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In 1854 a group of entrepreneurs called the Cable Cabinet came up with the idea of laying a cable under the Atlantic Ocean for sending telegraph communications. The first cables were laid using steamships and paddle steamers and went from England to France across the English Channel. Before long cables were laid to connect Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

At first there were many problems laying the undersea cables, with many breaks. An insulator gum-like material was invented called the Gutta-percha, which melted with heat and when applied to the wire would cover it, preventing any electric current from escaping into the water. Due to the currents in deep waters the cable had to be built to withstand the force of several tons as it was lowered into the water from a ship.

The first transatlantic cable went from Western Ireland all the way to Newfoundland, Canada and was finished in 1858. For the first time the two continents were connected by telegraphy. Ten words per minute could be transmitted and this revolutionized communications as prior to this messages took ten days to travel the same distance and went by ship.

The first officially sent telegram that passed between the two continents was a letter sent by Queen Victoria of Great Britain to congratulate James Buchanan, the President of the United States. This cable lasted only 3 weeks before the connection was broken. Restoring it was delayed due to the financial losses so far incurred. By 1866 the connection was finally restored thanks to technological improvements along with many attempts by the steamship SS Great Eastern. This was followed up with duplex and quadruplex systems being built that could transmit multiple messages at once over the cable.

Great Britain dominated the cables until the early 1900s. This created a lot of new opportunities for doing business with settlers and many British companies became heavily invested in building, laying and keeping the cables operating. There were many commercial benefits derived from the transatlantic cable industry and the British government itself was now able to better communicate with those running its territories as well as its ambassadors across the world during both peacetime and times of war.

In the late 1800s most of the cable laying ships throughout the world were owned and operated by British companies. By the 1920s British companies still owned almost half. In today’s world, telecommunications cables have replaced the old telegraphic cables. Ships designed to hold and transport hundreds of miles of cables laid these cables as well. They are released and lowered onto the seabed by specially designed turntables.

Fibre optic cables

Those who first pioneered the undersea cable could never have dreamed of how significant this undertaking would eventually become. The first electromagnetic telegraph cables that started with transmitting one single message have all been replaced with cables made of fibre optics with the capability of transmitting laser signals going terabits per second. Today’s world relies on speedy connections for the broadband we use through a vast network of cables under the sea, across the globe.


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