The Process Of Laying The Very First Transatlantic Cable

from the not-so-easy dept

One of my favorite Wired articles ever is Neal Stephenson's insanely long, but wonderfully entertaining account of laying fiber optic cable across oceans from back in 1997. If you've never read it, set aside a few hours and dig in. While he mentions, briefly, the first transatlantic cable laid in 1858 -- and suggests reading other accounts of what happened -- he doesn't go into much detail as to what happened. However, Shocklee points us to a (much shorter!) Wired UK piece about the laying of the first transatlantic cable. If you'd like to know the basics, it's basically two boats meet in the middle of the ocean, with each taking half the cable, and they then (slowly, carefully) head back towards their home coasts. It didn't always go smoothly:
After experiments in the Bay of Biscay had been conducted, the plan was changed -- the Niagara and Agamemnos met in the centre of the Atlantic on 26 June and attached their respective cables to each other, then headed for opposite sides of the ocean. Again, the cable broke -- once after less than 6km had been laid, again after about 100km and then a third time when 370km had been laid. The boats returned to port.
It's a fun read, reminding you of the massive amount of work that goes into the infrastructure that we rely on every day.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Tom Landry (profile), Jan 28th, 2011 @ 5:57pm

    Arthur C. Clarke wrote a (non-fiction) book about this around 15-20yrs ago.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 28th, 2011 @ 6:54pm

    Why start in the middle?

    If you'd like to know the basics, it's basically two boats meet in the middle of the ocean, with each taking half the cable, and they then (slowly, carefully) head back towards their home coasts.

    Anyone know why they did it that way (the article didn't offer any explanation)? My first inclination would be to start with the boats leaving from each shore and then meeting in the middle (similar to the way the first transcontinental railroad was built). The boats could then use the cable itself to communicate back to shore (and verify its integrity) as they went.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 28th, 2011 @ 9:10pm

    When do we get to the article where the evil corporations used underhanded tactics and government lobbying to restrict others' access to the transatlantic cable, thus delaying the introduction of the Internet by at least 300 years and killing millions of puppies in the process?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Jan 28th, 2011 @ 11:15pm

    Re:

    When do we get to the article where the evil corporations used underhanded tactics and government lobbying to restrict others' access to the transatlantic cable, thus delaying the introduction of the Internet by at least 300 years and killing millions of puppies in the process?

    That'll be next week.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    techinabox (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 1:49am

    Modern Marvels

    The History Channel did a Modern Marvels on the Transatlantic cable that was very good.
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=90971557975187655#

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Kaotik4266, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 2:39am

    Re: Why start in the middle?

    Because it's kind of hard to stop in the middle and connect the cables (not to mention then getting the middle bit to the seabed). The ships have to move continuously because the cables have a tendency to snap if they sit there for too long. Remember, there's probably several hundred meters of pretty hefty cable and waterproofing hanging from the ships at any particular moment. That's a lot of weight for each bit of cable to be holding up.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    AG Wright (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 3:05am

    What's really sad is the part where, after they get through, the engineer who's in charge burned out the cable with too much current.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 3:27am

    Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Because it's kind of hard to stop in the middle and connect the cables

    But, according to the article, that's exactly what they did, only at the beginning instead of the end of the project.

    (not to mention then getting the middle bit to the seabed)

    Seem like that should be exceptionally easy: drop it. But getting the cable to the seabed was what they all along the way, anyway.

    Remember, there's probably several hundred meters of pretty hefty cable and waterproofing hanging from the ships at any particular moment. That's a lot of weight for each bit of cable to be holding up.

    True, but that's the case anyway and all the way back to shore.

    Anyone else got any better explanation?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    rob crompton (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 4:58am

    ...and the last

    My first job after school was as a laboratory technician at a cable manufacturers in Trafford Park UK. One of the major lines at this factory was submarine cables which were massively armoured and loaded onto a huge turntable prior to being transferred to cable-laying ships in nearby Manchester Docks. When I started work there, a new turntable was under construction to improve production and loading. But just a couple of years before this Telstar, the pioneering communications satellite, had been put into orbit. Only one cable was ever loaded onto that turntable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    btrussell (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 5:47am

    Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    "But, according to the article, that's exactly what they did, only at the beginning instead of the end of the project."

    At the beginning, all the weight is on the ships, easy to connect in the middle. At the end, hundreds of meters of cable are hanging off the boats, pulling and tugging, much harder to join. Not to mention all the wasted cable from both ships to seabed. Hundreds of yards of cable spooled on ocean floor after connecting and releasing from ship. These cables aren't $0.03/foot.

    Tie pieces of rope to two trees and try to tie them together tight. Now untie from trees and try tying the ropes together. Rope is much lighter than cable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 6:13am

    Videos on Youtube about undersea-cables:

    - The Great Transatlantic Cable (The history of the first copper cable in the Atlantic)
    - Project-X Laying Transpacific Undersea Cable (The history of the first Japanese cable laying operation that brought prices down in Japan. It describes in great detail all the problems faced with laying those cables for which snapping cables are only a problem if the terrain below is rough)
    - How undersea cables are repaired
    - Very rare video - Underwater cable laying - Must watch

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 6:16am

    Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    From what I saw in this video, staying stationary is not a problem the cables can take it, but if the terrain below is rough you have a problem because of the movement of the boat against rocks can damage the cables, also to laydown the cables you need to map the ocean floor to know how much speed the spools will have, not to mention sharks they are attracted to electromagnetic emissions, also things where hard in the past it took 30 hours to repair a cable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 6:29am

    About undersea cables here is one news that people may want to hear the Unity Project is operational with a capability of 7.68 Tbit/s.

    Ask who is the owner of that cable now LoL

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    PolyPusher (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 10:08am

    Re: Why start in the middle?

    Do you really want a connection between the two in the MIDDLE of the Atlantic ocean? Sounds to me like that would be asking for the weakest point to be located farthest from any possible repairs...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    Richard (profile), Jan 29th, 2011 @ 3:54pm

    Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Anyone else got any better explanation?

    The ships weren't big enough to carry the whole cable. That first cable failed pretty quickly. The first lasting cable was laid by the Great Eastern a few years later. The Great Eastern was big enough to carry the whole cable on its own - making the whole process much more straightforward. Even so it took two attempts.
    Amazingly a year or so later they actually fished up the end of the cable from the first attempt, spliced in and completed it. The story is on Wikipedia here

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Darryl, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 4:46pm

    Yes, the application of IP and invention

    does the article talk about how they destroyed the 1858 cable very shortly after it was layed ? some smart person put too much voltage across it and burnt it out !!

    I think it was "harvy" or one of the big names in electronics at that time who developed a 'mirror galvinometer", that was so sensitive, that the better could be a thinbal full of lemon juide, and an electrode, creating a VERY small voltage, but could be picked up and read on the other side of the atlantic..

    Yes, it is a facinating story..

    Full of IP, and inventions, and patents :) would not have been possible without them...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 8:04pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Not to mention all the wasted cable from both ships to seabed. Hundreds of yards of cable spooled on ocean floor after connecting and releasing from ship. These cables aren't $0.03/foot.

    OK, I can see the cost saving on cable. But after going across the entire ocean, I wonder how significant that is, percentage wise.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 8:10pm

    Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Do you really want a connection between the two in the MIDDLE of the Atlantic ocean? Sounds to me like that would be asking for the weakest point to be located farthest from any possible repairs...

    Do you really think they sent the ships out with enough cable on one spool to reach all the way back to shore? Those would be some pretty big spools! I rather suspect that they used smaller spools and spliced them "in the MIDDLE of the Atlantic ocean". Besides, either way you still wind up with a splice in the middle.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 8:19pm

    Re: Why start in the middle?

    According to the video telling the story on Youtube he had no big boats that could carry the entire spools at once and secondly he didn't know how to test the cables other than using the ships to contact each other using the cable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 8:51pm

    Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Do you really think they sent the ships out with enough cable on one spool to reach all the way back to shore? Those would be some pretty big spools!

    To answer myself, after reading the Wikipedia article, it seems that they indeed did! It wasn't on spools, but coiled in the hold.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2011 @ 11:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    Yes from all sources I could find they all say the same thing, he took 2 boats because there wasn't any big ships that could carry the entire length of the cables, they then traveled to the middle, spliced the cables together and went in opposite directions sending messages to each other to make sure the cable was ok and after completing the whole thing the electrical engineer hired(Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse which was really a doctor who dribbled in amateur telegraph) fried the whole thing.

    After that he tried a second time and it was the one that succeeded, also by that time he had a big boat that came about by chance(The SS Great Eastern).

    With that big boat he could put all the cable needed in one ship.

    Source: Wikipedia - Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

    Really fascinating story about how things got done and maybe the greatest asset they had was ignorance, they didn't know it was so difficult others had laid cables undersea and they didn't think it was going to be difficult to lay a bit more, that is good ignorance you have something that could work because it had a proved concept and it worked in the end despite all the problems.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 30th, 2011 @ 12:14am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Why start in the middle?

    The Mirror Galvanometer, invented by Johann Christian Poggendorff and perfect by William Thomson(a.k.a. Lord Kelvin), was the instrument that made it possible for people to read weak electrical signals on the receiving end of those cables.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 30th, 2011 @ 12:22am

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    mike allen (profile), Jan 31st, 2011 @ 3:30am

    Re:

    thats true on the first telegraph cable not phone. on the first test message i think.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Ashley, Jan 31st, 2011 @ 12:29pm

    pshh..

    wwwwooooooowwwwww. grow up Egpyt!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    Laying transatlantic cable is an engineering marvel. We don't really realise the danger and hardship that goes into constructing the infrastructure that allows us to enjoy electricity, water and Internet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This