Crowning Thoughts — And Raining on a Reigning Parade

King Charles III

Yesterday’s coronation of King Charles III in Great Britain brings to mind a few thoughts. First, some seven-decade-old recollections and then a bit of provocative musing for which admirers of monarchy — not just fans of the British royal family — could be forgiven for thinking that I’m raining on the reigning parade.

My recollections were triggered by a friend’s Facebook post recalling how, as a child, she had watched the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on her parents’ first TV set.

I too watched Elizabeth’s coronation on my family’s first TV. However, what I experienced (no different, I’m sure, from what my friend saw) was the transmission from London of just a few still photographs, not a “live” TV broadcast of the kind we regularly see today. What was “live” was the BBC audio commentary, which included scratchy sound from the coronation proceedings. The photos, however — grainy and low-resolution — were clearly news-photographer stills taken inside the abbey which were then transmitted by “newswire” — perhaps via shortwave radio or trans-Atlantic telegraph cable (not telephone cable, which had not yet been laid). The result, naturally, was that all the royal pomp and circumstance was reduced to a low-quality, black-and-white facsimile of a larger-than-life event compressed onto a tiny screen.

Queen Elizabeth II (even at age 8, I was impressed by her beauty)

It was not till the evening of the queen’s coronation that actual celluloid film of the event, flown across the Atlantic on propeller-driven planes (much slower than today’s jets), made it to the New York facilities of America’s TV networks, which could then air only the initial portion of the coronation on their nightly newscasts.

Technology has come a long way since 1953. (I was 8 when the queen, then a radiant 27 year old, received her crown; Charles was just 4.) The first trans-Atlantic telephone cable was inaugurated in 1956, and the first trans-Atlantic TV transmission via satellite didn’t take place for another six years, in July 1962, a month or so after I graduated from high school. The satellite, Telstar 1, could carry not only live television but phone calls as well. However, unlike many of today’s communications satellites which are in geosynchronous orbit (which allows them, in effect, to hover over a more or less fixed position on Earth), Telstar 1 was in a low-altitude orbit, which allowed it just 20 minutes or so to be simultaneously in range of the sending and receiving stations on either side of the ocean. This meant that the inaugural trans-Atlantic broadcast, carried live and in prime time in the U.S. by all three TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), was a short program. It featured President John F. Kennedy and fabled newscasters Walter Cronkite (CBS) and Chet Huntley (NBC), and it ended when Telstar dipped below the horizon, out of range of the sending/receiving stations on each side of the Atlantic.

I remember watching that broadcast at home with my mom and dad, and how we all — especially my dad, an electronics/physics guy — marveled at Earth’s unprecedented shrinking.

As it happens, I’m currently in the midst of a project that involves editing the transcript of an unpublished 1991 video interview with my dad.1 In the course of the interview, Dad mentioned his first trans-Atlantic phone call, made when he was looking to purchase a specialty-steel product not manufactured in the U.S. to stiffen the necks of his Danelectro guitars. He found it in England. Although I’m quite certain his call to the British steel company took place only in the late 1950s,2 the capacity of that undersea cable was insufficient to handle the demand of the many people who wanted to talk across the Atlantic. So in the taped interview transcript I’m editing, Dad described the problems with a phone call carried by shortwave radio, which still handled the bulk of the trans-Atlantic phone traffic back then. “The voices would fade in and out,” he said. “And you had to repeat [yourself] over and over again to get any intelligence across. Not like today when they bounce off satellites, and you can call the other side of the world, and it’s just as good as talking to somebody across the street.”

I can vouch for the quality of today’s transoceanic phone connections. When I was overseas in the first part of my career — in India (1968–70), Brazil (1971–75), the USSR (1976–78) and Japan (1985) — I’d sometimes have calls with family, and thanks to satellite transmission the connections were perfectly clear.

In fact, my dad’s musings on scientific/technological progress prompted me, long ago, to think about how much the world had changed in just his 82-year lifetime (1912–1994). Born less than a decade after the Wright brothers’ first flight (1903), he witnessed the birth of radio, TV and the movies; the development of antibiotics; the dawn of the Atomic Age, space flight and the moon landing; and such medical miracles as heart transplants.

In fact, it was my own musings about the rapidity of change in just my dad’s lifetime that inspired me to use developments like these as the basis for a short statement I was asked to write for President Reagan to welcome visitors to the U.S. Pavilion at an international expo in Japan in 1985. Because the pavilion’s exhibit was devoted to artificial intelligence (AI), it occurred to me that the president’s welcome message should contrast the breathtakingly rapid development of scientific and technological progress in modern times with the glacial pace of previous “quantum leaps in man’s ability to shape his world.”  The president’s message noted several key milestones: “the taming of fire, the invention of the wheel and the widespread adoption of machines.” (I wish I’d thought to include the transition from hunting and gathering to farming.)

Raining on the parade
Turning now to something on which I confess to having only superficial knowledge, I’ll nonetheless share some thoughts I’ve had about the nature of monarchy. I’ll listen respectfully to any qualified historians who don’t agree with the broad conclusion I’ve reached about this — namely, that monarchs are (mostly, at least) the successors of violent men — warriors, pirates, brigands — who years or centuries ago seized power and transformed the regimes they founded into ruling dynasties whose existence they justified by claiming divine right. (Divine right has a distinctly sweeter ring to it than “might makes right,” don’t you think?)

Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

England provides a good example. Although I’m no student of British history, I know that William the Conqueror — the first English king to hold his coronation in Westminster Abbey — gained the throne by crossing the Channel from France in 1066, invading England and defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Harold was killed in the battle, and William seized power, transforming the country and establishing the monarchy that reigns today, nearly a thousand years later.

In China, for over two millennia, successive dynasties have claimed to rule because they have received the “Mandate of Heaven.” Receiving the Mandate of Heaven strikes me as nothing but spin for seizing power and then claiming to rule by divine right. None of these dynasties remained in power for more than two or three centuries; all were brought down in their turn by successful rebellions or (in the case of the Mongols and Manchus) by foreign invasion. And all the dynasties that arose following the defeat of those who ruled before them claimed the Mandate of Heaven.

Ivan the Terrible

In Russia, the monarchy that lasted until the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917 was founded by Riurik, a Viking, in the year 862. Most Americans think of Vikings as both intrepid sailors who reached North America around the year 1000 as well as savage raiders who terrorized much of coastal Europe from the eighth through the 11th centuries. However, the Vikings also traded and plundered along Europe’s rivers simultaneously with their coastal marauding. The rulers of Kievan Rus and what grew into Muscovy and, ultimately, the Russian state, were called Ruirikovichi (descendants of Riurik). The last of them was Czar Fyodor Ivanovich (the son of Ivan the Terrible), who reigned till his death in 1598.

Al Capone

I’m not sure how great a stretch this is, but I wonder if it’s not plausible to argue that if Al Capone had somehow managed to take charge in Chicago and establish his family’s hereditary rule over the city, he and his successors might have claimed divine right and “tradition” to transform themselves from gangsters into royalty and thus justify their rule.

I don’t wish to demean any of the royal families of today’s Europe, but I think the Al Capone analogy might be worth considering when pondering the “divine right of kings.”

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  1. The interview was conducted in connection with my dad’s pioneering work with musical instrument amplifiers and electric guitars.
  2. This was probably only a couple of years after the establishment of a cable telephone link “across the pond.”
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