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

Undersea cables woodcutNot 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.




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