Globetrotting on a copper thread

Like the Internet, the transatlantic cable promised everything

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On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sat at his incomprehensibly modern device in Washington, D.C., and sent the first official telegraph message: "What hath God wrought!"

Each morning, I spend about 30 minutes deleting urgent and confidential e-mail messages from the son of the late president of the Democratic Republic of Zaire, asking me to take temporary possession of $65 million. I'd like to help, but I'm so busy refinancing my mortgage at unbelievable rates and learning how to dramatically reverse hair loss, that I just don't have the time.

What hath God wrought, indeed?

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So, modern communication has some drawbacks. But don't mention them or you'll risk sounding like that old spoil sport, Henry David Thoreau, who once had the nerve to notice, "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Obviously, he didn't anticipate that Viagra prices could get this LOW!!!

The urge to reach out and touch someone predates modern technology by several years, of course, but technology electrified that urge in the mid 19th century. Suddenly, wires began stretching between cities and states, zipping messages faster than any horse or train could possibly carry them. It wasn't long before investors saw the importance of wiring together the nations of Europe, running a telegraph across Siberia, and even laying cable along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

A spectacular new novel by John Griesemer called "Signal & Noise" captures this audacious period in all its triumph and failure. Though it bristles with historical detail, the story stays focused on Franny and Chester Ludlow, characters Griesemer has invented to run through two parallel obsessions of the age: communicating with the living and communicating with the dead.

For many at the time, spirits tapping their messages on the parlor table didn't seem any more exotic than telegraphers tapping at their desks. All around the world, barriers were falling every day. But after their little girl died during an epileptic fit, an impassible barrier grew between Franny and Chester. Despite their love for one another, the attractive actress and the brilliant engineer couldn't find a way to reconnect through the cloud of grief that hung over them.

As much to escape his wife's gloom as to share the guaranteed glory, Chester joins a group of investors who plan to connect England and America with seven strands of copper wound into a cable about an inch thick. It's an outrageous idea, perfectly at home in a time marked by mechanical wonders. As chief engineer, Chester is the hero of the hour, a man determined to "evaporate the Atlantic."

Griesemer picks up every dot and dash of this fascinating story, conveying the boggling incongruity of the age. England boasts the greatest scientists in the world, but can't dispose of its sewage. America delights in the free flow of ideas across a web of wires, but keeps millions of inhabitants enslaved in a thicket of legalized rape and servitude. The thin cable that Chester wants to stretch from Ireland to Newfoundland makes a striking contrast to the enormous ship he hopes to use. At 19,000 tons and 692 feet, the Great Eastern is far larger than any ship ever built. In fact, the doomed vessel is so great that it takes a dozen frustrating attempts over several months just to launch it.

But somehow "Signal & Noise" is large enough to contain even more than these oversized wonders and horrors. Griesemer can stir up a terrifying storm at sea or catch the faint waves of loneliness in a sickroom. He can explain the arcane workings of a galvanometer as well as the mysterious affection between brothers. His story never slackens, drawing us through strands of 19th-century technology and timeless romance.

Though Chester is enlisted for his engineering knowledge, he excels at attracting venture capital with the Phantasmagorium, a spectacle somewhere between live theater and television. Unfortunately, he also attracts the affections of the show's pianist, a passionate woman who leads him further and further from his wife.

As Chester begins a fruitless series of wire-laying trips across the Atlantic with his flamboyant pianist, Franny remains at home, desperate to span the gulf between her and their late daughter.

Griesemer has a sympathetic touch that keeps these characters from falling into the natural melodrama of this history. He's particularly good at detecting the pulses of loyalty beneath the static of adultery.

Both husband and wife endure heart-wrenching failures, but their respective journeys provide a fascinating exploration of 19th-century schemes and dreams that sound eerily at home in the Internet Age.

With a Dickensian eye for characters, including cameo appearances from the Lincolns, Isambard Brunel, and Dickens himself, Griesemer winds through the spiritualist movement, the Civil War, the rise of corporate financing, the development of apocalyptic weaponry, the invention of celebrities, the birth of electronics, and of course, "the Age of the Planetary Telegraph." It's an omnivorous vision of the Western world exploding into the modern age.

Griesemer understands the erotic charge of this technological drive, but he also knows that something lies beyond it, something as old as that need to see and hear one another, not through a wire faintly or a glass darkly, but face to face.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com

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