by an American journalist:

"The earth has witnessed nothing half as auspicious--nothing so full of glad tidings to mankind--since the birth of the Redeemer. If the 'morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy at the creation of the world, surely the eye of faith, without impiety, may reverently recognise in this union of the two mighty physical divisions of that creation a providential dispensation that may inspire even the angels in heaven with delight. It is well, therefore, that in many of the churches yesterday, the 'telegraph' was in the pulpit, as elsewhere, the one idea--for the Church and Christianity are, in the end, to gather in a rich harvest of its fruits. The golden chain of human brotherhood has had a strong bright link added to it, which, with God's blessing, will in due time bring all nations, all kindreds, all tongues, within its friendly and loving embrace. The Orient and the Occident clasp hands! The East and the West are one, and with the universal diffusion of universal intelligence good men may hopefully look forward to the dawn of the blessed millennium."

So speaks the transcendentalist, who sees in information alone the hope for mankind's salvation, and the more of it the better. But further:

The Mayor of New York said: "The important and beneficial results to our race which this great event promises cannot be wholly anticipated, but that it will tend to the perpetual peace and increased happiness of the two leading nations who have joined in the labour and cost of the enterprise, cannot be doubted, while itself the offspring of science, and that civilisation which is founded on Christian principles, it announces to the whole world the reign of lasting peace and good-will to all men."

Note the universal feeling that the Cable was a work of God which could not help but spread the blessings of Christianity to the whole world, yeah, could not help but bring in the millennium itself. And this feeling was not limited to government officials; it was preached from the very pulpits, as this from the Bishop of New Jersey:

"Was ever utterance so fit? Was ever fittest utterance so startling, so solemn, so sublime--flashing out from the burning land of Christian hearts in Ireland; flashing along through the caverns of the sea; flashing along among the buried treasures of the deep, flashing along through the layers of old Leviathan, flashing along among the remains of them that perished in the Flood, flashing up among the primeval forests of Newfoundland, flashing out from there throughout the world."

The reporter continues: "It seems to me that in a sort the edict of Babel is reversed. The dispersion of the nations is to be undone in God's time, and in God's way, by bringing them together in Him. And I might almost venture to say that we have in prospect as it were a renewal and repetition of the Pentecostal wonder, when all the nations of the world shall hear in their own tongue the wonderful works of God, when man shall speak to man from one end of the world to the other, of the Gospel of Salvation, and of the glory of the Lamb."

Did the Cable bring in universal global harmony? Or did it make possible for the first time such undreamed of apocalyptic nightmares as World War and Thermonuclear Annihilation?
The century that followed gave the lie to both the exuberance and the optimism that greeted this Reversal of Babel.

God is not mocked; there is no shortcut, electronic or otherwise, to His Kingdom.

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