The Transatlantic Cable

Communication today is advanced. We have the internet, mobile phones at our fingertips. A couple of hundred years ago, this wasn’t the case. Generally, a messenger was needed to transmit a message. Long distance messages seldom delivered themselves, rarely were they quick. A message across the Atlantic ocean, that is from Europe to North America and vice versa took about 10 days at the very least, provided the message travelled by the fastest ship available.

It all changed with the laying of the transatlantic cable. It was a telegraph cable running between North America and the United Kingdom, on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Cyrus West Field was the man who started it all. A businessman by profession, he consulted oceanographer Matthew Maury and Samuel Morse(co-developer of the Morse code and initial conceptualizer of the idea of trans-Atlantic communication) and began the project. Money was raised by selling shares of the project to the public. Field himself invested a lot of effort and money.

In time the installation began. It was by no means an easy installation process. The process of laying the cable was very slow and had to be done carefully making sure the cable hit the ocean floor and missed all obstacles and indentations like sunken ships, coral reefs etc. A ship was to be used to move from one end of the Atlantic to the other carrying and carefully laying the cable in its voyage. The first few attempts were unsuccessful. The cable broke before the project could be completed and the whole process had to be restarted. Public confidence deteriorated with each failed attempt. The process changed a bit after a few iterations. Now, two ships met the middle of the Atlantic, joined cables and set out in opposite directions towards land. One towards America, the other towards Europe. This method succeeded eventually.

The first message was exchanged between the then President of the United States and the Queen of the United Kingdom. The reception in the cable was horrible in the beginning and it took hours to pass on a complete sentence, several minutes to pass a single word. The cable broke down right after the first few messages, when in an attempt to speed up the system, the voltage in the cable was increased which ended up frying the insulation and destroying the cable. After many failures, many cables laid, materials changed, voyages made, the process finally succeeded. It was and still is a huge milestone in the field of communication. The earliest cable was made of copper, today fibre optic cables that help pass millions of words per second are used. The process of laying the cable is strikingly, almost identical.

The several iterations resulted in a lot of redundant wire still lying in the bottom of the ocean. More than 90 % of the worlds communication is estimated to be taking place through wires on the bottom of the ocean. The transatlantic cable was the beginning of many such cables connecting various parts of the world speeding up communication exponentially.

The next time you visit a site on a US or UK server, appreciate the fact that it possibly made its way to you through a cable at the bottom of the ocean, laid across in a process spanning years, in a project involving thousands of people and with a history of its own.