Eye Books

By | October 30, 2014

Herein a long tale of history, technology, and media change.

Several years ago, one of the community arts organizations I am involved with—the Saratoga Film Forum, an art house movie theater in downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y.—had on its programming committee a serious film buff. He was, essentially, a veritable walking (or sitting, as the case may be) encyclopedia of cinema. This is, of course, not surprising. What was surprising was that he was almost totally blind, suffering from severe macular degeneration and needing elaborate optics that resembled a wearable Viewmaster to watch movies or read books.

Today, optometrists and ophthalmologists understand macular degeneration thanks in large part to the work of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring. Von Sömmerring (1755–1830) was a German physician and one of the most renowned anatomists in Germany at the time. Amongst his many contributions to our knowledge of physiology was his discovery of the macula in the retina of the human eye. The macula contains the fovea and foveola. They contain a high density of cones, which, with their partners the rods, are the photoreceptors that allow us to see. Macular degeneration, as you would expect, involves damage to these photoreceptors.

Von Sömmering was, like many men of his age, a bit of a polymath and an inventor. He designed a telescope, among other things, and in 1809 created one of the first electric telegraph systems. Based on a crude earlier design, his system used as many as 35 electrical wires, each of which represented a different letter or number. Thus:

messages could be conveyed electrically up to a few kilometers…with each of the telegraph receiver’s wires immersed in a separate glass tube of acid. An electric current was sequentially applied by the sender through the various wires representing each digit of a message; at the recipient’s end the currents electrolysed the acid in the tubes in sequence, releasing streams of hydrogen bubbles next to each associated letter or numeral (Wikipedia, 2014).

Not the most elegant of designs, but it did trigger off several decades of development to produce an effective working telegraph. The first commercially successful electric telegraph was co-developed by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in the UK. In 1838, it was installed by the Great Western Railway between Paddington Station and West Drayton.

Across the pond, Samuel Morse had patented his own version of a telegraph, as well as the eponymous code (the “Morse code” was devised by Morse with his assistant, Alfred Vail). In 1844, the famous “What hath God wrought” telegram was transmitted, and the rest is history.

The legacy of the telegraph is easy to spot today; what is texting, really, but a high-tech version of the telegram? And all those texting abbreviations and emojie are not a million miles removed from the Morse code, although they’re often less comprehensible.

The telegraph did help solve a problem that had briefly plagued U.S. President Andrew Jackson. For the first 125 or so years of U.S. history, mail delivery was literally 24/7. Indeed, the postal service was the only form of communication back then, and few things were more important than the mail. Postmaster General was a Cabinet position, and until 1971, the Postmaster was in the line of Presidential succession. Post offices were also great gathering places, as people socialized, drank, and played cards or what have you while they waited for the mail to arrive (there was no home delivery until after the 1860s).

“The advance of the human race in intelligence, in virtue and religion itself depends in part, upon the speed with which…knowledge…is disseminated,” wrote Colonel Richard M. Johnson, a Kentucky Congressman who served during the Jackson presidency (he was later Martin Van Buren’s veep) (Meacham, 2008). Why did he write this?

The fact that there was mail delivery every day of the week meant, logically, that there was mail delivery on Sunday, aka the Sabbath. This didn’t sit well with some of the more religiously inclined personalities of the time—in particular, one Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, who was a man on a mission. That mission was to end what he called “the national evil of great magnitude”: mail delivery on Sunday. (The things they worried about back then…) He took it up directly with President Jackson—one of the problems of being a populist like Jackson was that you were constantly being accosted by the public—and even though Jackson had other things to contend with (like, say, nullification), Congressman Johnson was appointed to head a committee to investigate closing the Post Office on Sunday. The committee ultimately decided, “The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country” (Meacham, 2008). (Boy, did they have a way with words back then!) So Sunday mail delivery stayed. (Another of Johnson’s arguments was that since some religions celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, singling out Sunday would give unfair—and unconstitutional—preference to one particular faith.)

After 1844, however, the volume of mail in general—and Sunday mail in particular—started to drop thanks to the telegraph, which became a prominent tool of business communication.

Remember, too, that businesses tended to operate seven days a week back then. Reverend Ely and his successors were still eager to get the Sunday Sabbath free, so by the end of the century, religious leaders formed an alliance with organized labor, which was starting to become an influential force. Both parties, religious leaders and labor leaders, wanted the same basic thing—Sundays off—albeit for different reasons. By the early 20th century, technology had made the issue, as far as the mails were concerned, moot. The telegraph and the railroad made businesspeople less reliant on the mail, so in 1912, when Congress decided to eliminate Sunday mail delivery, a bill which President Taft signed without complaint, there really wasn’t much hue and cry.

As Dr. Joe Webb has pointed out many times, mail volumes have continued to drop thanks to all the communications revolutions of the 20th century—the telephone, radio, television, the Internet, and now all the various mobile and social media. And while debate centers around whether mail delivery should be pared back to five days a week, last year Amazon partnered with the USPS to restore Sunday delivery, if only in selected cities (at first).

One of the things you could have Amazon deliver to you on a Sunday is a new Kindle.

It was the Kindle, more than anything, that triggered off the ebook revolution. Electronic books were nothing really new; Project Gutenberg dates back to 1971, after all, and by the turn of the millennium there were at least a dozen companies and platforms jockeying for market share in the nascent ebook space, including such giants as Microsoft and Adobe. The early Palm devices—precursors to today’s smartphones—were highly touted as an ebook platform. (Have you ever read a long novel on a Palm Pilot? It was not fun.) The E Ink approach to “electronic paper”—the reflective electrophoretic technology that essentially made reading a screen as comfortable as reading ink on paper—started to gain traction, and the Sony Reader was the first commercially successful ereader. It debuted first in Japan and was introduced in the U.S. in 2006. It was a modest hit, but it wasn’t until the Amazon Kindle, based on the same E Ink technology, launched in 2007 that the ebook market took off. (The poor Sony Reader; discontinued in 2013, it is alas a mere footnote, albeit an important one, in the history of ebooks.) Although ebook growth has been flat in the past couple of years, in 2013 ebook sales still amounted to $3 billion, which ain’t nothin’. Even if ebooks aren’t exactly cannibalizing print book sales, they are still an important part of the cross media mix.

Ebooks like those available for the Kindle have found favor amongst older readers for a very basic reason: it’s easy to make the type bigger. And thus book lovers who may have failing eyesight—either from basic aging or specific problems like macular degeneration—are still able to read. And Apple’s perhaps aptly named “Retina” displays make even backlit screens easy to read.

Samuel von Sömmerring would approve.



“BookStats: Ebooks Flat in 2013,” DigitalBookWorld, June 26, 2014, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/bookstats-ebooks-flat-in-2013/.

Megan Garber, “The Unlikely Alliance That Ended Sunday Mail Delivery…in 1912,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/the-unlikely-alliance-that-ended-sunday-mail-delivery-in-1912/281370/?single_page=true.

Tiffany Hsu, “U.S. Postal Service to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/10/business/la-fi-amazon-usps-20131109.

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York, 2008), pp. 87–88.

“About Project Gutenberg,” https://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:About.

“Samuel Thomas van Sömmerring,” Wikipedia, modified September 26, 2014, accessed October 29, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Thomas_von_Sömmerring.

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