By AUDREY FISCHER
When the Library of Congress announced plans to acquire and preserve the Twitter archive (see story on page 84), it was not without precedent. In addition to its collection of man-on-the-street interviews and its foray into web archiving (see page 86), the Library has preserved historic missives in various formats that were considered in their day to be the fastest form of communication.
On April 3, 1860, the first westbound Pony Express trip left St. Joseph, Mo., and arrived 10 days later in San Francisco on April 14. At the time, it was the most direct means of east-west communication. Housed in the Marian S. Carson Collection of Early Americana in the Library of Congress is a manuscript account of that departure. The eyewitness recalled, “ … the rider mounted in a trice, and was off again at full speed accompanied by the sharp boom of the cannon & a hurrah from the spectators.”
Only 19 months after its inception, the short-lived but historically memorable Pony Express mail system was rendered obsolete. The company announced its closure on Oct. 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Neb., and Sacramento, Calif. It served as the only method of near-instantaneous communication between the east and west coasts during the 1860s. Its importance is underscored by the many events held this year to commemorate the company’s 150th anniversary.
Seventeen years earlier, on May 24, 1844, American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated an experimental telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore that had been appropriated by Congress. Morse’s early system produced a paper tape with raised dots and dashes (later known as “Morse code”) that were translated by an operator. Sent from the Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol to a B & O Railroad depot in Baltimore, it read, “What hath God wrought?”
That original paper tape is housed in the Samuel F. B. Morse Collection in the Library of Congress. Comprising approximately 6,500 items, the collection was digitized in 2002 and is accessible online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/sfbmhtml/sfbmhome.html.
Also housed in the Library is an experimental notebook from March 10, 1876, describing Alexander Graham Bell’s first successful experiment with the telephone, during which he spoke through the instrument to his assistant the famous words, “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.” The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers are housed in the Library and are accessible online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/bellhtml/bellhome.html.
A telegram from Orville Wright to his father Milton Wright on Dec. 17, 1903, is also preserved for posterity in the Library of Congress. Sent from Kitty Hawk, N.C., it announced the Wright brothers’ famous first flight. The telegram and other items are housed in the Wright Brothers Collection, comprising more than 10,000 items and accessible online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wrighthtml/wrighthome.html.
In his Dec. 8, 1941, radio address to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the start of World War II. He said, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” And nearly 30 years later, on July 21, 1969, 600 million watched Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon and heard as he uttered some of the most recognizable and memorable words spoken in U.S. history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
These historic communiqués are two of the 275 sound recordings preserved on the National Recording Registry. The U.S. Congress established the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/) to maintain and preserve sound recordings that are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
Today, events around the globe—from the historic to the mundane—are reported instantaneously on sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The unprecedented speed of replication of these forms of communication is referred to as “going viral.” While one can only imagine what modes of communication are to come, one can be sure they will be preserved in the nation’s library.