Poe in Cyberspace:
Technology, Magic, and Quack Physics
Edgar Allan Poe Review, Fall 2014
Heyward Ehrlich, Rutgers Newark

Arthur C. Clark’s famous third law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, was anticipated in Edgar Allan Poe’s use of the opposite notion, that magic can be indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. The heroine of "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade" plays the game of using circumlocutions to describe examples of recent technology to the skeptical king, who rejects them all as fanciful Arabian Nights tales, but the reader is reassured by Poe’s footnotes that all the descriptions are of real inventions. The sketch, a satire on progress and skepticism in science, appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in February 1845, with the epigraph, "Truth is stranger than fiction

The 1840s were an era of rapid technological developments in communications that resulted in a small information revolution. The telegraph system in Poe’s era produced a radical cultural transformation that has been compared in its impact to cyberspace today. Tom Standage presses the case in The Victorian Internet (New York: Walker, 1998) by arguing that the mid-nineteenth19th- century electric telegraph was even of greater historical importance in its time than the Iinternet is today because for the first time it empowered people to communicate with each other over any distance in real time. Previously, tardy communications could produce awkward time warps: for example, the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 was famously fought on January 15, 1815, two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the war.

In Poe’s sketch, Scheherazade plays the parlor game of offering tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions for such very recent inventions as (to use Poe’s terms) the Electro Telegraph and Electro Printing Telegraph (both 1837), the Electro Telegraph Electrotype Printing Apparatus (1838), and the Daguerreotype (1839), as well as for Babbage’s Calculating Machine (the 1820s) and the Voltaic Pile or electric battery (1800). Scheherazade describes a "nation of mighty conjurors" in which one inventor "created a man out of brass and wood, and leather, and endowed him with such ingenuity that he would have beaten at chess, all the race of mankind" (Maelzel’s Automaton chess - player). Another magi constructed "a creature that put to shame even the genius of him who made it; for so great were its reasoning powers that, in a second, it performed calculations of so vast an extent that they would have required the united labor of fifty thousand fleshly men for a year" (Charles Babbage’s Calculating Machine, mentioned in Poe’s article on Maelzel). "But a still more wonderful conjuror," Scheherazade continues, "fashioned for himself a mighty thing that was neither man nor beast, but which had brains of lead, intermixed with black matter like pitch, and fingers that it employed with such incredible speed and dexterity that it would have had no trouble in writing out twenty thousand copies of the Koran in an hour" (the printing press) (Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 3:, Tales and Sketches, 1843-1849, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, repr. 2 vols. [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000], 2:1166).

In another example, some magicians "by means of a fluid that nobody ever yet saw, could make the corpses of his friends brandish their arms, kick out their legs, fight, or even get up and dance at his will" (the Voltaic Pile, similar to the Galvanic battery described by Poe in "Loss of Breath," "Premature Burial," and "Some Words with a Mummy"). "Another inventor had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the earth to the other" (Morse’s telegraph demonstration from Washington to Baltimore, May 24, 1844). "Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad"(Morse’s printing telegraph). "Still another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did" (the Daguerreotype, discussed by Poe in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger of January 15 and May 6, 1840) (Mabbott, 2:1167)
Perhaps the most amazing development in the technology of the 1840s were the changes in cosmology produced by recent observations in astronomy. Scheherazade’s example of creatures of "so surprising a necromantic ability, that not even their infants, nor their commonest cats and dogs have any difficulty in seeing objects that do not exist at all," depends on the connection of time and space, the realization that if light coming from a distant star takes twenty million years to reach us, then during that time the star might no longer exist, having been "blotted out from the face of creation" (Mabbott, 2:1167).

Poe’s sketch was praised by Charles Frederick Briggs in the Broadway Journal of January 25, 1845 (quoted immediately in the Southern Literary Messenger in February 1845). Poe reissued the sketch with minor revisions in the Broadway Journal on October 25, 1845, while he was editor, and soon afterwards, on January 8, 1846, he proposed to Evert Duyckinck that another volume of his tales be published, containing "‘Ligeia,’ which is undoubtedly the best story I have written--besides ‘Sheherazade’[sic]" (The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols. 1, ed. Jihn Ward Ostrom, Burton R. Pollin, and Jeffrey Savoye, [New York: The Gordian Press, 2008], 1:550). Afterwards, while working on Eureka, Poe kept his Scheherazade sketch up to date with current developments in astronomy, making "very significant changes in text and footnotes" that resulted in "awesomely impressive" revisions (Mabbott,: 2:1174 n44).

In the 1840s, the local networks of telegraph wire supplemented but did not replace the older, more traditional oral and printed networks of communication, which of course still had a great reach. Exploiting the interest in adult education of the antebellum Lyceum movement, Poe travelled the lecture circuit from 1843 to 1849, benefitting from the attention that his talks produced in press accounts. In the 1840s the conversion of some popular lectures into print was facilitated by the growth of shorthand: Henry J. Raymond, who went on to become co-founder and editor of the New York Times in 1851, provided shorthand accounts of science lectures for the New-York Tribune. The two networks, the network of adult lecturing and the network of newspaper accounts and reprints, were thus integrated in an informal of network of networks, or an early form of the Iinternet.

An important element in the print network of newspapers and magazines was the courtesy exchange of copies from which articles could be freely reprinted with credit. Poe once reported examining "some forty or fifty exchange papers one day," nearly all of which had reprinted the same humorous sketch from Punch ("Popular Lectures," Broadway Journal, May 3, 1845, in The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 5 vols., "Writings in the Broadway Journal: Nonfictional Prose." Part I: Text, ed. Burton R. Pollin, [New York: Gordian Press, 1986], 3:3:109). Without the courtesy exchange system, literary "hits" might not have been possible. Thus Poe bragged to Frederick Thomas on May 4, 1845 -- one day after his "exchange papers" report in the Broadway Journal -- that "The Raven," which had enjoyed ten reprints in its first month, had "a great ‘run,’" having beat out "The Gold Bug," allowing him to crow that he had written it "for the express purpose of running" (Letters 1:505 ).

The networks of the 1840s did not always work to the advantage of authors. Meredith L. McGill makes the case in American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) that the lack of international copyright, which led to the unregulated copying of British publications in American books, magazines, and newspapers, contributed greatly to inexpensive reading for Americans. (Correspondingly, Poe and other American authors could be freely pirated in Britain.) Reprinting benefitted publishers who also happened to be printers, but it deprived American authors of income even though it contributed to their fame and reputation.

Today both technology and magic may be losing the ability to astonish us. For a generation grown accustomed to better and better smartphones, faster universal online access, and moment-to-moment social networking, there may be few surprises in store as new features appear in cyberspace, such as computers in clothing, the ceaseless torrent of new apps, and the growing Iinternet of everyday things. Even though an older generation raised on typewriters and print may still see the most advanced developments in cyberspace as incomprehensible if not miraculous, we are all beginning to take for granted the wonder of googling -- the lower case generic name for information retrieval, formerly called browsing -- whether via Google or any of the rival search engines that, amazingly, have become at once general encyclopedias, newspapers, universal concordances, expert systems, translators, cinemas, televisions, companions, servants, and much more.

It is easy to take for granted the astounding fact that computer software can automatically correct spelling and even apparently complete our thoughts. For example, when I type into the Google omnibox -- a combination receptacle for both URLs and search strings -- a strange letter combinations such as ed, eDfga, egar a, edg, e a p, dgar p, dgar oe, or other fragments or misspellings, the suggestion Edgar Allan Poe will immediately appear. Even the misspelling Edgar Allen Poe will be automatically corrected as will the particular form that Poe preferred, Edgar A. Poe. What’s more, Google, Bing, and other search engines can provide a variety of additional useful functions, such as doing calculations, providinge weather reports, and givinge sports results. Moreover, they can limit searches with prefixes such as site, contains, filetype, define, language, location, intitle, link, related, info, and cache (each followed by a colon and the desired word or words without spaces); in addition, they may also search for words between other words (*), handle exact spellings (+), exclude words (-), seek exact phrases (" "), explore numerical sequences (..), and even select a reading level. The appearance of a microphone icon announces that support will be available for voice-based search. For more on these capabilities, sSee http://(www.google.com/advanced_search) and (http://onlinehelp.microsoft.com/en-us/bing/).

Among the major search sites, the Yahoo! site has shown the most recent improvement; it uses the Bing search engine but adds features intended to make it a general starting hub, following the principle that more is more. There is information on a plethora of subjects, including news, fashion, social trends, e-mail, weather, sports, travel, food, horoscopes, comics, dating, jobs, and advertisements. For researchers, there are three sub-menus of special interest on the top or left side: Tech, with Iinternet hardware news, featuring David Pogue, former technology columnist of the New York Times; Screen, which can bring up 25 twenty-five videos and films on Edgar Allan Poe; and Answers, which responds to just just the word edgar with these appeals for help on papers and exams, quoted literally:

Ten most interesting facts about edgar Allan Poe? How did Edgar Allan Poe die? 5 [sic] Five examples of alliteration in ‘'The Raven"’ by edgar allan poe? What was Edg+ar Allan Poe’s writing style? What is the meaning of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, "Alone"? Homework Help Plz on The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe??!!? Is there symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven?Is there symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven? Examples of Onomatopoeia in "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe.? What is the meaning behind "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe? wWhat is the theme for the fall of the house of usher by Edgar Allan Poe? (htps://answers.yahoo.com/)

Those Although these suggestions that seem to be intended for those who need ready-made ideas for Poe papers, they may also prove useful to those who need to detect the presence of such papers. Serious researchers should not overlook the fact that the Yahoo! Poe directory has useful links to three museums, one organization, and 31 thirty-one works (http://dir.yahoo.com/arts/humanities/literature/authors/literary_fiction/poe__edgar_allan__1809_1849_/works/).

One more example: a fairly recent search engine with the improbable name of DuckDuckGo (https://duckduckgo.com/duckduckgo.com) offers[NT12] a clean interface, respect for the privacy of users, and a refreshing, supportive community. More interestingly, perhaps, if offers entrée entré to the technology behind the magic of search engines. Users who wish to learn about code development and language translation, or to explore finding work in these areas, are invited to become open-source contributors, leading to the possibility of becoming contractors and eventually full-time staff members. See (http://duckduckhack.com)/, (http://duck.co/duckduckhack/), or the blog at (http://www.reddit.com/r/duckduckgo/). If you have been wondering,: the name of the site comes from the children’s game: duck, duck, goose.

"If it looks like a duck," the saying goes, "swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." Mabbott discovered that Poe borrowed a substantial cluster of scientific data in "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade" from Dionysius Lardner’s Course of Lectures (New York: 1842) (Mabbott, 2:1151). Previously, Poe had taken umbrage in Philadelphia at the way Lardner seemed to be flaunting his British degree as Dionysius Lardner, LL.D., in his announcement of a science lecture in the Saturday Evening Post on November 20, 1841. One week later, on November 27, 1841, Poe thrust Lardner into his sketch "Three Sundays in a Week" in the Post, mocking him as "Doctor Dubble L. Dee, the lecturer upon quack physics" (Mabbott, 1:652). Despite Lardner’s celebrity status, Mabbott took the mockery seriously, believing that "Poe certainly thought him a quack" (Mabbott, 1:648).

Three years later, Poe attacked Lardner again, ridiculing his explanation of the different apparent sizes of the sun in "Marginalia" no. 38 in the Democratic Review for November, 1844, (Collected Writings, of Edgar Allan Poe: The Brevities, ed. Burton Pollin, [New York: Gordian Press, ], 22:143-48). Soon afterwards, following his report in the Broadway Journal on the contemporary lecture platform, Poe suddenly turned from the American comic reprints from in Punch of "Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures" ("curtain lectures" are a wife’s harsh criticisms of her husband at bedtime), -- to the subject of Lardner’s successful science lectures, remarking tartly,: "Dr. Lardner’s were not half so popular because they were not half as true" ("Popular Lectures," Broadway Journal, 3 May 3, 1845, in Collected Writings3:109). Perhaps Poe was preparing his readers for the repetition of his scornful epithet, "Doctor Dubble L. Dee, the lecturer upon quack physics" in "Three Sundays in a Week," scheduled to be reprinted in the next issue of 10 May 10, 1845.

In any event, Mabbott conceded that it was odd for Poe to repay his debt to Lardner for the substantial scientific information he borrowed from him in the Scheherazade sketch with invective: "It does seem ungrateful of Poe to mention Lardner only in a mood of rebuke or caricature" ("Poe and Dr. Lardner," American Notes and Queries 3, [November 1943]:, 117). Poe’s hostility remains unexplained; for his part, Lardner is little known today, remembered in his obituary in the New York Times for his "excellent reputation as a popular lecturer in Science" (May 20, 1859, p. 4) and still regarded decades later in the Times as "a scientist of high repute" (March 9, 1919, p. 35). Truth is indeed stranger than fiction: despite Poe’s perpetual hostility, which tried to make Lardner look like, swim like, or even sound like one, Lardner was never a quack. Even if Lardner had learned of Poe’s spells and incantations directed against him, which remains doubtful, Mabbott suggests that during his visit in the United States from 1841 to 1845, in view of "the $200,000 the scholarly man picked up on his lecture tour, perhaps he had no grounds for complaint" ("Poe and Dr. Lardner," 117).

"Poe in Cyberspace" columns are archived online at eapoe.info.