(p. 10) In the summer of 1789, a young fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie led an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. He and his voyageurs and Chipewyan guides were attempting, 14 years before Lewis and Clark, to cross North America, paddling birch bark canoes down a river they hoped would pierce the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie was a businessman who wanted to speed the pace of trade by connecting New York and China via an interior passage through the continent. He did find such a route, without knowing it. Mackenzie died thinking he was a failure, when he was really just 200 years early.
Some ideas are fantastically ahead of their time. In 1636, René Descartes created contact lenses, using glass tubes filled with water; unfortunately, the wearer was unable to blink. Charles Babbage invented digital “difference engines” — essentially modern programmable computers but powered by steam — in the 1820s. And Kodak developed digital cameras in 1974 but discarded the product idea because it thought no one wanted to look at photos on televisions.
In a particularly ill-timed episode, Giovanni Caselli invented the fax machine in 1856. Letter writers could scribble a message onto electrically charged foil, and the portions covered by ink would block the flow of current. The stylus of Caselli’s device then scanned each line of text, transmitting the signal via telegraph lines to a second machine, which would scrawl out a “fac simile” of the letter.
To be practical, the system required a coordinated investment throughout a region, and Napoleon III had plans to modernize all of France with Caselli’s pantelegraph, more than a decade before Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. But before it could be installed, Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian War, his government fell, and Paris descended into the brutal anarchy of the Commune. Caselli faded into obscurity, and his technology was forgotten for a century.
Like the fax machine and computer, Alexander Mackenzie’s Northwest Passage was too forward-looking to be practical or useful. Today the melting Northwest Passage — along the North Slope of Alaska, through the maze of Canadian Arctic islands, then back down along Greenland’s west coast, to the Atlantic — is regularly in the news. A holy grail for generations of explorers is now finally open, because of climate change. Giant cargo and oil tankers regularly ply those seas, and even the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, with 1,700 people onboard (many in black tie), has made the journey the past two summers.
. . .
Ideas do not exist only on their own merits. Timing matters.
For the full commentary, see:
Brian Castner. “The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, March 11, 2018): 10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 10, 2018.)
Castner’s commentary is related to his book:
Castner, Brian. Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage. New York: Doubleday, 2018.