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This Week in Geek History: Morse Code, Mars Rovers, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Birthday

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Every week we bring you interesting facts from the history of Geekdom. This week in Geek History witnessed the first successful demonstration of the electric telegraph, the safe landing of the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars, and the birth of famed fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien.

First Successful Demonstration of the Electric Telegraph

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In 1838, Samuel Morse gave the first successful demonstration of the electric telegraph. Although the original telegraph and the Morse Code tapped out upon it was extremely primitive by today’s communication standards it laid the backbone for modern communication. Because of Samuel Morse the idea of communication at a distance over networks of wires was inserted into the popular imagination and other inventors built upon his idea until what started as a series of long electric taps, over more than a century, slowly transformed into pulses of light over cables that spanned the globe.

One interesting and lesser known aspect of the development of the telegraph is why Morse invented it. Classically educated at Yale he supported himself by painting the portraits of wealthy benefactors. While away on a painting assignment his wife fell ill and died during the time it took the letter from his home to reach the distant city he was in. It was because of the heartbreak over not even knowing his wife was dying that he sought to develop a fast means of communication over distances.

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This week in 2004 the first rover in the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission touched down. Formally designated as Mars Exploration Rover A it was referred to more informally as Spirit. Spirit defied all expectations by surviving longer and traveling farther than NASA had ever intended. Spirit covered more than 10 times the distance across the Martian surface than NASA had believe possible thanks to favorable conditions that extended the active life of the probe nearly 22 times longer than they had originally calculated. Spirit roamed the surface of Mars for over 6 years before becoming stuck in soft soil. It continued to send data back even then, though it has been silent since March of 2010—NASA hopes to establish contact again during the Martian summer of 2011.

Birth of J.R.R. Tolkien

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Although not geeky in the technological sense the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy are deeply intertwined with geek culture. If ever there was an iconic figure in the realm of fantasy literature it is J.R.R Tolkien. Born in what is now South Africa (in an area that was under British rule) Tolkien went on to write some of the most famous fantasy novels the 20th century would offer, including The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion. The world of Arda and the Middle Earth set within it, is one of the most recognized fantasy worlds around thanks to countless reprints of the original books, a series of animated movies, and a series of live action movies that raked in massive sales at the box office.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 01/6/11

Comments (6)

  1. indianacarnie

    Love these geek history posts! keep em up please!

  2. rino

    actually, i was kinda hoping for more than could be found by googling Tolkien.

  3. StevenTorrey

    Lest we forget, J. R. R. Tolkien is also a serious Chaucer scholar. (He IS a Chaucer scholar because while a person reads one of his articles, Tolkien lives in the present.)

  4. Anonymous Me

    Jason, there is a typo on the second line of the Rover story. “Touchsed” is not a word, last time I checked anyway :)
    #grammernazi. ;)

  5. Prashant

    I was in high school when Spirit landed on Mars, and I was up all night to watching the live coverage and documentaries on NGC. :)

  6. Tech_PR

    Wired communication in Puerto Rico began in 1858 when Samuel Morse introduced the telegraph into the island. Morse had a daughter living on the island, in the beach town of Arroyo. She was married to a Danish merchant, Edward Lind, who worked a few towns away in Hacienda La Enriqueta. Morse connected his son-in-law’s hacienda to the house in Arroyo that year with a wired telegraph system. The Spanish colonial government formally registered and authorized the telegraph lines the following year, on March 1, 1859. On that day Morse transmitted the prophetic lines, “Puerto Rico, beautiful jewel! When you are linked with the other jewels of the Antilles in the necklace of the world’s telegraph, yours will not shine less brilliantly in the crown of your Queen!”

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