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Connecting Two Worlds

  • Date: 08/24/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream, dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    And that is because today, education is society's infrastructure, as it creates the knowledge, technologies, and dreams that shape the future.

    And lest you think that this is nothing more than academic rhetoric, let me cite just a few historical examples to prove my point:

    It was knowledge creation and its transfer at the turn of the nineteenth century that enabled the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

    And it was knowledge creation early in the 20th Century that laid the groundwork for technological leaps in medicine, aviation, energy, and electronics - developments that today affect virtually every realm of our human endeavors.

    It was knowledge creation following World War II that led to the development of transistors and began the era of microelectronics, thereby sowing the first seeds of the Silicon Valley; and from such modest beginnings, we are now immersed in the information age.

    It was knowledge creation related to the Space Race that not only resulted in Americans walking on the moon - but also gave rise to the Space Industry and enabled new technologies in satellite communications, computer science, robotics and miniaturization.

    And as recently as 1970, a single discovery in molecular biology, initiated the new industry of biotechnology, an industry from which we are now seeing dramatic advances in medical science and the introduction of effective new technologies such as the production of human insulin by factories of microorganisms.

    Discoveries and scientific breakthroughs occur daily, and the change they bring grows exponentially.

    To fully appreciate how far we have come in such a short time, we need only look back a few hundred years.

    Our technological advancements, particularly in the communications industry, were aptly articulated by Jonathon Karl in his review of John Steele Gordon's book, "A Thread Across the Ocean," which chronicled the many attempts to connect a communications system between two worlds.
    (Jonathan Karl, "Instant Messaging 19th Century Style," a review of "A Thread Across the Ocean," by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2002, p. W6)

    The story begins with Thomas Nightingale - a wealthy American colonist who in 1760 bought Pew Number 101 in St. Michael's Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

    Please note that today the National Football League calls them Personal Seat Licenses or PSL's, and, indeed, the entire concept of luxury boxes and reserved seats can be traced back to the church practices that enabled Thomas Nightingale to secure Pew Number 101.

    The deed read: "the fifth day of December in the Year of our Lord King George the Second."
    (Karl, Ibid)

    But the deed was flawed because King George had died back in October, and word of his death had not yet reached the New World and the colonies, which "...remained ignorant of (their monarch's) death a full six weeks after the event."
    (Karl, Ibid)

    News moved slowly back then, because it required a person to "carry" the news.

    The speed of news transmission was limited by how fast that person could walk or how fast they could be carried by horse or ship.

    For the same reason, advances in technology also moved slowly. In fact, more than two centuries after the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, its nearly two-month voyage across the Atlantic, by the standards of that time, was still considered to be "making good time."

    In 1844, however, communications speed changed dramatically when Samuel Morse used the telegraph to tap out the first instant message over a copper wire that he had strung from Baltimore to Washington.

    Inspired by Morse's success, New York entrepreneur Cyrus Field decided that if it was possible to communicate instantly between two cities, it was feasible to do the same between two continents.

    So, he set out to lay a cable across the Atlantic Ocean floor, and he persuaded his wealthy friends to back him on the venture.


    Indeed, it was feasible, but was it doable?

    Field immediately ran into both physical limitations and human skepticism.

    No single cable had ever been manufactured to those specifications: one inch thick by 2,000 miles long; no cable had ever been dropped into water to that depth - roughly 2,600 fathoms or 3 miles - and no ship had the cargo space necessary to haul that size of load.

    The scope of the idea, as Gordon wrote in his book: "was...as if someone in the 1950s, reading of the success of the Russian Sputnik, (would have) decided to organize a manned expedition to Mars."
    (John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean, June 2002)

    And, of course, the project was not without its skeptics, according to Karl: "The head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory declared submerging a cable to such a depth 'a mathematical impossibility' and argued that, even if it could be done, 'no signal could be transmitted through so great a length.' And there were even some who wondered: Why bother?"
    (Jonathan Karl, "Instant Messaging 19th Century Style," a review of "A Thread Across the Ocean," by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2002, p. W6)

    None of that daunted Cyrus Field, and after several failed attempts, the cable was in place, and in 1858, Queen Victoria sent the first transatlantic message to President James Buchanan.

    The U.S. rejoiced, and in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, New York jeweler Tiffany bought up the leftover cable and sold it as umbrella handles and canes to an enthusiastic public.

    Field's initial and spectacular success, however, was short-lived, when the cable broke a few weeks later.

    During the next eight years, he continued to run into many obstacles and much ridicule.

    But on the fifth try, he succeeded in installing a permanent transatlantic cable. Thus the era of global communications was born.

    Since then, nearly a million nautical miles of communications cable have been placed on ocean floors around the world - enough cable to encircle the earth nearly 40 times.
    (Compiled from: Glen Herbert and Scott Coffen-Smout, "Submarine Cables: A Traditional ‘High-Tech' Ocean Use," Maritime Affairs, [and] Mike Mills, Washington Post, March 9, 1998, p A01)

    Today, we have instantaneous communication throughout most of the world, and the newest fiber optic cables can handle millions of voice conversations simultaneously.
    (Mike Mills, Washington Post, March 9, 1998,p. A01)

    Of course, thanks to the continued process of knowledge creation, today's communications are now becoming wireless.

    Indeed, your University of Akron is now "wired for wireless," and our students no longer have to be plugged in to be wired in.

    They reach out to the world, and the world reaches out to them.

    Writing the family to request extra spending money can now be done instantaneously, and laptops and cellular telephones have become student accessories that are as fundamental as the book bag.

    Just think about the many technological advances that have occurred since your freshman year, and just imagine what changes await you as technology continues to change the way we live and work.

    Indeed, there will be many opportunities for you to participate in creating the technologies of the future.

    But "The miracles of technology don't just happen at some eureka moment, (they) require patience, persistence, ambition and luck."
    (Jonathan Karl, "Instant Messaging 19th Century Style," a review of "A Thread Across the Ocean," by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2002, p. W6)

    And the same holds true in life.

    So, set ambitious goals, be persistent in striving to reach them, and be patient with your progress.

    With a little luck, you will create a better future for yourself and for those around you.

    Be cheerful and plunge ahead!

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