The Worldwide Undersea Web: Cables and the Internet, Part 1

Undersea cables laying cable

The Internet is an impressive creation — some would say it's the greatest thing humans have ever dreamed up. It has certainly given us lots of entertainment (cat videos), convenient shopping, and, for good or bad, instantaneous communication. Per Google's Internet Live Stats, at any second of the day, 46.1 percent of the World's population is on line. That is an amazing number, especially when you consider that just five years ago, it was a mere 31.8 percent.

 

When online, these people send a surprisingly large number of emails, 2.67 million every second. Although 67 percent of those emails are spam, the remaining 33 percent address everything from interpersonal chitchat to multinational business dealings. Add in the number of phone calls and text messages sent daily (11 billion and 22 billion, respectively) and it's clear that the world is a busy and talkative place.

 

Contemplating the volume of communications zipping around our planet makes one wonder how it all happens so smoothly? The answer is "submarine communication cables." These are the cables resting peacefully on the ocean floor. Currently, there are 428 known commercial cable routes. Laid almost entirely along traditional shipping routes, they connect every continent except for Antarctica.

 

All told, these cables contain more than 650,000 miles of fiber optics. Without these deep-sea conduits, our modern digital economy wouldn't be possible. An overwhelming 97 percent of international communications travel from point to point via sea floor cables. The international financial system alone each day sends more than 15 million transactions totaling $10 trillion.

 

History of undersea cables

 

The practice of sending messages over long distances has been with us ever since mankind figured out how to yell and wave. At times, the fate of nations has even hung on the timely use of signaling, like at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the British Navy utilized a new system of ship-to-ship communication via flags to defeat a combined French and Spanish fleet.

 

It was in 1839 that the practice of messaging over long distances took a giant leap. Two English inventors, William Cooke and Charles Whetstone, perfected the first commercial telegraph system and used it to send messages between two railway stations an impressive 18 miles apart.

 

Soon thereafter, came the idea of a "submarine cable" across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1842, Samuel Morse, inventor of the single-wire telegraph system, insulated a copper wire with tarred hemp and India rubber, dunked it into New York Harbor, and successfully telegraphed a message from one end to another.

 

Undersea cables woodcut

Not to be outdone by a colonial, Britain's Submarine Telegraph Company in 1850 laid down a working cable across the English Channel. By 1853 additional cables had linked Great Britain to Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

 

Early cables weren't always dependable. Storms, tidal and sand movements, and gradually accumulating wear and tear from rocks on the sea floor made cable breaks a common and frustrating occurrence. Increased engineering experiments on cables and insulating materials, along with in-depth studies of tides and the ocean floor, soon led to cables that were more durable and with a greater carrying capacity.

 

Crossing the ocean

 

In 1854 the Atlantic Telegraph Company began the arduous four-year task of laying the first transatlantic cable. When it was complete, the cable connected Valentia Island in western Ireland to the sleepy seaside hamlet of Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland, spanning in all a whopping 2,050 nautical miles.

 

To ensure the cable functioned properly, the company transmitted test messages back and forth between Newfoundland and Ireland, causing immense consternation for the operators. Reception across the Atlantic was agonizingly slow and often poor as technicians on both ends of the cable struggled to adjust their apparatus correctly without knowing how their counterparts were adjusting theirs.

 

Test messages were either garbled, crossed or lost entirely somewhere along the line. Finally, on August 16, after six frustrating days, the cable was deemed ready for use. The first successful message was transmitted between company directors in Great Britain and their counterparts in the U.S. (Ireland and Newfoundland had already been connected via cable to Great Britain and New York City respectively.)

 

In an interesting historical footnote, the famous American showman, P.T. Barnum offered $25,000 for the privilege of sending the first "official" message over the cable. Company directors flatly rebuffed his offer as "beneath the dignity of the enterprise." That honor would fall to Queen Victoria.

 

In a message, to U.S. President James Buchanan, the Queen expressed hope that the cable would create, "an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem."

 

The royal missive contained 99 words consisting of 509 letters and took a glacial 17 hours and 40 minutes to transmit — an average of two minutes and five seconds per character. President Buchanan replied in kind three days later.

 

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About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.