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NLM Exhibit, Film Series Spotlight The Internet, Computers

By Melanie Modlin

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.

The parallel histories of these electronic communications technologies form the basis of "The Once and Future Web: Worlds Woven by the Telegraph and Internet," a new exhibition at the National Library of Medicine. It will remain in the first floor exhibit space of Bldg. 38 until July 2002. Visitors are welcome Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Celebrated sled dog Balto with Gunnar Kaasen. (Photo: Brown Brothers.) Norwegian immigrant Gunnar Kaasen was the musher on the dog team that successfully delivered diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Lead dog for that final leg of the 600-mile trip was the indomitable Balto.

"This exhibit is a testament to the vital role communication plays in our lives," said NLM director Dr. Donald. Lindberg. "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," noted Dr. Elizabeth Fee, 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 clatter 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," said Dr. Michael Sappol, 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." (Balto returns to his permanent home in Cleveland Nov. 13.)

Telegraph wires, New York City, 1880s. (Photo: Brown Brothers.) After Morse demonstrated the electric telegraph in 1844, the rush was on to string telegraph wires across continents. By the early 20th century, the telegraph network crossed and linked every landmass except Antarctica.

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," said exhibition co-curator Dr. Hunter Crowther-Heyck. "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 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, and see a demonstration of "virtual anatomy."

At "The Once and Future Web" exhibition, visitors can examine the head of the Visible Human male.

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 the Internet. Objects on display include early devices and key documents as well as photographs, cartoons, songs, films and stories.

Distant Early Warning radar station, Canada, 1956. The Internet had its roots in the United States' defense operations. To detect aircraft or missiles arriving by the "polar shortcut," the U.S. built a series of radar stations, known collectively as the Distant Early Warning line, stretching across Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Altair advertisement,Byte magazine, May 1976. Bright colors and lively imagery communicate that the personal computer is something to play with and enjoy — a tool not only for computing but also for personal freedom. A 1975 Altair 8800, widely considered the first real personal computer, is on display at "The Once and Future Web." It had 256 bytes of RAM, weighed 55 lbs. and contained no software.

Free Fall Film Series at NLM

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Once & Future Web: Worlds Woven by the Telegraph and Internet, the library is also hosting a free public film series. The fall 2001 series will address the impact of computers and the Internet on society. Each film will be introduced by a speaker with expertise in the film's subject area, and an audience discussion will follow the screening.

The films will be shown selected Thursdays at 7 p.m. (but schedule may change without notice; call 594-1947 to verify the dates, times and titles for each Thursday) in Lister Hill Auditorium, Bldg. 38A.

Oct. 18 — You've Got Mail (dir., Nora Ephron, 1998; Warner Brothers) Speaker: Katie King (University of Maryland, College Park)

Oct. 25 — Johnny Mnemonic (dir., Robert Longo, 1995; Columbia/Tristar) Speaker: To be announced

Nov. 1 — The Matrix (dirs., Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999; Warner Brothers) Speaker: Lisa Lynch (Catholic University)

Nov. 8 — Fail Safe (dir., Sidney Lumet, 1964; Columbia/Tristar). Speaker: Janet Abbate (University of Maryland, College Park; author of Inventing the Internet)

Nov. 15 — Enemy of the State (dir., Tony Scott, 1998; Touchstone) Speaker: Marc Rotenberg (Georgetown University School of Law; president, Electronic Privacy Information Center)

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