Monday 30 March 2020

data-plan or seward’s folly

Though criticism for US Secretary of State’s negotiated purchase (see also) of the territory of Alaska from the Russian Empire—agreed to on this day in 1867—was much more reserved and the decision and price praised by most in the government at the time and only magnified through the lens of history, hindsight and self-promotion on the part of his detractors, William Henry Seward’s shrewd deal-making had failed him in another arena that resulted in a quite expensive misstep just a few months earlier.
The Secretary of State was honoured with inaugurating the first enduring transatlantic cable on 23 November 1866 (see also) and elected to dispatch a diplomatic telegram—and not merely a ceremonial message but an actual missive encrypted regarding Napoleon III perceived meddling in the affairs of Mexico using a Monroe cipher since the Department of State was footing the bill. The Anglo-American Telegraph company however stipulated that coded messages cost double and that numbers (the basis of the cipher) were required to be spelled out in full. In the end, the brief message cost the State Department nearly twenty-thousand dollars—thrice the chief’s diplomat’s annual salary. Seward disputed the charges in court but ultimately lost.