LOL About the WX

It was bound to happen.  I finally put aside my ancient iWeb program (It’s almost five years old - computer years are the new dog years) and purchased more up-to-date site creation software.  So instead of adding fresh content, I've been porting the old stuff into a somewhat slicker, more readable package.  I can tell the difference already.  I've spotted typos and garbled syntax that I never even noticed before.

While musing about the irony of migrating to new software for the sake of maintaining a history blog, I got to wondering what today's tech wizards and IT managers would have been doing in those golden olden days of yesteryear.

It can be an interesting if unusual exercise, exactly the reverse of what guidance counselors and employment offices are always asking displaced workers to do:  Given how you've been making a living, suppose that current technology suddenly disappeared, and you found yourself in 19th-century Walnut Grove needing a job.  What sort of career might your current skill-set qualify you for?

If electrical and IT engineers were transported back in time, I can see them stampeding to the local telegraph office.  Telegraphy was the high-tech communications breakthrough of the 19th century, as trendy as Twitter and hashtags today.  In fact, telegraphy has much in common with texting.  Brevity was essential, and it was achieved with common abbreviations, some of which are still with us.  SOS, a plea for help communicated with three dots, three dashes, and three dots is the most familiar, but WX, short for “weather” is also still in wide use, mainly thanks to Ham radio.  I use it all the time when I send copy to voice-over talent, and no one has ever asked what it means.

Hanging a telegraph line from Omaha to Salt Lake City in 1861 was no easy task, nor was maintaining it.  Consider the fact that the telegraph operated on plain old DC current.  There were no step-up and step-down transformers, no high-tension power lines, just way stations every few miles, each stocked with a massive array of batteries to propel current through the line by brute force.  Batteries had to be exchanged, and the wooden poles and the iron wire strung across them had to be replaced every time Indians or the elements tore some of them down.  Not only did telegraphy require a corps of telegraphers, it demanded an army of technicians to service all the gear.  So, even if it did send Pony Express riders to the ranks of the unemployed, they could line up for the new jobs the telegraph created. 

Now that every computer is also a camera, and nearly every camera either is a computer or has computer chips crammed inside it, we shouldn't be surprised to learn that long-distance messaging and photography were born together.  Samuel Morse was not only the inventor of the telegraph, but a gifted portrait artist who may have been the first American to view a photograph when he visited a fellow painter, Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1839.  Morse was astonished by what he saw in Daguerre’s studio, labeling the daguerreotype “the most beautiful discovery of the age.”  When he returned to America he was so consumed with his new hobby of photography, while continuing to experiment with his telegraph, that he had to quit his day job.  He nearly stopped painting altogether, and also stopped giving lessons to aspiring artists.  Fortunately, students were now eager to learn how to make daguerreotypes, paying Morse $25 or $50 to learn his secrets.

Today’s cameras can be operated with a thumb and one finger, but in the 19th century, photography was a labor-intensive enterprise requiring assistants, well-stocked chemistry labs, and a picture-taking apparatus the size of an armoir.  Yet, people lined up to study the process, and both photography and telegraphy quickly swept across the country.  Fewer than twenty years after Daguerre’s crude process first reached America’s shores, Thomas and Solomon Lovewell posed to have their picture taken in Riley’s Gulch, near Denver, as they made their way to California during the latest gold rush.  As Thomas returned home in 1865, he may have passed telegraph repair crews splicing lines destroyed by the Cheyenne when they torched Julesburg and other stations along the Platte.     

So, for technically adept people who find themselves stranded back in time and needing a job, I’d suggest looking up that Morse fellow.  He’ll probably find something for you. 

© Dale Switzer 2023