Opinion | The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been

In the summer of 1789, a young fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie led an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. He and his voyageurs and Chipewyan guides were attempting, 14 years before Lewis and Clark, to cross North America, paddling birch bark canoes down a river they hoped would pierce the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie was a businessman who wanted to speed the pace of trade by connecting New York and China via an interior passage through the continent. He did find such a route, without knowing it. Mackenzie died thinking he was a failure, when he was really just 200 years early.

Some ideas are fantastically ahead of their time. In 1636, René Descartes created contact lenses, using glass tubes filled with water; unfortunately, the wearer was unable to blink. Charles Babbage invented digital difference engines essentially modern programmable computers but powered by steam in the 1820s. And Kodak developed digital cameras in 1974 but discarded the product idea because it thought no one wanted to look at photos on televisions.

In a particularly ill-timed episode, Giovanni Caselli invented the fax machine in 1856. Letter writers could scribble a message onto electrically charged foil, and the portions covered by ink would block the flow of current. The stylus of Casellis device then scanned each line of text, transmitting the signal via telegraph lines to a second machine, which would scrawl out a fac simile of the letter.

To be practical, the system required a coordinate....

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