Before Underwater Internet Cables: The First Submarine Telegraph Line


Submarine cables.jpg

The Internet is where we live our digital lives. But it's also a physical network of cables that span the globe. Earlier this year, a South African man created this fantastic interactive map of all the world's submarine cables. (It was spotted this past weekend by Wired Science blogger Brian Romans.)

We've clearly come a long, long way since the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, which was laid in 1858 between the United States and Great Britain. Last week, we were lucky enough to have Hal Wallace, the electricity curator at the National Museum of American History walk us through the story of that very first submarine line. Here's what it looked like:


The line was the brainchild of the financier Cyrus Field. He had a stunningly simple plan. Take one British warship and one American frigate, load them up with cable, and navigate them towards each other. There was nothing fancy about the cable laying process: they just paid out the cable over the back and let it sink into the depths. When the British and American vessels met up, they spliced the cable together and were in business. You can see the apparatus here, thanks to Atlantic-Cable's sleuthing.


Sadly, the first cable didn't last long. After three weeks, it stopped working and was never reconnected. "The operators didn't realize how to work a cable like this," Wallace said. "The signal was very weak, so the answer was, 'More Power Scotty' and they fried the cable." By the time they laid the more permanent telegraph lines in the 1860s, operators had learned their lesson.

There's a fascinating coda to the story, too. Contemporary interest in the submarine cable was huge. In fact, there was a short-lived frenzy after the connection was initially made. Field, ever the entrepreneur, entered into a deal with Tiffany's to sell chunks of the cable as souvenirs. So, what you're looking at the top of this post is a Tiffany's branded chunk of submarine cable. It even came with a certificate of authenticity from Field himself. The moral of the story? Don't let anyone tell you that technological enthusiasm is something new.

Here's the Tiffany's ad that touted the piece:

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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