The Development of Submarine Communications Cable

Have you ever wondered how we can get news all around the world so easy? How are all information on the internet transmitted around the world? It is said that up to 99% of transoceanic data goes through underwater cable whilst less than 1% of information is being transmitted by satellites.

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A map showing how the world is connected by submarine cables.

An American business man Cyrus West Field came up with an idea to connect Europe and North America by underwater cables crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1854. He was eager to find a new business to attain more fame. Before I move on to talk about how the construction went on, I believe it is better to know about the background of this business. Back then, America had cables connecting city by city that can be added up to tens of thousands of cables. They did not have any problem at all to send and receive messages thanks to the telegraph offices. However, they had a problem – they did not have any connections to Europe, the centre of trade and industry. The fastest message from the Europe took two weeks. Therefore, it is reasonable for the businessmen and reporters in America were literally hungry for new information from Europe. Therefore, the idea of connecting Europe and America for faster information exchange was reasonable to attract investors.

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A map showing the transatlantic underwater cable in the early days.

There were several tasks to connect transatlantic underwater cable successfully. First of all, they needed a suitable insulator to cover the copper cable. Gutta-percha from the rubber tree sap made this possible. It was supplied from Borneo, a colony of the Great Britain at that time. Gutta-percha was similar to all the other natural rubbers, but it can easily change shape when put into hot water. The copper cables were winded by processed Gutta-percha three times and covered by iron wire.

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Gutta-percha from rubber tree.

The second task to be solved was cable weighed 1 ton per mile and they needed at least 2500 miles of cables(around 4023km) to cross the Atlantic ocean. No ship at that time could carry 2500 tonnes of cables at one time. So Field came up with an idea to borrow two battleships, one from the Great Britain and the other from the America and starting construction on each side so that they will eventually meet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Field began construction from 1857, and after few failures where several cables were cut, they finally connected two continents by underwater cables on 5th of August, 1858. When the construction was successfully done, both America and Great Britain celebrated hugely. However, the cable worked only for the first few days and the connections were cut. Some extreme critics insisted that it was a fraud. However, few flaws were found soon, and one of them was strong signal that the cable cannot withstand(higher than 500V) was sent through the cable. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin took a key role to clarify the problems of the cable. Thomson had redesigned the cable to be stronger, and added a new device to carry the weak signal. Consequently, the cable was reconnected on 28th of July, 1866 and was never cut until now.

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William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin.

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