Posted on: 15 July 2013

Submarine Cable System History
150 Year History of Submarine Cables
By Bill Burns

Laying and maintaining long undersea cables has now been a routine operation for almost 150 years, but when New York businessman Cyrus Field proposed an Atlantic cable in 1854, it was only four years since the first-ever cable had been laid between England and France, a mere 20 miles. The quality of the materials used to make the first cables was inconsistent, their theory of operation was unwritten, and the transmitting and receiving instruments were primitive.

Yet only a few years after that first cable, financiers and engineers were plotting a route across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland, a run one hundred times longer than that first cable to Europe. Just four years later, in 1858, the project achieved its first success, and in 2008 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first Atlantic cable.

With the limited technology of the time, how did the early cable engineers determine the best route, design their very long cable (the first of its kind), and get it safely to the sea bed? And in the 150 years from those first attempts to today’s routine cable laying expeditions, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

It’s generally accepted that the possibility of an Atlantic telegraph cable was first raised in 1843, when Samuel Morse, in a totally unwarranted yet eventually accurate fit of optimism, wrote "... a telegraphic communication on the electromagnetic plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic Ocean! Startling as this may now seem, I am confident the time will come when this project will be realized."

Perhaps it was just that the time was right, but the beginnings of the submarine cable industry came about in the late 1840s from a series of unrelated events. Copper wire to conduct the signals was readily available, although of uncertain quality. For underwater use an insulator was needed, and gutta percha, the rubber-like sap of a tree found only in the British Empire and introduced to Britain a few years earlier, was the perfect material. The method of armoring the cable to give it strength during laying and protection afterwards was adapted from the recently introduced iron wire ropes developed to work the hoisting machinery in Germany’s deep mines. And in 1849, American naval vessels began systematic deep-sea soundings in the Atlantic. Based on their findings hydrographer Mathew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, suggested that there was an undersea plateau between Newfoundland and Ireland which would be the ideal route for laying a telegraph cable.

...Despite all the changes, many things have stayed the same in 150 years. Cables still have a conductor to carry the signal (glass instead of copper), an insulator to protect the circuits against water (polyethylene instead of gutta percha), and a strength member (steel instead of iron). Cable routes are surveyed with the aid of satellite navigation instead of celestial navigation, but cables are still laid by dropping them off a ship while steaming ahead, using a cable engine to regulate the paying out speed. Repairs are made as they always have been, by hauling the cable up from the depths and splicing as needed.

As for the future, I believe cable will always be the backbone of the global network. Land-based fiber optic technology will continue to expand high-speed delivery of data, audio, and video direct to the end user, and wireless will let us connect to the Internet and make phone calls wherever we go, but submarine cables will carry all this traffic around the world.

The early cable engineers would no doubt be impressed by our modern technology, but I’m sure they would also be amazed to see how much of what they pioneered remains the same today.

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Copyright © 2012 Bill Burns - All rights reserved

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