Updated: Feb 20, 2022
Ask most people when the era of rapid long-distance communication began, and they’ll tell you with the invention of the electric telegraph. That puts the date at 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse sent the message “What hath God Wrought” from Washington to Baltimore and back. A mere seven years later, more than 20,000 miles of telegraph cable had been strung in the United States. Fifteen years after that, transcontinental and transatlantic service became viable.
HOWEVER, there was a system of long-distance communication that preceded Morse’s invention. Semaphores, or optical telegraph systems, were built in 18th century France at the behest of Napoleon. Napoleon’s motivation was strictly military. With France frequently surrounded by enemies, Napoleon had to keep track of his own and his opponents’ armies. When the powers-that-be tried to make the system commercially viable, the only proposal that was accepted was transmitting the results of a state-run lottery into the hinterlands. [Go figure.]
The earliest commercial use of semaphores was in harbors. Businesspeople were eager to get the early word on a shipload of tea or mahogany or even firewood. An optical telegraph system was put in place in the Delaware Bay in 1809, giving Philadelphia merchants an advantage when speculating on incoming goods. When merchants financed a system linking Philadelphia to New York City in 1834, it took less than 15 minutes to transmit a short message the 100 hundred miles between the two cities. In 1837, Postmaster Amos Kendall endorsed a project to build semaphore towers from New York to New Orleans. New Orleans money wanted to know what the New York stock market was doing. New York merchants could more reliably speculate on cotton when they knew what a bale was going for as it sat on the dock in New Orleans.
Those semaphore towers were never built. Instead, the electric telegraph swept the nation. It reigned supreme for thirty years or so, until the telephone muscled it aside. My point is that technological innovation has been constant in American history. For those of us who think we live in an age of unprecedented innovation, that is not entirely so. Innovation? For sure. Unprecedented? Not necessarily.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, America witnessed the transition from canals to railroads, from ships of sail to steamboats, from water powered factories to those powered by steam engines. Each of these and hundreds of other innovations dramatically affected the daily lives of average people.
Semaphore towers play a pivotal role in Book 2 of Rian Krieger’s Journey, The Blackmailer.
There’s a wonderful movie called The Wife in which [alleged author] Jonathan Price locks [the real author] Glenn Close in the study until she has written some more pages.
That would never work for me. Once I’m stuck, I’m stuck. But I know how to get myself unstuck.
The key is to provide a distraction that allows my brain to relax and free-associate. Oftentimes I return to the keyboard with a solution to my problem.
Here are my steps, from easiest to most time consuming.
Go pee. I’m serious. This works half the time.
Take a shower. As I write this, it’s noteworthy that my first two solutions take place in the bathroom. No commentary. No judgement.
Go for a walk. Now, in my case, I have an advantage. My Great Dane is happy to accompany me to the beach, but somehow not disappointed if my breakthrough comes early and we turn around right away. Sidetip: Keep walking. More ideas are likely to flow and the exercise will do you good.
Clean a [metaphorical] closet. It doesn’t have to be a big task. Oil a squeaky hinge. Tune up a bike. Deadhead the basil. The chances are this will break the logjam, and has the added benefit of accomplishing something. Hmm. Periodic chores, like doing the laundry, making lunch, or paying bills are too mundane and don’t work for me. Is this true for others?
Do some research. This is another one of my advantages. As a writer of historical fiction, I have to root my books in historical fact. I have a stack of non-fiction books that call to me when I’m stuck.
Create something. When all else fails, I put down my writing for a longer period and engage in a creative project that keeps my right brain limber. Here are pictures of two of my latest distractions.
I would like to hear from others out there. To all those engaged in a creative process: what do you do to get yourself unstuck?
[Author note: this blog was originally called "History Pendulum."]
Why History Pendulum? The answer goes back fifty years. I had been a C+ student at Colgate University before I belatedly discovered history as the prism through which I would forever look at life.
Actually, I found Doc Reading.
Douglas K. Reading was the most colorful lecturer a 19-year-old could ever hope for. Except for a break during World War II, he lectured at Colgate from 1938 to 1980.
When I encountered him he was already a legend. He charged into the classroom at the stroke of the hour, always dressed in a coat and tie at a time when other professors were showing up in jeans.
His smile was reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s; just a hair less than a grimace. Spittle would occasionally escape through a big gap between his front teeth and shower those of us who chose to sit in the front row. He was profane, politically very incorrect, and mesmerizing.
He would place a 3×5 index card on the podium and start lecturing, rarely taking a break for 45 minutes. After class I would occasionally peek at the index cards: they never had more than 4 words, the major points to be made during the class. The rest of the lecture – names, dates, quotes, personalities, triumphs, failures – all came from his prodigious memory, and even his rants and tangents were precisely organized. My notes would always come out in perfect outline form.
I got hooked on Doc Reading during European History 101. After that, it didn’t matter what the subject was; I tailored my class schedule around what he was offering. 102, of course. Medieval History. Ancient History. Russian History.
Adam Smith and I were the only two who had perfect attendance in Russian Foreign Policy. Adam was my German Shepherd, who Doc tolerated because he paid attention to the lecture, just like the rest of us. When I stuck around Colgate for a graduate year, Doc asked me to correct student historical maps, a requirement for European History 101 and 102 . To this day, I can look at a map of Europe and tell the era: the Holy Roman Empire, the Age of Napoleon, before the Great War, between WW I and WW II.
It was Doc Reading who introduced me to the Pendulum of History. In this case, the pendulum template was placed atop the French Revolution.
………………………………………………………………………………..The Old Regime of Louis XVI – 1789
……………………………………………….Constitutional Monarchy – 1791
……………………………..Radical Revolution, Death of Louis XVI – 1793
..Reign of Terror – 1793-94
…………………………………………….Rise of Napoleon – 1799
……………………………………………………………………………The Bourbon Restoration – 1814
The lesson: To quote Isaac Newton, one of Doc’s favorites, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Historical forces ebb and flow.
Get the picture?
And the pendulum of history is what intrigues me in the Age of Donald Trump.
Here’s the question that I pose to you readers: where is the pendulum in our current era? Are we experiencing the last gasp (swing to the right) of the old America before it gets swept away by changing demographics? Or are we witnessing the restoration of white dominance after a brief flirtation with racial/gender/LGBTQ equity?
Hopefully, when the 9 books of Rian Krieger’s Saga are published, you will see the History Pendulum at work. For more about the pendulum of history, visit this article from Time Magazine.
Thank you for reading.
RA Smith – Author, Rian Krieger’s Saga