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Friday, August 20, 2010

The First Telegram Sent Round the World

On this day in 1911, a dispatcher in the New York Times office sent the first telegram around the world via commercial service. The Times decided to send its 1911 telegram in order to determine how fast a commercial message could be sent around the world by telegraph cable. The message, reading simply "This message sent around the world," left the dispatch room on the 17th floor of the Times building in New York at 7 p.m. on August 20. After it traveled more than 28,000 miles, being relayed by 16 different operators, through San Francisco, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Bombay, Malta, Lisbon and the Azores--among other locations--the reply was received by the same operator 16.5 minutes later. It was the fastest time achieved by a commercial cablegram since the opening of the Pacific cable in 1900 by the Commercial Cable Company.

This would not have been possible without the functional opening of the transatlantic cable in 1866. Whereas, previously, communication between Europe and the Americas could only happen by ship, the transatlantic cable sped up communication to within minutes, allowing an inquiry and a response within the same day. In the 1870s, duplex and quadruple transmission and receiving systems were set up that could relay multiple messages over the cable. Today we still use the term “Cable” when we send a telegram.

100 years later we can send voice transmissions, text messages, videos and photos around the world in milliseconds. You can stand on a street corner in Los Angeles and carry on a conversation with someone in India or send a photo of where you are standing. The time line for communications technology is ever shortening and the access to the people is getting greater.

Today almost everyone who carries a cell phone has the ability to send not only photos, but video. If they see some newsworthy event or of interest to them they can send the photos or video. Television stations, news organizations and Blog sites have web addresses where these photos or videos can be sent. Most of them are low resolution, but even this is changing. Does all of this help society?

In some ways it is a great benefit, but in others it is a dangerous negative. Just think if we could have had videos of the Roman’s conquest of Carthage or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. How about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? These videos would have shown us what was really happening, or so we think.

The problem, as I see it, with these videos is context. The camera sees only what is in the frame and the positioning of the frame is the prerogative of the person taking the pictures. Important contextual elements can be cropped out and others excluded entirely. Without context and background still or video images can be deceiving. They can be an important adjunct to the story, but not the story itself.

One of the most famous photos of the 20th century was Eddie Adams’ photo of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by a South Vietnamese officer. This photo flashed around the world and was used to change the hearts and minds of people towards the civil war in Vietnam. Eddie Adams received a Pulitzer Prize for his photo. In the ensuing years the photographer himself stated that he wished he had never taken the photo as it was used without the proper context. The Viet Cong prisoner had just killed four innocent civilians in a terrorist attack and he South Vietnam officer was angry and frustrated. This part of the story was never told.

We must be very careful in forming opinions based on a photo or a video clip. Without proper attribution and contextual reporting we may draw the wrong conclusions.

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