Predicting the Internet in 1885

January 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

“In a paper published every minute, I read that a Prof. Stoneborn had created quite a sensation at Icetown, at the North Pole, by his success in attracting the new comet by electricity . . .” That’s what 18-year-old Vee Cornwell imagined newspapers might be like in her talk “America in 1985,” given at an 1885 city youth talent show.

She described falling asleep while reading Jules Verne, and traveling to the future. Her “paper published every minute” prediction was only a handful of years off from the rise of online newspapers and blogs. Of the other predictions Vee made in her talk, the most interesting ones are those she got wrong; they expose the memes and culture of her day.

Vee Cornwell may have inherited a futuristic imagination from her father, Clark Cornwell, the son of Cornelius Cornwell, who founded the city’s first paper mill. An “early adopter” of technology (and mayor from 1886-1888), Clark was the first person in Ypsilanti to have a phone installed in his home, in 1878. It was linked to Clark’s paper mill at Lowell, northwest of the city, and to another at Geddes.

The phone created a sensation. Even Ypsilanti Commercial editor C. R. Pattison was impressed. “The other day we were in Cornwell & Co.’s paper office, in this city,” he said in the March 2, 1878 paper, “and witnessed the wondrous power of the telephone. Mr. Cornwell held a conversation with the mill at Lowell, giving his orders verbally and receiving immediate audible replies. Great is the telephone.”

Vee predicted another communication breakthrough, as reported in the “paper published every minute.” “I also read that the whole length of the lunar wire had been laid, and that a message from the moon was daily expected.” Her word choice seems odd: “laid” instead of “extended” or “raised.” But just 19 years earlier, the transatlantic cable had been laid. It seems likely Vee modeled her moon wire on the transatlantic cable.

Vee also posited devices that suggest television and radio. While walking in the world of 1985 with her companion, “I did not observe any theaters or churches, and inquired what part of the city they were in. ‘Oh!’ replied my friend, ‘theaters and churches are abolished now, only the stages of the theaters being retained, and by means of an electric dioscope all that takes place on the stage can be distinctly seen and heard by people in any part of the city. Sermons are read in the minister’s study and transmitted to houses by telephone.’”

Vee suggested two methods of high-speed aerial transport, neither of them airplanes. “At last we came to a wide river, and I was looking for a ferry, when my guide pointed to an immense metal sphere and said, ‘Step in’ . . . An authoritative voice now cried, ‘All right! Fire!’ A tremendous concussion followed, and when I regained my breath the door was opened and my fellow passengers were getting out. We had crossed the river.” Astonished, Vee asked a companion “‘I suppose you have railroads still?’ ‘No!’ she replied. ‘Short distances are traversed by bombshells, fired by a substance called chloro-nitrogen, which superceded dynamite thirty years ago. Electric balloons are used for longer distances. The mail balloon starts from New York and arrives in San Francisco one hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the sun.’”

Over a century before Vee’s talk, the Montgolfier brothers had flown over Paris in their balloon, the first men to experience a successful untethered flight in a man-made craft. And although theoretical designs for aircraft dated back for centuries, it would be 13 years after Vee’s talk before Augustus Herring made what is regarded as the first powered “airborne condition,” halfway between gliding and true flight.

Herring flew his compressed air-powered hang glider in St. Joseph, Michigan in October of 1898, several years before the Wright Brothers’ flight. Airplanes were not a reality to Vee, but balloons were, and it made perfect sense to her to add the then-novel power of electricity to create what seemed like futuristic science, the “electric balloon.”
Continuing the scientific theme, Vee took a poke at eccentric Ohio scientist John Cleves Symmes, who proposed in 1818 that the Earth was hollow, inhabitable, and accessible by a hole at the North Pole. “I also learned that an expedition to the north pole had found Symmes’ Hole, and had explored the inside of the earth and annexed it . . . to the United States.”

Vee’s talk also reflected the social movements of her time, which included the often overlapping causes of temperance and suffrage. These were combined into one when she and her companion stopped in a saloon for refreshment. “I rather hesitated, but as she seemed very well bred, I said nothing. We entered an elegantly furnished room, and were handed a bill of fare.” The menu offered water—89 different kinds-that included “Water Charcoal Filtered,” “Mineral Water,” and “Rain Water.” Vee asked her companion, “‘Do they not have any wine, beer, or champagne?’ ‘Hush!’ said my companion, ‘there is a fine of $5 for the mere mention of any of the old poisonous compounds. All intoxicating liquors were abolished when women were admitted to the house of representatives.’”

Towards the end of her talk, Vee discussed an antigravity machine. “Being tired with our long walk, I expressed my surprise that my companion seemed to feel no fatigue. ‘Why!’ said she, ‘I don’t believe you have a negative gravity machine.’ She then told me that this useful article” had been invented by Frank R. Stockton, a popular late 19th-century humorist, novelist, and writer of short stories, some of which were fantastical.

“‘No one ever gets tired walking now,’ said my companion. ‘Don’t you notice that we have no carriages or street cars? Let us go into this store and buy a machine for you.’ I chose one which consisted of a small battery enclosed in a watch charm. No sooner had it been adjusted to my weight than I hardly seemed to touch the ground.’”

Vee was fitting in nicely to the world of 1985 when tragedy struck, according to her talk’s conclusion. “I lost all sense of fatigue, and was stepping lightly along, when—-Crash! I awoke. My book had fallen from my lap.”

Laura Bien is a local history writer. Contact her at [email protected]


One Comment on "Predicting the Internet in 1885"

  1. Wystan on Sat, 6th Feb 2010 9:34 am 

    Re: the photo above, of Recreation Park and the airplane. This is actually a minor piece of fraud, of a type of which several Michigan postcard men of that era were guilty. Sticking a stock photo of a flying machine into the blank sky above an otherwise uninteresting scene was a clever bit of darkroom sleight-of-hand, calculated to boost sales. J. H. Cave, of Detroit, and Louis Pesha, of Marine City, both did this with their real photo card images, using the same airplane in scenes from various towns. (Both men also published Ypsilanti cards, among numerous others.)

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