“Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Besley’s in the Amazon again…

Poor James Campbell Besley.  He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and that’s just plain insulting to a historical figure.  Good thing he’s long dead or I think he would have some serious self-esteem issues.  Obviously, your self-image can only take a turn for the worse when you become worm-food, or somebody reduces you to ashes.  Maybe that means the living dead are simply shambling about looking for a little respect.  The again, so are most of the living.  Well, we don’t so much shamble as put on a suit and tie, go to a day job for 9 hours, and hope the boss doesn’t fire us.  Okay, so maybe we do shamble a little bit.  The point is, very few people remember Captain James Campbell Besley, and this seems like a gross oversight, as he is the adventurous Victorian gentleman who discovered that a rudimentary system of wireless telegraphy existed in South America’s Amazon Valley 2000 years before Guglielmo Marconi got his Nobel Prize for inventing radio in 1909.

Born in London in 1874, educated at Eton and Oxford, Besley’s childhood was spent in South Africa and Australia.  After returning to England, and graduating Oxford he scampered off to Australia’s Broken Hill School of Mines in New South Wales, hit the gold fields in Kalgoorlie, made a tidy sum, and headed for the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, where in half a year he pocketed an astounding quarter million dollars’ worth of gold.  He enlisted as one of “Kitchener’s Flying Scouts” in South Africa’s Boer War, often carrying military dispatches across 120 miles of enemy held territory to besieged Mafeking.  Presumably bored with being an unmitigated bad-ass and capitalist mover and shaker, he then jaunted off to Mexico, extracting a fortune in silver and copper and managing a 50,000 acre cattle ranch while the Mexican Revolution raged around him.  Somewhere in between he found time to win the 1913 Pacific Coast Polo Open in Southern California.  Having enough gold and polo trophies, he figured, why not hop down to Peru and explore the headwaters of the Amazon.  You know, like you do in 1913.

He rafted down 4000 miles of the Amazon River to the Atlantic, found three lost Inca cities, the cannibalized remains of earlier explorers, survived malaria, vampire bats, snowstorms near Lake Titicaca, and managed to take the first motion pictures of the newly discovered (1911) Machu Picchu.  Dude had an impressive resume that would make Indiana Jones blush and think that maybe he hadn’t accomplished enough in his life.  Because that was just not cool enough for him, he returned to New York City with a monkey named Changa whom he taught to order room service for him at the Waldorf Hotel.  1913 New York wasn’t the law and order metropolis that it is today, so all the film and artifacts from his Amazon expedition were stolen in short order.  Undeterred, he headed back to Peru in 1914 to re-shoot the whole thing.  When he returned to New York, his ship was accidentally rammed and sunk in New York Harbor, but Besley managed to save the precious cargo.  Such unrepentant bad-assery just isn’t a function of life any more.  All this, and he still managed to fade into an obscurity so deep that even Wikipedia can’t find him.

But among Mr. Besley’s accomplishments was his recognition that Amazonian natives had long been familiar with a form of communication that we patted ourselves on the back for in the 19th Century A.D.  You see, Besley noticed that everywhere he went in the Amazon, his presence had already been announced.  “Wherever his party went the natives seemed prepared for their coming, and on enquiring what means the Indians had for such rapid communication an old native replied, ‘Wireless, the same as the white man!’”(Wireless World, 1916, p43).

That a system of wireless telegraphy existed more than 3,000 years ago among the savage tribes of South America was the information brought home by Captain J. Campbell Besley, adventurer and explorer, who arrived here recently with his party after more than a year of exploring through the wilds of the Amazon Valley. Captain Besley started through South America from Lima, Peru, and made his way across the continent from the source to the delta of the Amazon River in five months. He believes that his party is the only one that has ever accomplished this feat.  “It was in the Juamara region that we first learned of this wireless system,” said Captain Besley. “We were met at the entrance of the village by a number of natives. They had evidently been expecting us, and when we asked how they knew that we were coming they pointed to a crude looking arrangement suspended between two tree stumps on a horizontal bar. Through our Indian interpreter we learned that it was a wireless apparatus for sending and receiving messages from the various tribes throughout the Amazon Valley. The transmitter was a hollowed trunk of a tree suspended from the pole so that the base was slightly off the ground. Inside it had been arranged very much like our violins. It was explained that when the instrument was struck smartly with a small rubber hammer a vibration was created that carried for miles over the hills. The receiver is very similar to the transmitter, except that it is placed on a hardwood platform, the base of the hollow tree trunk being grounded on the platform. When the message is struck in the neighboring village, sometimes 30 miles away, this receiver catches the vibrations, causing a jerky, singing sound. I understand that this sound system can be read by the members of the tribe and that in this way news of victories and other happenings are told throughout the countryside. In this way the Indians all along our route heralded our approach and we were met by the inhabitants all through the Putamayo, Nappo, Beni, Madri de Dios and Lower Eucalaya Valleys, the tributaries to the great Amazon. We learned also from the Maratos and the Haumbaisus tribes that this method of telegraphy has been used by the various tribes in that district for thousands of years” (Dickerson, 1915, p168-169).

We do fancy ourselves so clever, yet dribs and drabs of history occasionally sneak into our popular narratives about technology, and when they do not valorize our particular epistemologies and ontologies, we tend to sweep them under the carpet and call them silly names like “out-of-place artifacts” or “naïve technology”.  It’s too pat an answer to say that we keep just re-inventing variations on the same theme over and over again, but the truth is that human problems don’t change much.  We still hate each other.  We still want to take our neighbor’s land, ladies, and livelihood.  We still loathe walking long distances when we don’t have to.  And we still want to announce our awesomeness to the world.  Twitter just helps us express these things more efficiently.  The sad fact is, the average Amazonian probably understands more about wireless telegraphy than the modern urbanite, for as Carl Sagan observed, “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”.  Consider if you could build a wireless telegraph system out of hollowed out trees and leopard guts, before you start feeling superior.  And the next time someone tells you an artifact is “out-of-place”, tell them to explain to you how its modern equivalent works.  Just to be snotty, of course.

Dickerson, Theophilus L., 1841. Artisans and Artifacts of Vanished Races. Brookville, Ind., 1915.
“Notes of the Month”. Wireless World v4 (April). London: [s.n.], 1916.