How the Internet Crossed the Sea | Nostalgia Nerd


The internet, the sea, now there’s a challenge,
and to understand the challenge fully, we need to go back over a century and a half.
Let’s begin. In October 1831, the English Scientist Michael
Faraday, famed a decade earlier for creating, what was essentially the first battery, had
discovered electromagnetic induction by first sliding a magnet through a coiled wire, and
then spinning a copper plate through a magnet. This Faraday disk created a continuous current
which could flow down a wire; really the first electric generator. Soon after, and independently, both William
Stergen in Britain and Joseph Henry in America, discovered that by using electricity, and
reversing these methods – sending a current through coiled wire – they could create a
strong electromagnet. The more coils you added, the stronger this magnet could be, and it
didn’t take long for Henry to realise that this magnet, could be operated at whim, over
a large distance. Essentially, a remote doorbell….. or even, the Telegraph. This was the age of Steam and so such technology
was both miraculous and highly useful. Taking this lead, The William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone
telegraph was implemented in 1937, as a method to communicate between Euston and Camden Town
stations. This system used needles on a board, which could be moved to point toward letters
of the alphabet depending on the magnetism applied across the lines. But combined with Samuel Morse’s messaging
system, conjured in the 1840s, suddenly we had the ability to communicate over huge distances,
with a simple, serial and unified code. In August 1850 John Watkins Brett’s English
Channel Submarine Telegraph Company laid the first line to cross the English channel, using
a tug boat named Goliath. This first test used a copper wire coated in gutta-percha;
a latex like tree sap from the Palaquium gutta tree, however this initial protection was
simply inadequate. In September 1851, a new cable, with a thicker and bound layer of protection
around the core was laid, proving much more successful. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realise
that it would be incredibly useful – and profitable – to connect the two largest powers on earth,
Britain and America, using this powerful system. In fact, it was Samuel Morse himself who postulated
it may be possible. Around the same time, US Navy officer and astronomer, Lt. Matthew
Maury, had recently finished a series of depth soundings across the Atlantic; this was usually
by simply dragging a weight across the Ocean floor to measure the distance. His findings
revealed a 2,000 mile sediment-ed plateau between Newfoundland and Ireland which avoided
the extreme depths which would make cable laying impossible. This miraculous stroke
of luck was what American Cyrus Field and Englishmen John Watkins Brett & Charles Tilston
Bright needed to hear, and by 1857, the Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed with £350,000
of secured capital. With a company board consisting of 18 UK members, 9 from the US and 3 from
Canada, one of the largest projects undertaken by man had begun. On the first of several attempts, and using
a huge ship filled with coiled cable, they simply tried to reel the heavy lumbering line
from one side to the other, but despite several attempts, they kept snapping under the load.
Finally on the 29th July 1858, two parts of a cable were spliced together in the mid-Atlantic,
and each was taken in opposite directions. One to Newfoundland on the USS Niagara, the
other to South West Ireland on the HMS Agamemnon, both supplied thanks to Governmental co-operation.
Looking at these ships, you really wouldn’t associate them with this new age of instant
communication dawning. But regardless, just six days later, the link was established.
Not only was this an incredible achievement, but it also beat off competition from the
likes of Western Union, who were trying to push the idea of going the opposite way around
the globe, connecting the shorter sea distance – but larger land distance – between Alaska
and Siberia, and onto Europe. Queen Victoria was the first to use this incredible
new communication cable, sending a message of congratulations to President Buchanan.
However, celebrations didn’t last long. Captured using a Syphon Recorder at Newfoundland, this
initial message took an incredible 16 hours to send, because the signal was just so weak.
Under the illusion that electricity flowed like water, rather than pulses, as we know
today, British engineer Wildman Whitehouse tried to force a higher voltage down the line
to force the messages through, however this just fried the cable, and it stopped working
entirely. The problem was, these pulses were simply
getting distorted travelling across the huge length of metal. So, after careful studying,
engineers and scientists made improvements to the composition, design, armouring and
laying of the cable, including twisting layers of iron strands around for increased armour
and the use of a pure copper core as suggested by Belfast Scientist, Lord Kelvin. The huge
SS Great Eastern, using an also improved laying method was put to the task of unreeling the
massive 9,000 tonnes of cable out and across the Ocean floor. Despite a failed first attempt with suspected
threat of sabotage on board, and losing the cable end on more than one occasion, the task
was finally completed and on Friday 27th July 1866. The first clear message was sent from
Ireland to New Foundland…. “A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and
Prussia”. With one message, the world had become significantly smaller. Although the
rate of transmission was still just a few words per hour, using good old morse code…
and actually, it was Samuel Morse himself, who had predicted, and arguably seeded this
idea, way back in 1843. Importantly, the project was also a financial
success. Compared to traditional, slow, methods of communication by sea – taking at least
2 weeks. Communications sent by the British Government to commanders in Canada alone saved
over £50,000 in little time at all. This paved the way for further private investment.
The world was becoming connected, and there was no going back. – In 1866, the price of sending a telegram down
the cable was $1.25 per word. That’s over $20 per word in today’s money. It certainly
wasn’t cheap, but still far cheaper than sending a note on a boat. Because of this, by the
early 1900s, there were over a dozen transatlantic telegraph cables, each of which performing
admirably. This was helped by improvements in understanding, including that bandwidth
of a cable is hindered by an imbalance between capacitive and inductive reactance. Basically
the resistance of the line and the frequency of the current. The progress on these lines
ensured there were hardly any outages from 1866 onwards, but over those 40 odd years,
the world had began to move on. Although many minds laid the foundations for
the telephone, including a patent battle with Elisha Gray, it is commonly accepted that
Alexander Bell’s harmonic telegraph – which could send several pitches down a line simultaneously
– is the real dawn of the modern phone line. Across the world, existing land telegraph
cables were re-purposed to transmit voices, rather than beeps. This is something the transatlantic
cables would have to adapt to. Although a telegraph consists purely of strong
binary electrical pulses, the new telephone call was made up of a complex electrical wave
which would simply get lost across the great lengths of undersea cable. What came out the
other end would simply be too weak to discern, or even notice. So to get a voice from one
side to the other, a new marvel would be needed; the amplifier. Sir John Ambrose Flemming would invent the
first vacuum tube in 1904; the diode. Really an incandescent bulb, with an extra electrode
inside, called an anode. This had the ability to convert AC signals into DC by restricting
flow of current from the hot filament (or cathode) to the anode. But in 1906, it would
be Lee De Forest who would turn this into a practical amplification device with the
audion; the first triode vacuum tube. Introducing a new electrode, in the form of a grid. A
small amount of positive charge applied to this grid would in turn amplify the charge
coming from the cathode to the anode, whilst retaining the same waveform. Although telegraph amplification wasn’t new
– in fact, electromagnetic relays had been used to increase signal strength over land
telegraph by essentially receiving and then repeating the signal, these devices couldn’t
handle the complex waveform required for voice transmission. They also weren’t used for the
undersea cables, due to the complexity of installing and powering such devices underwater. By 1912, AT&T had developed the triode into
a practical amplifier, which allowed the first transcontinental telephone line to open in
1915, connecting the East and West coasts of the United States. However, despite telephone
calls being made on shorter undersea cables, where amplification wasn’t necessary, the
technology was still not portable or practical enough to install under oceans like the Atlantic,
and open up larger scale telephone communications. To make matters worse for the undersea cable
business, the development of the amplifier, also enabled radio signal to extend it reach
over great distances. Undersea cables hadn’t stood still mind. Multiplexing
had been introduced, allowing multiple messages to be sent at 120 words per minute. But even
so, the 1920s saw radio communication taking the front seat. It was faster and cheaper
than our trusty lines of metal. Not forgetting that those metal lines also needed repair.
If a trawler was to cut through the line, then measuring equipment would need to be
used to find where the break was, before zig-zagging across the line to literally grapple it up
from the ocean floor for re-splicing. In 1927, the radio telephone service initially
allowed one telephone call at a time between the United Kingdom and the United States.
A queue system was implemented, and when it was your time, the operator would call you
back up and connect you to your transatlantic destination. Over the coming years, the capacity
would of course increase, but radio was still at the mercy of the weather and atmospheric
conditions, proving pretty unreliable. A better and also, more secure system was needed. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the vacuum
tube amplifier was perfected for undersea use. These amplifiers had to be spliced into
the cable every 20 miles. Meaning 200 amplification tubes were required for the 2,000 mile cable In 1955, AT&T and the British Post Office
would begin the process of once again laying 2 of undersea cables. This time, for telephone
communication. One cable would handle the West to East portion of the conversation,
whilst the other, the East to West. Each cable took a year to lay between Gallanach Bay,
Scotland, and our faithful Newfoundland, but having learnt from the experiences of cable
laying almost a century prior, this time, things went without a hitch. We also had new technologies. Sonar could
be deployed to find new routes undersea for cable to be laid, and to avoid those pesky
fishing vessels from ripping lines up, cables could even be buried in the most risky parts
using an underwater machine which created a groove at the front for the cable to fall
into. TAT1 was ready for operation on September
25th 1956, with AT&T chairman Cleo Cregg calling the Postmaster General, Dr. Charles Hill to
celebrate the momentous occasion. The
lines could carry 36 telephone conversations at a time, with initial costs set at a £1
a minute. Equivalent to about £24, or $31 a minute today. A call would soon add up,
but despite that, demand increased rapidly, again requiring a queue system, like the telegraph
line of old. Technology advancements such as time assignment speech interpolation, meant
by 1960, the cables could carry twice as many calls. But just round the corner, in 1976 new lines
had been added, including TAT-6, which used transistors for amplification and could handle
4,000 telephone channels simultaneously. TAT-1 was retired in 1978, and it seemed like we
had all the capacity we’d ever need. But we were wrong…. The next issue were mobile phones. Just like
the radio communication of the 1920s, the world had become wireless, and with satellites
becoming cheaper, it seemed once again, that the cable would become a buried relic. Well, actually satellite communication had
been around since the 60s, but the delays caused by sending data from the phone to the
transmitter, up to a satellite in geo-stationery orbit, back to a receiver and then to the
end phone, meant that conversing was usually unnatural, staggered and lacking the nuances
and cues brought by almost instantaneous connections. But mobile phones did mean, more lines, more
people talking and the need for greater international bandwidth. Thankfully 1988 saw the introduction of TAT-8.
The first fiber-optic transatlantic cable, providing a transfer rate 280Mbit/s; equivalent
to a whopping 40,000 telephone channels. 1992 would see TAT-9 which doubled that capacity
and also the introduction of TAT-10, which could handle over 1,000 Mbit/s. Yes, whilst up to now we measured cable capacity
in number of lines. Now we’re switching to data. This is because, rather than analogue,
Fibre optic is a digital transmission method. That’s not to say that copper wires can’t
carry digital data, it’s just Fibre-Optic is very much suited for it. So, here’s the craic; Opitcal fibre is a glass tube, usually made
of pure silicon dixoide, but with a component of boron or germanium to decrease its index
of refraction. This means that when you shine a light from one end of the fibre, the light
is reflected entirely within the strand and out the other end. TAT-8 contained just 6 of these optical fibres
(3 pairs for each direction, although one pair was purely for backup purposes), These
were suspended in elastomer and protected by steel wire, with an outer copper cylinder.
The cable was less than an inch in diameter, but it’s carrying capacity was far higher
than anything prior. The cable was attached at Tuckerton, New Jersey
one end and Widemouth, England the other. By shining a specific intensity of laser down
this fibre to indicate 0, and another intensity to indicate 1. These binary signals could
move at the speed of light, making communication almost instantaneous. You might think that because the light is
completely contained within the strand, there is no use for a repeater, or an amplifier,
but in fact, there still is. The light actually attenuates as it travels the huge distances,
and so amplifiers are required every 60 miles or so to repeat the signal. These were powered
by a high voltage direct current passed through a conductor at the cable’s centre. To convert an analogue phone signal, engineers
use pulse code modulation to convert the wave into a digital approximation. So, do this
fast enough, and suddenly, we can fit thousands of phone conversations down a single strand. Of course, being the early to mid 90s, this
was also the dawn of the world wide web, so what better means of communication to have
than fibre optic cables connecting the world. Initially we connected to the internet with
modems. An analogue method of communicating with our internet service provider, where
digital signals were modulated into an analgoue signal, and then back again at the other end.
It may be strange thinking about connecting a computer in the UK, with an ISP or bulletin
board in the US, via. a modem. Especially when you consider this analogue signal was
very possibly converted again and sent down a fibre optic cable, but it wouldn’t take
long for the world to catch up, and for digital connections to connect directly from computer
to computer. Both via. land fibre optics, and more widely, making use of specific frequencies
to “unlock extra capacity”, enabling DSL connections through standard copper phone wires. From this point fibre optic cables became
more and more the main method for sending data across the sea. Currently 99% of data
traffic is sent using undersea cables, with satellites accounting for a single percent.
The faster transmission and increased carrying capacity & security completely outmodes what
satellites can offer, and it’s clear that investment into these huge lines will continue
into the future. Since the 90s, fibre optic undersea cables
have improved significantly. This includes the use of wavelength-division multiplexing,
which essentially allows different colours of laser to be sent simultaneously, therefore
increasing bandwidth. They also have redundancy, usually by being laid as a ring network. This
means that if one part snaps, data can still travel to the destination using a longer route. Modern fibre optic undersea cables, whether
traversing the Atlantic, or Pacific ocean can carry multiple terabits per second; a
trillion fold increase in carrying capacity, in less than 200 years… and when you think
about it, that’s not too shabby at all. Really, it’s all thanks to those pioneers back in
the 19th century, who had a vision and made it happen. Of course, we still need those huge hulking
ships to painstakingly lay all of these cables. Some things just change faster than others.

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