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The Confessions of a Destruction Engineer

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

I sat on a plane the other day with Walter Axe, 99 years old and a happily-retired former telephone company engineer, on the way to see his newest great-granddaughter. During the three-hour flight, Walter regaled me with stories of his life in the Bell System.

He joined the company in 1931, fresh out of the Army. He dug ditches, put up poles (often using teams of horses), ran wire, worked in the switch room, and ultimately ended up in Illinois, where he found himself in, as he describes it, “the best job in the world.” Intrigued, I asked what the job was.

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Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?

2012 is the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  You may remember just two things about this period from your high school history class.  First, in an act of ignominy for the Americans, the British burned down the capital.  Second, the war ended with the resounding defeat of the British by the heroic General Andrew Jackson in January 1815, in what was the war’s only set-piece battle between the opposing sides.  Jackson eventually rode this victory into the Presidency.

There is only one problem with this battle.  It took place after the war was over.  The previous month, in Europe, the two sides had agreed to peace.  But in those days, communications was so slow that word of the peace didn’t reach New Orleans until February 1815.

Fast forward, approximately forty-eight years later, to the Civil War.  In the period between these two wars, in 1831, Morse thought up the idea for the electronic telegraph.  The Union Army had mastered its quick deployment, so that in 1863 while sitting in Washington, President Lincoln could read almost real time reports from the battlefields many miles away.

book cover

This was a dramatic increase in the speed of communications.  Not all that many decades later, telegraph lines and cables would unite the world.  Yet this did not fundamentally change the way people worked or lived or governed themselves.

So consider 2011, when the US Navy Seals got Osama Bin Laden.  There was a tweet about helicopters within several minutes, but the author didn’t know why the helicopters were nearby.  The first tweet with some confirmation came about forty-five minutes before President Obama made his announcement.

Now think back about forty-eight years before to November 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John Kennedy.  The news was out quickly all over television and radio and newspapers.  Walter Cronkite famously told the viewers of CBS News that the President had died thirty-eight minutes before.

Unlike the 19th century examples, there was no dramatic speed up in the reporting of these two more recent events separated by roughly forty-eight years.  While we may have more sources of information in more places now than in 1963, word doesn’t get out all that much faster.  You could argue that the Telegraph had a greater impact on communications than the Internet.

Yet many of us have the feeling that our world has been changed by this communications.  Why is that?

I think it has to do with the changing nature of the work we do.  In the mid-19th century, more than three quarters of Americans made things or grew food.  In 2011, less than a quarter do so and the rest of us provide services — and increasingly intangible services, including ideas, knowledge, entertainment and the like which is delivered digitally.  Because better digital communications directly speeds up the delivery of these services, we see the impact more.  It’s the increasing availability of high quality communications, in conjunction with these significant socio-economic trends, which will continue to change our lives.

Please share with us how you’ve seen the confluence of these two trends? Reply here and visit the Cisco Public Sector Customer Connection Community.

[picture credit for Battle of New Orleans http://www.frenchcreoles.com/battnozz.jpg]

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Pioneers of The Network

In 1858, the USS Niagara departed from the town of Heart’s Content on Newfoundland’s Trinity Bay, to meet up with HMS Agamemnon somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.   The plan was to connect a cable that would enable telegraph communication between the continents.

I was puzzled when I first heard this story, thinking that in the days before GPS and satellite phones, wouldn’t it have been easier to just use one ship and avoid a mid-sea rendezvous?   Steve Shepard explains the logic in episode 2.

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The Network Effect

To celebrate our first anniversary of the CLE blog we produced a web documentary series on the impact of the telecom network, hosted by Dr. Steven Shepard.  We’ll share stories about the network’s pioneers, the impact it has today in growing the economy especially in developing regions, and possibilities it holds for the future.

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The Extraordinary Communications Satellite

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

Science, science fiction…which is it?

In October 1945, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke published a paper in Wireless World entitled, “Extra-Terrestrial-Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?” In his paper, Clarke proposed the concept of a platform orbiting above the Earth that would serve as a relay facility for radio signals sent to it that could then be retransmitted back to Earth with far greater coverage (‘footprint’) than was achievable through the terrestrial transmission techniques of the time. He describes his platform in the article:

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