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War and 'Censorship:' Cables and the Internet, Part 2

Before becoming an unseen backbone of the internet, undersea cables and nascent transglobal communication technology played a critical role in the early 20th-century era of international warfare.

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of an ongoing series. To read Part 1, click here.


British undersea cables sent telegraph signals around the world.The successful laying of the transatlantic cable set off celebrations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and immediately proved to be a money-saver for the British Government. They sent a message to a regiment of the British Army stationed in Nova Scotia, telling them to not return home — and saving the government approximately £50,000 in transportation costs.


Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. Just three weeks later, on Sept. 3, 1858, the project’s chief electrician, who was self-taught and ironically named Wildman Whitehouse, attempted to increase the speed of transmission by ramping up the voltage on the cable from 600V to 2,000V.


The insulation couldn’t handle the increased voltage and, within hours, the cable failed. Though the famed physicist and engineer William Thomsom (later known as Lord Kelvin) had consulted on the project, a formal enquiry assigned primary responsibility for the failure of the cable to Whitehouse, who was a surgeon by profession.


Six years would pass before money and materials were raised to lay another cable between the continents.


Once the feasibility of transoceanic cables was proven, however, Britain would become the world leader in designing and building such networks. By 1911, the Brits completed the All Red Line, a worldwide network that connected the entire Empire. With just a touch of the telegraph key, messages could be sent around the world at speeds never imagined.


Cables in wartime


It didn’t take long for governments to realize the critical need to protect submarine cables in the event of hostilities, with the British again leading the way. World War I officially began July 28, 1914. Shortly thereafter, at midnight on August 5, a coded telegram arrived at the port of Dover.


Within an hour, a British sloop, Alert, was underway to commit the “first strategic act of information warfare in the modern world.” By 3:15, the Alert had reached its first target area, lowered its hook and began dredging the seabed. Within hours, the Alert had slashed through almost all of Germany’s undersea cables, effectively cutting German communications with their overseas colonies and allies.


With the destruction of their cables, Germany was forced to rely on cables controlled by other countries to send messages. Unfortunately for the Germans, many of those other cables intersected with British-controlled relay stations. This circumstance gave the Brits an enormous intelligence advantage, and they wasted no time in exploiting it.