Two technological leaps

The date of June 20th marked two major technological breakthroughs. On that date in 1819, the steamship Savannah completed the first ocean crossing by a steamship, pointing to a future of fast sea transport. And on June 20th, 1840, Samuel Morse patented the telegraph, heralding the dawn of accurate long-distance communication.

The Savannah, built in New York, was fitted with a small steam engine and a supply of pinewood fuel to power it. She actually spent most of the voyage under sail during her 24 day journey, but pioneered the practicality of steam power for ocean voyages. When she appeared off the Irish cost, a fast cutter sped to her rescue, thinking the plume of black smoke from her funnel indicated that she was on fire.

The compression steam engine, used from the 1870s, had a closed cycle of retained water instead of seawater, and meant that less coal was used and needed to be carried. This brought efficient long-haul cargo vessels into use and opened up the first era of globalization as cheap US food and raw materials could flood into English ports.

Samuel Morse's telegraph sent electrical signals down wires. They carried information in the form of a code he invented in which each alphabet letter was assigned a combination of dots and dashes. This made virtually instant long-distance communication possible. Long distance wires were laid in the UK and the US, held aloft on what are still called "telegraph poles" in the UK. The British used the telegraph to communicate in India, and it played a key role in overcoming the Indian Mutiny. "It saved India," said Sir Robert Montgomery, Judicial Commissioner of the Punjab.

In 1861 the first US transcontinental telegraph link was completed by Western Union, linking America's East and West coasts, and providing communication to otherwise-isolated settlements in between, communities that had previously been reliant on services such as the Pony Express. When Marconi pioneered a wireless version of Morse's telegraph, it was fitted to the transatlantic ships, and was instrumental in enabling the Carpathia to pick up 700 survivors from the Titanic disaster in 1912.

Both these technological advances contributed to the globalization we take for granted today. The advent of container ships from 1956 transformed the economics of ocean-going freight, and the advent of mobile cell phones has enabled instant communication in most parts of the world. This globalization has done more to lift the world's poor from subsistence and starvation than anything else that humankind has otherwise achieved. It has enabled vast increases in the trade that generates wealth, and made the poorer countries a vital part of the economy of the rich ones, narrowing the gap that previously separated them.

There are those who oppose this, who talk of domestic self-sufficiency and food miles, and who object to the pollution caused by long-distance freight transport, but it is the wealth enabled by that trade that funds the research to develop and use more efficient and less polluting forms of transport. The steamship and the telegraph were but steps along the way to a more integrated and richer world. Both have been supplanted by more efficient successors, but each constituted the beginnings of a revolution that has continued and is continuing.