The unseen, creeping news story

(Charleston Gazette, Nov. 23, 1993)

By James A. Haught

There was no electricity in Reader, the hamlet near the Northern Panhandle where I was born in 1932. We had gaslights with glowing fiber mantles. Families outside of town, beyond the gas lines, had only kerosene lamps and lanterns.

Also, they lacked running water, and lived with handle pumps, washbasins and outdoor toilets. Wood stoves heated their homes.

There were no paved roads. Horse-drawn wagons were common in the streets (as were horse droppings). Plastic was unknown. Telephones had cranks on the sides, and you cranked "longs'' and "shorts'' to reach homes on the party line.

Work in those days was 90 percent manual, 10 percent mental. I spent summers on my uncle's horse-operated farm, which might have been transported in a time machine from the 1800s. (It could have come from the 1300s, except for the mechanical mowing machine and a few other Industrial Age contraptions.) My successful friends got pick-and-shovel jobs laying pipeline.

Today, in contrast, I sit at a video terminal filled with news gathered by a roof dish from a fixed-orbit satellite hovering 22,300 miles over the equator. Electronic boxes print perfect columns of type, and lasers separate colors in photos. A three-column color picture in your morning Gazette is printed from about 250,000 digitized "bytes'' containing 2 million computer "bits.''

When the United Press International office was in the rear of our building, how did UPI's West Virginia news reach the Gazette newsroom? It was sent by telephone to Virginia, then by phone to Texas, then bounced off a satellite to a California base station, then rebroadcast in the main satellite transmission received by our roof dish. It traveled nearly 100,000 miles to get from the back of the newspaper building to the front -- at the speed of light.

News Editor Vic Burkhammer occasionally griped that a lightning storm in Dallas prevented him from getting news from 50 feet down the hall. But usually it was faster to transmit 100,000 miles than to walk 50 feet.

This amazing transformation -- from a horse-drawn world to an electronic realm, to whatever lies ahead -- is part of an unseen news story that slowly engulfs us, year after year, while we aren't paying attention. Science is turning life upside-down, but mostly off-camera.

We're so busy watching elections, local wars, lawsuits, abortion battles, scandals, terrorist raids, dope raids and the rest of the daily dither that we hardly notice technological breakthroughs.

For example, you probably missed the report last month that a Texas physicist achieved superconductivity at merely 164 degrees below zero, the warmest yet. It doesn't sound like much. But superconductors (materials offering no resistance to electron flow) enable astounding feats of magnetism, such as "maglev'' trains that float in the air. When it can be done at room temperature, you'll ride floating vehicles.

The Electronics Industries Association says wall-size, inch-thick, high-definition TV screens will be common by the end of the 1990s, making homes like movie theaters.

Medicine is becoming a field of body-scanners like those on Star Trek. And who can guess where genetic engineering will take animals, plants and people?

Meanwhile, fiber optic cables are replacing C&P Telephone's wires, which will give West Virginia tantalyzing "office of the future'' capabilities.

As the newsroom's science nut, I sometimes get carried away. Four years ago, I burst into Editor Don Marsh's office with the glorious news that two Utah physicists had achieved cold nuclear fusion, which would provide boundless free energy for the entire planet. Marsh gave me his famous fish-eye glare -- and has been reminding me ever since that cold fusion fizzled.

But I remain a believer. We're all heading for Buck Rogers land, even if the pace creeps like a clock's hands. One way to guess where we're going is to look back where we were. Remembering the gaslights and horse wagons of Reader makes the journey obvious.