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

Ever wondered how, exactly, the internet draws us all together across immense geographical expanses? Part of the answer lies, as a certain cartoon crustacean once crooned, "under the sea."

Undersea cables laying cableThe 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.