The telegraph and the railroad, in their engineering forms, were wires and rails paralleling each other across the landscape-two lines illusionistically converging in the distance, conjuring up a world that was vaguely accessible even if one never left home. The rail's spatial illusion was the stuff of dreams for young people growing up in small towns on either side of the tracks. The telegraph, railroad and photograph provided worlds within grasp but infinitely receding-rail and wire disappear over the horizon into a vanishing point. The photograph offered a limited window on a world of family relations and of distant countries filled with promise but no longer physically present.
While Samuel Morse personified the nexus of art and technology, he also sadly displayed the darker side of the American character. The same astute individual who explored the most democratic of media-photography-who devised a method to exchange information without regard to social station and across international lines-the telegraph-who espoused fine art as an elixir for the mind, was a racist. A vehement nationalist, Morse worked tirelessly to restrict immigration in the 1830s. 8 In terms that echo many of our contemporary politicians, particularly in the state of California, Morse protested the Federal government's immigration policy and even ran for the Mayor of New York on the "Native American" ticket-a party against foreigners, particularly the Irish. It is ironic that while Morse lobbied against immigration, emancipation of slaves, and held the general populace in contempt, he devised the very technology that would ultimately embrace the "unwashed" he so despised. In a nation with a burgeoning population constantly on the move, the telegraph (later the telephone) and the snapshot camera allowed for an unprecedented level of inter-personal communications. The 1840s, like the 1990s, the country was offered a new technological utopia within nationalist xenophobia. In technology one attempts to control the variables to create a better machine, in social engineering one tries to legislate human values.
It is easy to see Morse's affinity for photography as a tool for gathering visual information just as the telegraph was a tool for the transmission of written documents. The camera and telegraph were both about representation: the first provided an astonishing illusion of the optically depicted world, the second converted the common tongue into a privileged language, one composed of just two signals, the dot and the dash-metaphorically presaging the binary code of digital computing.
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8 At the time Morse anonymously wrote, Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration and the present state of the Naturalization Laws, New York: E.B. Clayton, 1835.