The Year is 1832. The place is South Carolina, the United States of America.
An ingenious boy called Jacob Malliar tinkers in his family’s shed, experimenting with a new phenomenon called electromagnetism — except it was only called Electricus at the time as magnetism had not yet been discovered. At just 22 years old and from a privileged family, Jacob was eagerly keeping up with the exciting discoveries of his time. Over the autumn months he would read the discoveries of great scientists like Luigi Galvani, Michael Faraday, Georg Ohm and André-Marie Ampère. The mysterious phenomenon of Electricus consumed Jacob’s imagination day and night as he attempted to recreate the findings of his heroes.
At times, his girlfriend Amelia would stop by to bring him food. She was a sweet and intelligent girl, despite coming from a poor French background when her family immigrated to America during the Napoleonic Wars. Her upbringing was something Jacob’s family disapproved of — but just one of many choices that they pestered Jacob about. After finishing university early, he did not go to work for a bank like his parents wanted him to. Instead he would spend weeks hidden away in his shed tinkering away, not coming out to eat nor sleep. At least with Amelia, his parents conceded, he would have some sanity.
“My sweet, come eat your soup. It is getting cold,” said Amelia.
Jacob looked up at her and smiled. “I’m almost done, the wire just needs to be clamped down so it doesn’t fly around in the wind.”
Amelia sat across from Jacob, slightly impatient. The mess of tools and metals scattered across the desk unnerved her, and she began to organize them.
“No, don’t touch that!” yelled Jacob.
Immediately he felt the stinging slap of her hand.
“I’m only trying to help!” Amelia retorted. “Your tools are all over the place, and this one is starting to rust.” She cleaned the pliers with a spare cloth and set it down into its place in the toolbox.
“What are you working on anyways?” she asked, curiously.
Jacob smiled, delighted by her question. That was something he liked very much about her. Aside from her pretty French locks and sea-blue eyes that lit up when she smiled, he adored her curious spirit.
“Electricus signals can travel over copper wires,” he began. “I’m trying different ways to get it to cross longer lengths without losing its strength, but so far nothing has gotten past a couple of meters.”
Amelia cocked her head to the side. “Maybe just try sending a stronger signal?” she suggested.
Jacob laughed lightly and rebutted. “It’s not that easy my sweet Amelia. What is a stronger signal anyways? And how does one make it stronger? These are questions that have yet to be answered.”
“Alright my dear, but the soup is cold.” Said Amelia, standing up with the bowls. “I am going to go heat it up, and by the time I get back, you better be ready!”
Jacob murmured his agreeance and glanced up as she was leaving. Biting his lower lip, he sharply inhaled at the sight. That peachy derriere… another thing he loved about her.
The Winter of that year, Jacob expressed his intent to file a patent for his new invention. To help with the expensive costs of hiring a lawyer, he decided to first pitch the idea to his wealthy uncle Joshua Malliar.
“I call it the telegram,” said Jacob to his uncle. “It can carry messages across long distances very fast, within seconds! Here, watch!”
Demonstrating his scanty system, Jacob turned a wheel in irregular but controlled motions. On the other side, Amelia rolled out a film of paper with burn marks where the electricus had reached the end of the wire.
“And this is the message!” said Jacob, excited and waiting for his Uncle Joshua’s reaction.
“That’s interesting, but what is it?” Joshua asked, perplexed.
“It’s a message!” said Jacob, still waiting for his Uncle to react.
“What does it say?” asked Joshua.
Jacob paused briefly. “Um.. well, nothing right now. But from this we can make a new language which can be converted into English!”
Slowly the idea started to piece together in Uncle Joshua’s mind. When the final realization arrived, Joshua’s eyes lit up and he screamed.
“By God Nephew, this is spectacular! Is this what you’ve been obsessing about all these years?”
“Not the entire time!” replied Jacob, beaming with pride. “The principles of Electricus are what I have found great inspiration in. I truly believe this can change the world.”
“It damned will!” echoed Joshua, perked and amazed. “But you cannot patent this.”
“Why not?” questioned Jacob. “I am going to publish a paper too.”
“You cannot!” yelled Joshua. “Patents will only give away this amazing technology, as will your fancy papers. Don’t you see Jacob, this is an opportunity of a lifetime!”
“What are you talking about Uncle Joshua?” asked Jacob, confused.
Joshua regained his composure and spoke formally.
“My good nephew, you are new to the ways of business, but I see what the future holds for us.” Joshua paused to check if Jacob was listening. “Let us start a new venture, you and I, with this telegram as our product. Together we can change the world.”
It took a while for Jacob to understand what his uncle meant. After an hour of explaining and educating, Joshua finally convinced his nephew to work with him. The two agreed that the destiny of this technology should not be recklessly thrown into the wild, where governments and wealthy Oligarchs would steal their invention. Although Jacob wanted recognition from the academics for his discovery, he was convinced by his uncle that business would be far more rewarding. Joshua filled Jacob’s mind with tales of grandeur, only lightly skimming over the money and focusing more on the promises of a bigger workshop with all the latest tools. He was converted, and the following night the two signed a blood contract that brought to life their new enterprise. It would be called, Malliar Telegram, a company of the new American era.
Throughout the Winter, and into Spring, Jacob worked hard to perfect the system. Inside his shed he refined and refined while his uncle procured the necessary materials for the telegram’s manufacturing. The two worked hard to put everything in place, and at times Joshua’s wife Matilda, would fight over their obsession.
“Why did you sell another carriage for more copper?” yelled Matilda, “don’t you have enough copper wire already?”
Impatient and frustrated, Joshua yelled louder back. “Shut your voice woman! You do not understand! We have enough carriages, hell, the WORLD has enough carriages! What I am doing is more important than your spoiled pampers.”
Matilda threw her teacup lightly down on her coaster.
“MY spoiled pampers? It’s MY father’s business that has given us this quality of life, or did you forget and think it was all you?” Furious, she continued on. “You always say I don’t understand, but I understand more than you think! I’m tired of you treating me like an imbecile child while you coast on my family’s fortune!”
“That’s because you ARE an imbecile,” replied Joshua. “And don’t act like you didn’t marry me to access MY assets. Your father’s carriages would not have done so well if it were not for my woodcrafts. Do you remember how long your carriages lasted before I built the wheels?”
It was true, they did owe it to each other. Matilda refused to reminisce, but there was a time when she was engulfed in youthful mad love with Joshua. How she would watch him craft wooden wheels in his shop, working with his hands over colours of chestnut woods. She was so delighted when her father suggested the marriage.
“Oh how lucky I am,” she thought, “to be one of the few who could marry for power and love.”
But now she cringed to think back on her foolish thoughts. In her infatuation, she did not see the signs of his unfaithfulness — frequenting the saloons ever too often and coming back home with the smell of perfumes on his neck. Over time it tore away at her, until she decided she would take it no longer and began to fight back.
“Do not touch my packages, woman.” Snarled Joshua. “Stay out of my business.”
“You stay out of mine too” sneered Matilda. The heat of the brief fight lingered like a coal in her hand, and she walked away to send another letter to her secret amour.
Later that night, Joshua met with nephew Jacob. He and Amelia were having a peaceful dinner when his uncle interrupted.
“The newspapers are ready” declared Joshua, “as is the Mayor and his friends. Is the telegram ready for demonstration?”
Jacob wiped the soup from his mouth and pursed his lips.
“As ready as I can get it.” He admitted. “I am still concerned about the reliability of the signal. It feels a bit rushed Uncle.”
“Yes I agree, but now is the best time.” Replied Uncle Joshua. “It is spring, and the townsfolk need a hope like ours. After such a harsh winter, the Mayor is sure to support our business and grant some permits. Now is our chance, we cannot wait for 100% lest we lose our opportunity.”
Jacob stood up and checked over the telegram prototype again, making sure every piece was secured in place.
“Ok, how many more days do we have?” he asked.
“15 days” replied Joshua. “That’s enough right?”
“Yes,” said Jacob. “We could demo it today, but the two weeks will give me reassurance that we will not publicly embarrass ourselves… Did you order the next batch of copper wire?”
“I did,” replied Joshua. “I had to sell another carriage, but the copper will be ready for use immediately after our spectacular demo.”
“Great” breathed in Jacob. “We will be ready.”
Two weeks came and went, and the day of the demonstration arrived on cloudy weather. Nevertheless, the press and townsfolk were all gathered around Joshua Malliar’s estate. The telegram poles were erected proudly into the air, with the bare copper wires hanging between them. It was an odd sight to the townsfolk, and the chorus of conversations hid the sounds of the approaching storm.
“Welcome friends!” boomed Joshua, hearty and healthy. “We gather here to witness history unfold. Today we present to you the future of communication.”
The crowd watched him in anticipation, ready to be impressed.
“Malliar Telegram Company presents for the first time, The Telegram!”
Pulling away a cloth, Jacob unveiled the control wheel. He began to crank it in the planned order, to send a short message to the other side. “Hello World”
The crowd watched as he spun the wheel. The only sound was a light drizzle as the rain began to drop. On the other side, Amelia waited for a signal.
Many seconds passed and still there was nothing coming out from the other side.
“I thought you said it was fast!” yelled someone from the crowd. The mayor let out a chuckle, and continued to watch.
An eternal moment lingered as Jacob continued to crank the wheel. More rain began to fall, and soon the crowd was shuffling in boredom. In desperation, Jacob cranked the wheel faster, and to his surprise, Amelia began to receive a message. Sensing an opportunity to recover the presentation, Jacob cranked harder, but a bit too hard. The handle from the wheel snapped and some wood splinters cut his hand. Grimacing, he hid his hand from public view but it was too late. The crowd erupted in laughter.
“Boooo!!” yelled a member of the audience. “We got your message, it doesn’t work!”
More laughter erupted from the crowd, until Amelia yelled in her French accent.
“Look! I got the message!”
She held up the paper, with a single dot where a burn mark was.
The crowd was completely unimpressed. They could barely see the paper, let alone the one black dot. More people began to boo the stage.
“Ok folks, show’s over.” said the Mayor. “Thank you gentlemen, but it looks like you still have a lot of work ahead of you. Not to say that you’re not onto something, but come to us when you’re certain your invention works.”
Joshua scrambled to recover the situation, but already the crowd was dispersing. Glancing around, he noticed his wife Matilda glaring at him but ignored her stare. With each passing second, he felt his spirits drop. Amelia was busy helping Jacob apply pressure to his cut.
Suddenly the sky began to pour. The crowd was running for cover, leaving a mess of a field on the Malliar lawn. Matilda too was nowhere to be seen, keen to avoid the embarrassment that her husband created.
That night, Joshua and Matilda fought again. A few broken teacups later, he stormed out of the house to the wooden stage still left unpacked. To his surprise, he found Jacob, but before he could say anything, the boy blurted out.
“I found out why it didn’t work!”
Quick to see salvation, Joshua asked, “why? What happened?”
Jacob pointed to the sky.
“There is static in the air Uncle. We only tested in the shed, but walking around after the demo, I noticed that Amelia’s hair was statically charged. The very air itself has electricus!”
Joshua’s jaw hung there in shock at the theory. “I need to understand more about Electricus. What is this magic of nature?”
Jacob continued on. “All we need to do is wrap our copper in some sort of protective material. But instead of insulating against heat or wind, it must protect against the electricus in the air.”
Joshua frowned in hope.
“That sounds expensive, but what good is a telegram if it doesn’t work on a rainy day? Do you have any idea on what materials would work?”
“Not yet,” said Jacob. “But I have a few guesses. Amelia said there are techniques she uses to keep her hair under control, so I will experiment with her to see what might work.”
Uncle Joshua stood firmly with his hands on his hips.
“Alright, do what it takes…”
He breathed in once and murmured.
“We will succeed, I know it.”
“That’s brilliant Amelia!” smiled Jacob, holding up the insulated copper wire. “I don’t understand how this works, but it does!”
Amelia beamed with pride. Secretly it was an accident, but for now she would let Jacob shower her with praise. She had tackled the insulation problem by sheer trial and error. In the end, it was cheese wax that provided the best solution in terms of cost, effectiveness, and ease of manufacturing.
“This is fantastic,” said Jacob. “We need to tell Uncle Joshua!”
“Perhaps not right now,” said Amelia, concerned. “I heard from the windows him and Matilda arguing. Better to wait until tomorrow.”
Content and proud, Jacob kissed her on the forehead
“You’re right my sweet. Let’s leave them alone tonight, and they will leave us.”
She smiled and held his hand. Together they laid on their wooden bed, smiling silently with private but shared thoughts inside their heads. It was a cold rainy night, but like their cheese-insulated wires, the two were snug underneath the blankets.
The next morning Joshua and Jacob discussed the fix.
“It’s going to a more expensive, especially with the cost of maintenance.” said Uncle Joshua. “But it works, and that’s why matters. Let’s call the Mayor.”
At the end of their conversation, Joshua brought forth some personal news.
“Matilda wants a divorce.” He said. “Do not tell her about our progress.”
Jacob looked at his uncle sadly, but nodded. “Can Aunt Matilda even do that?”
Joshua laughed. “Normally no, but I give that bitch my blessing. She can go whore around with her Scottish boy while we make millions.”
The next few weeks were a fast-paced blur. Uncle Joshua felt that more progress had been made in those weeks than the entire past half year. Within a month the first telegram line had been set up in their town’s post office to city hall. Soon he was getting invitations from all sorts of important people, and in some moments, he would drunkenly indulge in the fame.
One night, an expensive letter sealed with expensive wax arrived at his door. It was an invitation.
To be continued in Part II