Saturday Night Science: A Thread Across the Ocean

 

“A Thread Across the OceanThere are inventions, and there are meta-inventions. Many things were invented in the 19th century which contributed to the wealth of the present-day developed world, but there were also concepts which emerged in that era of “anything is possible” ferment which cast even longer shadows. One of the most important is entrepreneurship—the ability of a visionary who sees beyond the horizon of the conventional wisdom to assemble the technical know-how, the financial capital, the managers and labourers to do the work, while keeping all of the balls in the air and fending off the horrific setbacks that any breakthrough technology will necessarily encounter as it matures.

Cyrus W. Field may not have been the first entrepreneur in the modern mold, but he was without doubt one of the greatest. Having started with almost no financial resources and then made his fortune in the manufacture of paper, he turned his attention to telegraphy. Why, in the mid-19th century, should news and information between the Old World and the New move only as fast as sailing ships could convey it, while the telegraph could flash information across continents in seconds? Why, indeed?—Field took a proposal to lay a submarine cable from Newfoundland to the United States to cut two days off the transatlantic latency of around two weeks to its logical limit: a cable across the entire Atlantic which could relay information in seconds, linking the continents together in a web of information which was, if low bandwidth, almost instantaneous compared to dispatches carried by ships.

Field knew next to nothing about electricity, manufacturing of insulated cables thousands of miles long, paying-out mechanisms to lay them on the seabed, or the navigational challenges in carrying a cable from one continent to another. But he was supremely confident that success in the endeavour would enrich those who accomplished it beyond their dreams of avarice, and persuasive in enlisting in the effort not only wealthy backers to pay the bills but also technological savants including Samuel F. B. Morse and William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), who invented the mirror galvanometer which made the submarine cable viable.

When you try to do something audacious which has never been attempted before, however great the promise, you shouldn’t expect to succeed the first time, or the second, or the third…. Indeed, the history of transatlantic cable was one of frustration, dashed hopes, lost investments, and derision in the popular press.

The project ran into difficulty from its inception. The first phase was to link St. John’s, Newfoundland (near where the west end of the proposed transatlantic cable was to land) to Nova Scotia, where it could connect to the existing North American telegraph network. This effort alone almost exhausted the capital of Field’s company, and required him to seek new investors on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1857, preparations were complete to lay the transatlantic cable. The Royal Navy and U.S. Navy had provided converted warships to lay the cable, but they lacked the cargo capacity to carry the entire cable, so the cable was divided between the two ships, which were to rendezvous in the middle of the Atlantic, where their cables would be spliced together, after which each ship would proceed toward its designated landing point, one in Newfoundland and the other in Ireland.

The first attempt in 1857 was a complete failure when the cable repeatedly broke. In 1858, a second attempt was made, and after initial problems with breakages, both ships made it to the landing points and the cable was ready for service. Tests confirmed its continuity, and Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory inaugural message to U.S. President James Buchanan. This created a sensation in both Britain and the U.S., and newspaper headlines heralded the new age of instant communication. What was not reported is that the communication was not all that instant. In order to overcome the resistance of the long cable, a very high voltage was applied, and despite that, so poor was the transmission through the cable that it could take ten minutes to transmit a single word in Morse code. Queen Victoria’s brief message took 17 hours to transmit. Worse, the high voltage was causing the insulation of the cable’s wires to degrade, further reducing its ability to transmit messages. By September, the cable, after less than a month of operation, failed entirely. Newspapers speculated that the entire operation of the cable had been a hoax and that Field was running a stock market scheme to fleece his investors.

Clearly, a better understanding of the problem and a better way to lay and operate the cable were required. Field recruited William Thompson, one of the leading researchers in the young field of electricity, who redesigned the cable and invented the mirror galvanometer which would allow using a low voltage which would not degrade the cable. Meanwhile, on the western side of the Atlantic, the Civil War was raging, and there was no prospect of another attempt until its conclusion. Recognising that using two ships to lay the cable was marginal at best, Field managed to buy the largest ship in the world, the Great Eastern, which had failed in its intended market, for pennies on the pound. Great Eastern had the ability to carry the entire cable and lay it in one nonstop voyage.

The first attempt was made in July of 1865, but once again ended in failure when the cable snapped and the end was lost in the depths of the ocean. The next year another attempt was made, and the cable was successfully laid and functioned perfectly. Later, the cable which had snapped in the 1865 attempt was found and raised from the ocean floor with a grappling hook, spliced to a new cable, and used to create a second transatlantic telegraphic link.

It was the wonder of the age. So it has been and shall always be with entrepreneurship: it’s always “futuristic”, “folly”, or even a scam until the moment it works. Then everybody says it was inevitable. Since that day in 1866, Britain and the United States have enjoyed uninterrupted instantaneous communication.

The first telegraph cables were a direct copper connection from end to end. Signals passing through the cable were attenuated by the electrical resistance of the wire, and the speed of transmission was limited by the capacitance and inductance of the cable, which tend to make short pulses spread out in time. The successful 1866 cable could only send about eight words per minute, but compared to waiting twelve days for a message to arrive by ship, it seemed like a miracle. It was not until much later that it became possible to install repeaters in undersea cables to regenerate the signal at regular intervals along the way and achieve a much greater transmission speed.

Today, gigabytes per second flow beneath the oceans through fibre optic tubes. It all had to start somewhere, and this is the chronicle of how that came to be. This may have been the first time it became evident there was a time value to information: that the news, financial quotes, and messages delivered in minutes instead of weeks were much more valuable than those which arrived long after the fact.

It is also interesting that the laying of the first successful transatlantic cable was almost entirely a British operation. While the American Cyrus Field was the promoter, almost all of the capital, the ships, the manufacture of the cable, and the scientific and engineering expertise in its production and deployment were British.

Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. ISBN 978-0-06-052446-3.

Here is a documentary about the laying of the first transatlantic cable.

There are 42 comments.

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  1. Member

    Fanny Kemble, a famous British actress who spent much time in America, wrote circa 1882 about the impact of improved transatlantic communications, in annotation of her earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by the slowness of such communications:

    To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

    Further Fannyisms

     

    • #1
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm
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  2. Member

    Very interesting.Thanks John

    • #2
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:09 pm
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  3. Member

    For those interested in an audio book, Henry M. Field wrote The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph, available for free download at Librivox. He was the brother of Cyrus Field.

    Seawriter

    • #3
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:15 pm
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  4. Member

    Thanks again, John. To this day I’m amazed that the thing works. As much as we’ve lived in an age of technical miracles, I still think the genuine miracles were telegraphy, photography, and steam propulsion, on land and sea. Someone born in, say, 1810 would see things that were unimaginable up to that time, whereas someone who knew about the telegraph could more easily imagine a wireless telegraph, and someone with radio could easily imagine television as the next step.

    • #4
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:16 pm
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  5. Inactive

    Is either of those first two cables still on the ocean floor?

    If not, have they been retrieved and portions of them put on display anywhere?

    • #5
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:27 pm
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  6. Member

    John Walker: ecognising that using two ships to lay the cable was marginal at best, Field managed to buy the largest ship in the world, the Great Eastern, which had failed in its intended market, for pennies on the pound.

    And so, Mr. Brunel, we meet again!

    • #6
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:28 pm
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  7. Inactive

    I just love old tech and engineering.

    This was a fun trip, for instance.

    • #7
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:29 pm
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  8. Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Edward Smith:Is either of those first two cables still on the ocean floor?

    If not, have they been retrieved and portions of them put on display anywhere?

    I don’t know if they have been retrieved, but the excess cable from the 1858 attempt (they carried more than they needed so they wouldn’t run out if there were navigation errors) was cut into pieces and sold as a collector’s item by Tiffany & Co., along with a certificate of authenticity signed by Cyrus Field. Here is a museum in Australia which has one of these pieces of the cable.

    • #8
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:39 pm
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  9. Inactive

    And I have found the museum I sought.

    It is the Powerhouse Museum, In Sydney, Australia

    Transatlantic Cable Segment

    Thank you, John Walker, for sending me down this Rabbit Hole.

    If I ever meet you, I’ll bake you one of these

    Strawberry Rhubarb Pie 02, 3 August 2011

    • #9
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:46 pm
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  10. Member

    Edward Smith:If I ever meet you, I’ll bake you one of these

    Strawberry Rhubarb Pie 02, 3 August 2011

    What sort of filling?

    • #10
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:48 pm
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  11. Inactive

    That’s my Strawberry Rhubarb.

    I also do Strawberry, Rhubarb, Cherry, Peach, Peach Rhubarb, Peach Strawberry, Apple, Green Tomato, Buttermilk, and Vinegar Pie. It depends what i have at hand, really.

    • #11
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm
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  12. Inactive

    John, do you think knowing that this lady was waiting for them might have hurried up those telegraphs?

    • #12
    • March 21, 2015 at 1:59 pm
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  13. Inactive

    What amazes me about this era is how much power things took compared to sending information nowadays. Things were so crude and inefficient.

    John, if we were to know what we know today but we had to start with what they had then in terms of material and machines how would we do this differently? I guess the first thing is repeaters — but, anything else come to mind?

    • #13
    • March 21, 2015 at 5:23 pm
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  14. Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Larry Koler:John, if we were to know what we know today but we had to start with what they had then in terms of material and machines how would we do this differently? I guess the first thing is repeaters — but, anything else come to mind?

    It is mostly a matter of knowledge, not materials or manufacturing competence. You’re absolutely right that what they needed on these very long cable runs was repeaters, but there was no technology available at the time which could meet that need. People had begun to experiment with electromechanical repeaters (think a telegraph sounder which acts as a key for the next link) on terrestrial telegraph circuits, but making such repeaters which could work reliably in the environment of a submarine cable for a period of decades, and providing them the power they required, was completely infeasible.

    It wasn’t until the development of the vacuum tube amplifier that cable repeaters became practical, and this didn’t happen until around 1906, forty years after the first successful transatlantic cable. The question was one of knowledge: if you’d handed William Thompson the specifications for a vacuum tube repeater, I’m sure he could have had his laboratory make one which would have worked just fine, but it just hadn’t been invented at the time.

    Before the advent of repeaters, people discovered how to increase the bandwidth of cables by compensating for the reactance by load coils, but this was an incremental improvement compared to that achieved by repeaters.

    • #14
    • March 21, 2015 at 5:57 pm
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  15. Thatcher

    It was only 120 years from “What hath God wrought” to President Kennedy telling a press conference (and via Telstar, Europe) that the U.S. would not be devaluing the dollar, leading to an increase in the dollar’s value.

    • #15
    • March 21, 2015 at 6:05 pm
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  16. Member

    For nearly half a century I’ve managed to pass as technically knowledgeable. It’s not 100% an act!

    But there are certain fundamental electronic concepts I never squared properly, so they are voids in my knowledge I never properly filled. One of the main ones is capacitance and variable reluctance, which is of the essence in understanding these cable problems.

    Capacitors or condensers have been described as (very) short term storage, or more lightly as “It makes electricity springy–gives it a shove!” I vaguely get how a capacitor paired with a variable resistor is different in effect than a variable capacitor. (There was a time when every boy in America was familiar with the look of the “cheese slicer” variable capacitor that was the tuner in every All American Six (six tube) table radio.)

    But reluctance, “ringing” in the circuit and latency issues get a knowledgeable, but secretly clueless nod of the head from me, because they require metaphors of what electricity is and does that don’t fit the “electrons flow like water” explanation.

    • #16
    • March 21, 2015 at 6:15 pm
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  17. Member

    It’s like they say in the Army (I’ve heard!): Learn it right and you’ll do it right the rest of your life. Learn it wrong, and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get it right.

    • #17
    • March 21, 2015 at 6:24 pm
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  18. Inactive

    John Walker:

    Larry Koler:John, if we were to know what we know today but we had to start with what they had then in terms of material and machines how would we do this differently? I guess the first thing is repeaters — but, anything else come to mind?

    It is mostly a matter of knowledge, not materials or manufacturing competence. You’re absolutely right that what they needed on these very long cable runs was repeaters, but there was no technology available at the time which could meet that need. People had begun to experiment with electromechanical repeaters (think a telegraph sounder which acts as a key for the next link) on terrestrial telegraph circuits, but making such repeaters which could work reliably in the environment of a submarine cable for a period of decades, and providing them the power they required, was completely infeasible.

    It wasn’t until the development of the vacuum tube amplifier that cable repeaters became practical, and this didn’t happen until around 1906, forty years after the first successful transatlantic cable. The question was one of knowledge: if you’d handed William Thompson the specifications for a vacuum tube repeater, I’m sure he could have had his laboratory make one which would have worked just fine, but it just hadn’t been invented at the time.

    Before the advent of repeaters, people discovered how to increase the bandwidth of cables by compensating for the reactance by load coils, but this was an incremental improvement compared to that achieved by repeaters.

    Thanks for the link on load coils, John. I thought you might suggest an inductor of some sort. They would have to be selected for their ability to deal with the capacitance (and resistance) of the lines. This is like a passive repeater in a way — and like you say not as effective as an active element in the circuit. Very interesting.

    • #18
    • March 21, 2015 at 7:09 pm
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  19. Inactive

    I learn something new every (Satur)day. Thanks, John.

    • #19
    • March 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm
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  20. Inactive

    See also Mother Earth Mother Board, by Neal Stephenson.

    But, as I ALWAYS think every Saturday night, thanks Mr. Walker!

    • #20
    • March 21, 2015 at 8:25 pm
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  21. Member

    I so do like your Saturday Night Science!

    • #21
    • March 21, 2015 at 8:31 pm
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  22. Member

    Fantastic Story!

    • #22
    • March 21, 2015 at 8:33 pm
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  23. Inactive

    Beowulf’s accountant

    See also Mother Earth Mother Board, by Neal Stephenson.

    But, as I ALWAYS think every Saturday night, thanks Mr. Walker!

    Thanks for the tip. I just ordered it — I found the essay on Kindle in his book Some Remarks. He’s one of my favorite authors. I am also looking forward to his new novel in May, Seveneves. Can’t wait.

    • #23
    • March 21, 2015 at 8:35 pm
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  24. Inactive

    Mr. Koler,

    You are welcome. I have read everything by him I can get my eyes on.

    But now I ask an important question, I have floated this on Ricochet several times and gotten no response, if you where casting a miniseries of Cryptonomicon would not Mark Steyn be a perfect choice to play Enoch Root?

    • #24
    • March 21, 2015 at 9:01 pm
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  25. Inactive

    Beowulf’s accountant

    Mr. Koler,

    You are welcome. I have read everything by him I can get my eyes on.

    But now I ask an important question, I have floated this on Ricochet several times and gotten no response, if you were casting a miniseries of Cryptonomicon would not Mark Steyn be a perfect choice to play Enoch Root?

    Well, I can’t see Steyn as an actor. Also, he’s a funny guy and Enoch Root? Not so much. How about Michael Gambon (British) or well — what American actor would you suggest? How about Robert Duvall or Russell Crowe (Australian-American)?

    • #25
    • March 21, 2015 at 9:52 pm
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  26. Inactive

    Here is my thinking: Enoch Root is a redhead, so is Steyn, Root seems to be ageless, have magical powers, have no particular national identity, and is a fearless badass. He also travels the world to find disciples to enlist in the cause, no matter how long it takes. Sounds like Steyn to me. Robert Duvall, fine actor, is too old. Russel Crowe might be my second choice. But I think Enoch Root is quite funny, in the way a man a couple of thousand years old could be. I think Steyn could pull it off

    • #26
    • March 21, 2015 at 10:09 pm
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  27. Member

    What a tangle web we weave when at first we try to receive. Kay Bale

    John,

    Tech is amazing in how it works, almost works, and utterly fails at times. This story reminds me of the Panama Canal. What seemed like a straight forward operation was dogged with problems. Once it is done and working it seems easy.

    I am fascinated on paradigm shifts. Things that go from impossible to so common place that life would not be the same without it.

    As I am writing this I am thinking how much effort it took to get a letter from Japan to Switzerland. Now it is instantaneous with the Internet with no worries of shipwreck or having the information being outdated by the time of arrival.

    • #27
    • March 22, 2015 at 12:35 am
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  28. Member

    Only 25 years ago, I would have been delighted to see an occasional letter from 10 Cents in the Letters To The Editors column in a couple of intellectual magazines. Now, it’s an imposition when (as happened recently) he takes a break from commenting, like it’s the electric service being cut off. I sometimes forget just how wide a Web this site casts.

    • #28
    • March 22, 2015 at 12:57 am
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  29. Thatcher

    can’t comment for some reason- this is in response to Beowulf’s accountant post

    • #29
    • March 22, 2015 at 5:48 am
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  30. Thatcher

    you’ve started this conversation? Where was I?John- great post. Innovations like this remind me of the book Longitude, which solved a massive problem of location for sailors in the 18th century. And the solution wasn’t a better map, but a better clock.As for casting Cryptonomicon, this should be it’s own thread. Along with a general discussion of the greatness of the book.Bobby Shaftoe– Lucas Black (wrong accent, right attitude)America Shaftoe– Vanessa Hudgens (see a still of Gimmie Shelter before you dismiss)Lawrence Waterhouse– not sure. Cumberbatch as Turing messed with my head.Randy Waterhouse– Jonah Hill.Avi- Jeremy Piven (if he lost some weight)Goto – TBD- needs researchEnoch Root- David Morse or Damian Lewis 

    • #30
    • March 22, 2015 at 5:49 am
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