Friday, January 25, 2013

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Thomas Alva Edison rose to national attention and became an American icon with the invention of the phonograph in the late 1870s –- a machine that talked. Later, of course, came a raft of inventions, including a motion picture camera and electric light bulb, that solidified his reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park. But it was earlier, in the early 1870s, that he may have made his most historic (and least known) contribution to the future –- a way to send two telegraph messages along the same wire at the same time, something (almost) everyone thought was impossible. Duplex telegraphy it would be called. Then he figured out a way to send four messages simultaneously, two in one direction along a wire, two in the other -– a quadruplex system.

A pioneer of multiplexing.

Packing more and more information into whatever communication channels are available.

We hardly think about multiplexing today. One little wire connects this house on a small island to the pole at the end of the driveway, and then -- who knows where? The wire serves the telephone and access to the internet. Simultaneously. There is virtually nothing in the world of information we don't have access to. Tom has been visiting. He subscribes to a service –- Spotify -- that streams any music he wants to his iPhone, which plugs into our music system, so for the duration of his visit we had access to the world's musical repertoire.

Who knows by what route, in what packets of digital data, along what multiplexed optical, cabled or electromagnetic channels that music went winging from some faraway server to our speakers. Our hummingbird likes to perch on our telephone wire, a Bach cantata whistling at the speed of light under its feet, an entire cantata in a flash.

A far cry from Edison's dots and dashes.