All of my tools are made by bigger tools somewhere else. How far back does this lineage of tools go? I wondered if someone alone in the woods could make an Information Age object, armed with nothing but information?
In the summer of 2009, I headed out for the wilderness of Mineral County, Montana, to test this question. With no tools or materials except the ability to search the internet, I endeavored to learn how sticks and stones lying on the ground have been transformed into a metallic, electric society. The question would ultimately demonstrate whether electronic technologies could have existed at any point in history, if only people had had the know-how.
My goal was to create a telegraph switch and battery, capable of producing and modulating an electrical signal — the start of an ahistorical internet.
Quest for Fire
The project became a study of fire. In order to produce a voltage, I would need to melt metals from their rock ores, and this requires a very hot fire.
Beginning empty-handed, I needed something to collect piles of material from the surrounding area — so my first tool was a simple basket, woven with tree bark that a beaver had chewed down.
Next came axes, ropes, and knives made of chipped stones and plant fibers. This suite of caveman tools was in the interest of making fire. I opted for a bow drill fire starter (see MAKE Volume 21, page 123), and bloodied my hands for days spinning two sticks together in an attempt to create wood dust and heat it to 800°F.
The tiny ember produced in this way represented a crucial step, releasing energy on its own, so I wouldn’t have to do all the work anymore. Before this, for every chipped stone, gouged log, and dug hole, the energy had to come through my own muscles. It’s quite humbling to realize how little impact a human with no tools can have — the activities of beavers seemed like impossible feats to me after a few days, let alone the roads and houses I would return to at the end of the day.
Finally, once I conceded to using a nylon rope for my bow drill, I was able to whoop for joy as I created a campfire. Given more time and less rainy weather, I’m confident I could have made it work with plant fiber rope, but I had to move on. For now, the nylon persists in my process like an umbilical cord to industry.
Google provided enough information to teach me the bow drill — which types of wood to use, what the ashy dust should look like, and how to bring an ember to a fire once I had kindled it. But a campfire didn’t prove anything yet; it would be a long time before I got this fire to the transformative temperatures of the Metal Ages.
Collecting metal ores wasn’t too difficult in my location. Dozens of out-of-use mines pockmark the mountains in Mineral County. Copper ores often look metallic, or show vibrant greens and blues. Iron ore can look like chunks of rust.
If I had relied only on internet information to find these locations, I would have ended up on the tops of mountains for no reason. I found precise coordinates that were precisely a mile off. Some mines had no record at all, merely piles of leftover rocks at the collapsed entrances. Once again I needed local advice, as well as paper maps, to find them.
The task of constructing a metal smelting furnace exceeded the information I found freely available online. My first furnace was hopelessly naive; I was wasting my energy pumping bellows for hours and sucking poisonous gases.
In retrospect, it’s possible I got mild arsenic poisoning twice, from roasting ores containing the heavy metal in open air and breathing it. This blunder illustrated that more-natural technologies are not automatically more environmentally sound: my furnace had no emissions control and consumed charcoal very inefficiently.
This first trial probably never got above the temperature of a campfire. I had to give up on Session One of the project after picking through the remnants of this failed furnace and coming up with handfuls of ash. I was mired in the Paleolithic, nothing more than a caveman with big dreams.
When I returned in the fall, I came armed with a dozen detailed articles from paid-access archives, about ancient furnaces in the Andes, Africa, and the Middle East. I started construction of a new, much smaller furnace with a chimney set into a hillside. Foolishly, I started with a wooden chimney. It went up in flames.
I mortared a new chimney with river clay and flat stones, and set to work building bellows. The most effective one ended up looking like a classic European fireplace bellows. At most points in this process, however, a classic mental picture of a tool led me astray; making something that looked like an axe was a waste of time, when just the head of an axe in my hand did the job.
Within a couple weeks of refining my technique, I was melting rocks and achieving the right temper-atures, and soon I had tiny lumps of metal: first copper, and then wrought iron. Pounding these into disks and placing wedges of potato between them, I arrived at the simplest electric battery.
In the end, I triumphed, and was able to assemble a switch producing Morse code at 0.7 volts — a working telegraph possible in the Stone Age.
Of course, this success is incomplete by itself. What good is a signal with no receiver? To go any further, I would need the cooperation of many other people, to build a wire network, and receivers, and to learn a code system.
In fact, I had already relied heavily on cooperation to make my metal switch. In order to have six weeks of free time to do this project, I had all my needs taken care of by modern society.
It may very well have proved impossible for a lone Paleolithic human to convince the people around her to participate in electronic communication. Even in the 1840s, Samuel Morse’s telegraph was mocked in Congress as a conjuring trick.
DIY goes only so far, because there is no communication with only one person.
Videos and more information about Immaculate Telegraphy can be found at immaculatetelegraphy.tumblr.com.
This project was supported by the Eyebeam Honorary Residency and hosted at the Johnson Creek Ranch, with big thanks to Liz Filardi for producing the video and web content.