It's Wednesday, July 29, a milestone date in the history of technological advancement in the United States. On this day 106 years ago, the Cape Cod Canal opened as a privately operated toll waterway. The locals were delighted. They had won their informal race against the Panama Canal by two weeks. To celebrate the achievement, a "Parade of Ships" sailed through the channel, including the U.S. Navy destroyer McDougall, which carried the assistant secretary of the Navy, one Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A quieter -- and, ultimately, vastly more significant -- demonstration of American know-how took place that very same day, July 29, 1914. This one would truly make the world seem smaller and human beings more connected. In his New York offices, Theodore Newton Vail, the president of AT&T, placed the first transcontinental phone call, dialing up his office manager in San Francisco.
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It's no exaggeration to say that from July 29, 1914, to the present day, Americans have taken for granted that they live in the world's most technologically advanced society. Our bumbling of not just the politics but also the science of the current coronavirus pandemic has posed a jolting challenge to that assumption. But it's not the first time.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the audible "beep, beep, beep" of a diminutive 184-pound Soviet satellite called Sputnik drew attention as it orbited the Earth. Humorist Art Buchwald once noted puckishly that Russia had an Academy of Sciences half a century before we even had a country, but nonetheless, Sputnik blew America's mind. "Never before," wrote Daniel J. Boorstin, "had so small and harmless an object created such consternation."
One of those who was most consternated was Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president demanded that his science advisers explain how such a thing could happen, and a grilling by Ike was not a pleasant experience. To complete the circle, less than a year later -- yes, on July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act.
"The enactment of this legislation is an historic step, further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age," Eisenhower said in a written statement issued at the White House. "I wish to commend the Congress for the promptness with which it has created the organization and provided the authority needed for an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration."
In our day and time, the most remarkable aspect of this story may be the part about elected officials on Capitol Hill joining forces to meet the moment in a bipartisan way. And that a president of one political party ungrudgingly complimented a Congress controlled by the opposition party for its prompt and effective action.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.