Getting students to stop texting during class can be a struggle for professors, but Andrew Carver encouraged his freshmen seminar class to engage in nonverbal communication—albeit of a more antiquated form.
Inspired by the book The Victorian Internet, which “[makes] the case that telegraphs were transformative during [the late 1800s] similar to the way the Internet has changed our economy and society,” Carver had students square off in a message-sending competition last semester using telegraphs they designed and built themselves.
One team fashioned an optical device, the other an electrical one; both then attempted to transmit three messages—the Victorian-themed tidings, “Rotary club meeting at ten” and “Buy two hay bales for six sterling,” and the more modern yet equally ephemeral musing “All we are is dust in the wind”—from Paul Loser Hall to TCNJ Library. The optical team won when its transmission arrived 15 seconds before that of the electrical team.
It took both telegraphs about five minutes to send the messages, a fact that proved to be an eye-opener for at least one student.
“It gave me some real reverence for how far we’ve developed as a society, technologically speaking,” said Max Pollack of the electrical team. “I spent several hours designing and building a machine whose sole function is to beep and light up, yet the circuits of today that comprise even something as simple as a wristwatch are infinitely more complex.”
The competition tied into TCNJ’s intellectual community theme, “The Pursuit of Innovation,” and while it required 21st-Century students to build the equivalent of 19th-Century technology, participants were nonetheless challenged to be inventive and to “push themselves and their devices toward their performance limit,” said Carver.
They also learned a thing or two about the origins of the technology they now might take for granted. Said Carver: “I think I heard one them say, ‘I’m glad we have cell phones.’”
Laura Herzog ’12 contributed to this report.