'The Once and Future Web' takes a byte out of communications history

May 20, 2001

NIH's interactive exhibit features first telegram, Balto the Alaskan sled dog, and the development of the Internet

(Bethesda, Md.) - On May 24, 1844, the first official Morse-code telegraphic message - "What hath God wrought" - was transmitted from Washington to Baltimore. God, or some would say technology, hath wrought many dramatic developments since Samuel Morse's terse message traveled that first inter-city wire. The telegraph connected people to the world around them in a way never before possible; the same can be said of the Internet.

That original telegram is one of many items on display in a new exhibition, The Once and Future Web: Worlds Woven by the Telegraph and Internet, opening at the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health. The exhibition is an exploration of the telegraph and the Internet as parallel histories: two electronic communications technologies that transformed the world.

The NLM will host a special preview Monday, May 21, 2001, featuring the premiere of a humorous play based on the exhibition, at 5:00 p.m. in NIH Building 38A, the Lister Hill Center.

A reception will follow from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. in the Library's Rotunda (first floor of the main National Library of Medicine [Building 38], 8600 Rockville Pike, corner of Center Drive/Jones Bridge Rd., Bethesda). Members of the press who would like a pre-opening exhibit tour or press packet, or photographs of exhibit images, may call the NLM Office of Communications and Public Liaison at 301-496-6308, or email once&futureweb@nlm.nih.gov

"This exhibit is a testament to the vital role communication plays in our lives," notes Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, Director of the National Library of Medicine. "We live in an amazing time in terms of the speed of technology development but it's important to understand how we got here. Few people realize the telegraph's dramatic impact on commerce, war, societal mores, and health care."

"Telegraphic communication greatly quickened the pace of transmission of health information and improved public health," observes Elizabeth Fee, PhD, Chief of NLM's History of Medicine Division, which created the exhibition.

In 1925, an urgent telegraphic message set in motion the famous dog-sled relay that supplied icebound Nome, Alaska with lifesaving diphtheria antitoxin. With a clattering of telegraph keys, reporters sent news of the race to a world suddenly transfixed by the drama in the far north. Telegrams also helped arrange the relay's complex logistics.

The hero of that expedition was Balto, lead dog of the sled team that delivered the medicine. The team's mercy race to Nome is now memorialized in the annual Iditarod dog-sled race. After Balto died in 1933, his body was preserved and is now on permanent display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

The famous dog's visit to NLM, to be part of this exhibit, marks only the second time he has left his permanent home. "In most tellings of the story, Balto is the dog that saved the city, but the way we tell it, the telegraph deserves a share of the credit," observes Michael Sappol, PhD, one of the exhibition curators.

"Almost as soon as it was invented, the telegraph was applied to nearly every conceivable realm of human activity - business, love, war, time standardization, traffic management, weather forecasting, emergency medicine, and disease prevention. But it was never widely accessible to members of the public in the way that the Internet is."

The Internet, to a far greater extent than its predecessor, has revolutionized the field of medicine, bringing such breakthroughs as telemedicine, computer-assisted surgery and the development of massive databases of consumer-friendly medical information. "Never has so much medical information been available to so many for so little a cost," notes exhibition co-curator Hunter Crowther-Heyck, PhD. "The opportunities it brings are truly amazing. But, if the history of the telegraph is any guide, making the most of these opportunities will depend on the choices we make: will we ensure that there is wide access, as with the telephone, or will access be limited, as with the telegraph? Will our rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to privacy, be protected online, or will we live in a network of digital company towns?"

In addition to physical objects, The Once and Future Web features 11 touch-screen interactive stations. These deliver text, images, music, videos and a searchable exhibition library for subjects ranging from Samuel F.B. Morse's original invention to the role that the Internet plays today in delivering medical information to the public. Visitors will also be able to send a Morse-coded message, learn about digitizing and manipulating online images, participate in a virtual conversation with one of the leaders of the Internet community, and see a demonstration of "virtual anatomy."

The exhibition is grouped in four thematic areas: Networked Worlds, which tells the story of the creation and diffusion of the technologies; A Part of Our Lives, which describes the many uses and users of the telegraph and Internet; A Part of Our Dreams, which explores the ways these technologies have changed how we understand ourselves and our world; and Saved By the Wire, which looks at the medical applications of the telegraph and Internet. Objects on display include early devices and key documents as well as photographs, cartoons, songs, films, and stories.

SPECIAL EVENT: The original play, "The Once and Future Web," will be repeated May 24, 2001 in the History of Medicine Reading Room, NIH Building 38 (the main NLM building) at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. RSVP requested, to Jiwon Kim at 301-496-5963, or jk298q@nih.gov

NIH/National Library of Medicine

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