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The Transatlantic Cable and the Birth of the Telecom Industry

Jeffrey Syken

When one of the earliest “submarine cables” was laid under the English Channel (between Dover and Calais), curious locals gathered below the white cliffs curious as to how communication between the two ends of the cable was achieved. Their conclusion: signals were sent by means of pulling on the cable at each end (in a recognizable code, of course). This may seem naïve to us from our 21st century perspective, but in 1850 it made sense to a population unfamiliar with the magical and mysterious workings of electro-magnetism. Samuel Morse had started the ball rolling with his experiments with an electro-magnetic telegraph, starting in 1832. By 1835, Morse had built his first device; an electro-magnetic pendulum carrying a pencil in constant contact with a moving strip of paper. The first telegram in the U.S. was sent by Morse on January 11, 1838, across two miles of wire at Speedwell Ironworks near Morristown, NJ. By 1840, Morse and his partner Alfred Vail patented their new code that used combinations of dots and dashes to represent all twenty-six letters of the alphabet and numbers from 1 to 10. Thus was born “Morse Code.”

The next challenge was to lay cables capable of withstanding the ravages of the ocean depths. The key to success lay in a plant native to the Malay Peninsula: Gutta-percha – a natural latex rubber produced from the sap of the Palaquium tree. Gutta-percha was used for many domestic and industrial purposes in the latter half of the 19th century but was particularly suitable for submarine cables, where it would find its primary use. With technical advancements in telegraphy and gutta-percha as a waterproof insulator, the dye was cast for telegraphy to go where it had never gone before. Experiments proved submarine cables viable for short and intermediate distances thus, by the 1850s someone was bound to have the “big idea” of linking the old and new world/s via submarine cable under the “Pond.” That man was a wealthy New York City paper merchant by the name of Cyrus Field. Approached by a Canadian telegraph promoter in 1853 to help finance a cable between Cape Ray and St. John, Field checked the position of St. John’s on a globe and found that it was a thousand miles nearer to Ireland than was New York City. Field asked himself the question: Why stop at St. John’s; Why not continue across the North Atlantic to Ireland? Thus was born the idea for a “Transatlantic Cable.”

The New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company was established on March 10, 1854 for the purpose of laying the first “Atlantic Cable.” With landing rights granted at either end and a “Telegraph Plateau” recently discovered in the great ocean depths (seemingly ideal for the laying of a transatlantic cable), a squadron of U.S. and Royal Navy ships, modified to carry and lay cable, set to the task in the summer of 1857 but failed in their first attempt, having lost the cable. A second attempt the following summer proved more successful but an excessive amount of electrical current ultimately rendered it useless. In the post-Civil War years, the idea was revived and this time, the largest ship in the world – S.S. Great Eastern, would alone lay the cable from one end to the other. The first attempt, in 1865, had a similar fate to the 1857 expedition but the 1866 expedition bore fruit, establishing a reliable telegraph connection between London and New York. In the following years, a vast network of undersea cables would make the world a smaller place. By the 1920s, technological advancements would allow for submarine telephone cables and by 1956, the first transatlantic telephone cable was handling over a thousand calls daily. Words were followed by pictures and today, submarine cables form an integral part of the “Information Highway” we all travel upon.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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