Cable Capers

How is your broadband speed these days?  This is the kind of question often raised between consenting adults, and the cause for their concern, our increasing reliance on the many kilometers of undersea cable.

As this map produced by South African Greg Mahlknecht clearly shows, our oceans are crisscrossed with telecommunication cables.

Click on chart to see original map

The network wasn’t so complicated in 1858 when the first cable across the Atlantic was dropped on the seabed but laying the cable certainly was.

Map of the 1858 Atlantic Cable route

As Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of the time records:

The laying of the great Telegraph cable has necessitated the invention of new and even complicated machinery, while at the same time the accidental failure of the first attempt has brought about changes and improvements in the construction of the breaks and drums. We engrave, from drawings by our own correspondent, a complete representation of the machinery used. As is well known, the principal difficulty in the important undertaking is the even descent of the wire into the ocean without acquiring such velocity as to be broken by one of the sudden strains to which it is exposed, or coiling itself in a “kink.” Of course the heavy swell of the Atlantic – and it must be remembered that even a calm implies a gigantic roll or swell of the mighty waves – will alternately raise and lower the vessel which is paying out the cable to such an extent as to necessitate a regulating power upon the descending wire, and in a gale of wind or on a chopping sea this necessity is vastly increased.”

and later:

Cyrus W. Field

Around midnight on the Tuesday a break occurred aboard ship and repairing it took until 7.00 am the next morning. Noon Wednesday 29 August a second conductor failed and during the day the wind and sea got up. Another break occurred on board ship and by the time this was repaired the pitching and tossing had strained the cable so badly that a third conductor had failed. By now the weather was so bad, the wind having reached near hurricane force, that the ship was in danger of foundering, it was decided to cut the cable and abandon the expedition.

The first cable was a failure but in 1866 the project driver, Cyrus W. Field succeeded in his quest. By 1901 our ‘connected world’ had become even more so, albeit very USA and Europe-centric.

The Eastern Telegraph Company map of 1901 shows that  in the short space of 35 years much of the world was cabled. It is no surprise that these connections echo the major global trade routes of the time.

Eastern Telegraph Company 1901

The fiber-optic transatlantic cables of today are of the fibre optic variety.  These super fast lines shave milliseconds of data speed which can mean millions to a stock trader.

The 2011 Japanese earthquake caused widespread damage to undersea communications according to reports.

Japanese cables

Which all begs the question, with our dependence of the internet, how much more global disruption will there be when major ‘quakes on the world’s other fault lines decide to rupture?  It may be too late to sell those shares when it happens.

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About thedigitalconsultant

Roger Smith is a retired international, digital consultant and former British Council Director of Online Operations within the East Asia region.
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