Friday, December 14, 2007

Submarine Telegraphs

I saw a book cover, ornate and gilt that read "Submarine Telegraphs." I was struck immediately with the wrongness of that configuration. You can't have a telegraph on a submarine, wireless yes, but telegraph no. After a bit of research I found three things.
1. Cable terminology has changed
2. Google books scans peoples hands by accident

Today we more often refer to these as sea cables, or marine cable, maybe even submarine cables. Our complete abandonment of the telegraph has slowly led us to refer to the cabel and not the device it connects to.

In 1902 The New York times published the article I clip above. Over 100 years ago we were so reliant on the telegraph that it made business sense to run 200,000 miles of submarine telegraph cable cable in 1,750 separate segments. As the tile says the cost of that was over a quarter of a million dollars. In 2006 moolah that equals $6,423,801. Of course the catastrophic devaluation of the dollar this year reduces that somewhat but I'm sure it's still a very big number. More here.

The construction of such an infrastructure commits you to both it's maintainence and compatibility moving forward. Those cables transmitted 4 billion messages a year. Of course that's less than our modern network move in a minute. Running a cable under the ocean is a big undertaking. At the time there were 1,180,000 miles of cable . Each carried dozens of individual wires, almost 4 million miles of copper.

At the time the aforementioned article was written, there were still cables being laid to criss-cross the Pacific to connect Canada with Australia. These cables weren't laid in straight lines. While that would have saved thousands of miles of copper, it's not practical. In order to access the wire, it needed to "land" at multiple islands. Just negotiating the connections with the multiple municipalities and nations was incredible. More here.

At the time all this was still battery powered. It was only in 1860 that terra voltaism became a possibility. A British civil engineer named Septimus Beardmore worked out a way to operate a telegraph system with only a single voltaic element. it consisted of a pair of dissimilar metals buried in the earth at opposite ends of the line. His early experiments worked over a 300 miles cable between the Cromer and Heligoland Islands.General Oceanic was the first company to attempt a production submarine telegraph. They incorporated in 1845. they later changed the name to the “General Oceanic & Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Company.” Mostly they talked a big game. They never built anything. Today we call it vaporware. the real hero of undersea cabling was Nathaniel J Holmes. In 1848 the Electric Company of London had fired Nathaniel J Holmes after the telekouphonon fiasco. He became the principal electrical engineer in domestic and submarine telegraphy. He became manager of the General Telegraph co. A company that lasted until 1951. Within a decade he was overseeing projects for the South-of-Ireland Direct Telegraph Company laying 60+ mile lengths under the sea.