a triumph more glorious

The Atlantic Telegraph Company laid down the first transatlantic cable in the 1858, a feat which in those days seemed more amazing that Facebook.

According to Stacy Conradt over at Mental Floss, there were parades and dancing in the street: Queen Victoria sent a 98 word telegraph message to President James Buchanan and it only took 17 hours to get there. I know we get a little impatient when it takes 5 seconds for a page to download, but back then a message like that took 12 days by ship. It was hard not to get excited about what this new technology meant.

But two things happened then that are instructive now. First, three weeks later an engineer named Wildeman Whitehouse tried to speed things up by boosting the voltage from 600 to 2000, frying the insulation and destroying the whole thing. It would be six years before it was repaired.

Things break. Expectations are thwarted. Nothing works exactly as advertised. It’s a good thing to remember when the next new thing rolls in, even if it’s made by Apple or Google. There’s nothing wrong with being an early adopter, of course. But there is always the danger of unreasonable expectations driven by impatience with or faith in the technology itself.

President James Buchanan
And this is seen in the second thing that happened. President Buchanan sent a message back to the queen. And here is what he said:

“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.”

Right. Like that happened.

Now God can certainly use technology to diffuse religion, civilization and liberty if He wants to. Our use of technologies can in fact be “under the blessing of heaven.” And I’d take a telegram over a cannon ball any day.

Or maybe not. It’s not hard to imagine a message more devastating and destructive than a cannon. Or a motive as evil as murder. So the limitation of any technology is always the human heart, given its endless fascination with idol making and its powerful capacity for deceit.

The telegraph didn’t change that. Neither will social media. Bytes and bits may bend to our will, but our will always bends to our desire. The technologies may fail in some way, and more likely so will the people behind them.

I want what the president wanted too. So do the angels: “peace on earth and goodwill to men.” But “the bond of perpetual peace and friendship between kindred nations” is more about our motives than about our media. So is the bond between us and our Facebook friends.

So guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23).

And to conquer it is more glorious and useful than Google Plus.


See the xtranormal movie version of this post here.

2 thoughts on “a triumph more glorious”

  1. A friend of mine commented back in the ’80s that our world had become a habitation of “technological barbarians.” Our technology, like our tongues or other “members,” is a tool by which we ply our trades, but our trades are governed by our hearts. We’ll fare better if we yield our hearts and our trades to the agenda to which we give assent when we pray “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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