In the past few years communications technology has taken leaps forward that I thought wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. The large number of computers on the same network is certainly part of it. Wireless data transmission amazes me even more. Twenty years ago I could have imagined an affordable FSK transmitter as fast as my 9600 bit/s phone modem. I would never have imagined MIMO, which uses special diversity to transmit and receive multiple data streams on the same frequency, would exist outside of MATLAB simulations.
This has led me to research the history of transatlantic communication. I was surprised to learn how recently the first cable was laid and how it changed the world.
The first successful transatlantic telegraph message was sent in 1858. Prior to that, the fact that news took months to travel between Europe and the Americas was simply a fact of life. There was not even a transatlantic postal system.
In 1760 Thomas Nightingale, one of the richest people in British North America at the time, made a donation to his church and had a pew inscribed with his name, the date, and the name of the British King. It was dated Dec 5, 1760, which is said was during the reign of King George II. King George the II had died on Oct 25, 1760. This was not seen as an error because it was a fact of life that the most powerful people in the world had to wait months to learn of events on other side of the ocean.
Prior to the telegraph, messages generally could not travel faster than human beings. An exception, which illustrates how difficult the problem was, was a network of semaphore flag station set up in France in 1794. The stations were separated by miles. Each station would read the message from the previous station and send it to the next station. The symbol rate depended on weather conditions. The propagation delay was a few hundred miles per day. (Compare this to the 5us per mile delay for radio waves, which we have to account for when waiting for an ACK.) There was no error checking or ACKs, so the message would often have many errors by the time it reached its destination. Despite the drawbacks, the ability to transmit messages faster than the speed of a horse was so valuable that other countries implemented similar systems based on France’s.
Telegraph communication over land came into use in the 1840s. The first experimental transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. The first transatlantic communication between the British Queen and the US President was celebrated in New York with fireworks and flags flying everywhere. The cable only worked for a few days, however, and some critics argued that the message had been faked as a conspiracy involving telegraph investors. It was not until 1866 that the first commercially successful transatlantic cable was installed.
Does it seem all but incredible to you that intelligence should travel for two thousands miles, along those slender copper wires, far down in the all-but-fathomless Atlantic, never before penetrated by aught pertaining to humanity, save when some foundering vessel has plunged with her helpless company to the eternal silence and darkness of the abyss? Does it seem, I say, all but a miracle of art, that the thoughts of loving men - the thoughts that we think up here on the earth’s surface, in the cheerful light of day - about the markets and the exchanges, and the seasons, and the elections, and the treaties, and the wars, and all the fond nothings of daily life, should clothe themselves with elemental sparks, and shoot with fiery speed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, from hemisphere to hemisphere, far down among the uncouth monsters that wallow in the nether seas, along the wreck-paved floor, through the oozy dungeons of the ayless deep...?
Parts of this remind me of expressions of marvel at the power of social media in our time. Sometimes I think the industrial revolutions could be seen as a subset of a telecommunications revolution that is still in progress.