The Web of Innovation: From Railways to Routers – Journey through Connectivity

Albert Ankel: Die Dorfschule von 1848 // Public domain

Connectivity has undeniably simplified life for people worldwide. However, the remarkable mechanisms behind this connectivity often go unnoticed as we simply enjoy its fruits. When talking to friends and family most do not know how exactly the Internet works.

A study conducted in the US confirms this: 80% of respondents cannot explain how we get the Internet. It comes from the Wi-Fi, doesn’t it? Yet, if we were to find the router, we would stumble upon something more jaw dropping than finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Emerging from the router is a cable that interconnects with numerous other cables, forming a complex network that links together the routers of countless internet users (excluding mobile internet users).

The benefits of connectivity is not a recent revelation. Historian Arnold J. Toynbee speculated that had Alexander the Great lived longer, all the technical and philosophical innovation would have come together. For example, Heron steam turbine, which given a spark of idea, could have evolved into a steam engine which could power cars running on tracks chiseled into the stone already in use by Greeks. This in theory would have made the logistical nightmare of keeping the vast empire much easier with the much faster flow of information and troops.

Yet, humans did not invent the steam powered railways for another two millennia. The transportation of goods and armies remained sluggish, with only limited quantities feasible to transport. As for sending messages, the best logistical system for a long time was set up by Great Khans of the Mongolian Empire who established stations in which an equestrian messenger could change horses. This meant that a message could be sent from one end of the empire relatively quickly, even covering as much as 450 kilometers a day.

Then the industrial revolution started an exponential boom in innovation and in turn the improvement of the quality of life, and prosperity. As the rail network started to weave its web around the world, travel, and the flow of information became easier, faster and cheaper.

In 1869 the USA’s transcontinental railroad joined thousands of tracks together, reducing travel times from months spent in discomfort and peril in order to go from San Francisco to New York to a week.

A mere eight years prior, the inaugural telegram traversed the United States from coast to coast, revolutionizing communication by rendering it nearly instantaneous across the country. In contrast, when President William Henry Harrison passed away in 1841, it took a staggering 110 days for news of his demise to reach Los Angeles, a duration exceeding three times the length of Harrison’s presidency.

Even more mind boggling is the fact that the first, though short lived transatlantic cable between the UK and the US commenced operation in 1858, so the 10 days journey by ship was reduced to minutes for information to reach through the Atlantic ocean. So for a short time it was easier to send a message from the UK to the east coast of the US, then form the East Coast to the West Coast.

When the transatlantic cable became more reliable and the telegraph cable more widely spread in the second half of the 19th century, a large part of the world got connected, both literally and figuratively. With the railroad that little piece of track one can see at a given moment is connected to thousands of kilometers more. This was also true to the telegraph cables, but it covered more continents, joining the US to the network.

In a parallel vein, the Internet is now seamlessly connecting the world through a comprehensive web of cables that span all continents. This interconnectivity developed to such an extent, that information and services are both available at a click. One only has to leave home at one’s own choosing rather than necessity.

Let’s not take it for granted. Let’s appreciate the ingenuity and effort that went into these innovations to make them work. Let’s not forget the environment that enabled such innovations: the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and free markets. Cherish them while you enjoy their vast benefits.

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Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation