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Monthly Archives: January 2022

Alexandria and Rhodes

Two new ebooks are available on Amazon, collecting my recently completed Analog Antiquarian series on the Library and Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes. If you do happen to pick up one or both, or have just been reading along on this site’s sister, I’d hugely appreciate an honest review of any length on Amazon and/or GoodReads. And do remember that Analog Antiquarian patrons get a free copy of all the ebooks (he says in his best marketer’s voice).

Thank you for your support — here, there, or anywhere.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

A Web Around the World, Part 2: If At First You Don’t Succeed…

The early history of the telegraph in commercial service can largely be told as a series of anecdotes, publicity coups that served to convince people that this was a technology worth embracing. The first of these occurred just a few days after the Washington-to-Baltimore line’s inauguration. On May 18, 1844, this first American telegraph service brought to the capital the shocking news that, after nine ballots’ worth of wrangling over the issue, the Baltimore-based Democratic National Convention had settled on a dark-horse candidate for president by the name of James K. Polk; word of this game changer reached the ears of the Washington political establishment within five minutes of the deciding votes being cast. Clearly the telegraph had its uses, in politics as in so many other facets of life. The newspapers were soon filled with more personal anecdotes about the new technology, such as reports of births and deaths delivered instantaneously to the family members affected.

Nevertheless, Samuel Morse found Congress to be stubbornly unforthcoming with more money to build more telegraph lines. After lobbying fruitlessly over the balance of 1844 for what struck him as the next logical step, an extension of the existing line from Baltimore to New York City, he gave up and turned to the private investors who were now beginning to knock at his door. Although neither he nor they could possibly realize it at the time, it would prove a fateful change of course whose aftereffects can still be felt in the world of today. Unlike the European nations, whose communications networks would be funded and managed by their governments, the United States would rely mostly on private industry. The two contrasting funding and governance models more or less persist to the present day.

Rather than attempting to raise capital and wire the United States all by himself, Morse was content to license his telegraph patent to various regional players. The first of these private telegraph lines, linking Philadelphia to New York City, opened in January of 1846. The telegraph’s spread thereafter was breathtaking; the stampede to get onto the World Wide Web during the 1990s has nothing on the speed with which the telegraph became a fixture of everyday American life during the second half of the 1840s.

By 1851, one could send telegraph messages to and from almost any decent-sized American town east of the Mississippi River. To the average mid-nineteenth-century American, the telegraph seemed literally to be a form of magic. Newspapers published rapturous poetry dedicated to Morse’s wondrous invention, which had “annihilated time and space.” Thanks to the telegraph, the United States as a whole became infatuated with the wonders of technology — an infatuation that has never really left it. A thoroughly impressed British visitor reported on the extraordinary range of uses to which the telegraph was already being put just five years after the first lines opened for business:

It is employed in transmitting messages to and from bankers, merchants, members of Congress, officers of government, brokers, and police officers. [It is used for] items of news, election returns, announcements of deaths, inquiries respecting the health of families and individuals, daily proceedings of the Senate and the House of Representatives, orders of goods, inquiries respecting the sailing of vessels, proceedings of cases in various courts, summoning of witnesses, messages for express trains, invitations, the receipt of money at one station and its payment at another; for persons requesting the transmission of funds from debtors, consultation of physicians, and messages of every character usually sent by the mail. The confidence in the efficiency of telegraphic communication is so complete that the most important commercial transactions daily transpire by its means between correspondents several hundred miles apart.

The financiers who built this network out from nothing in almost no time at all were more often than not connected with the railroads that were busily binding the sprawling nation together in another way. Indeed, the telegraph and the railroad were destined to be boon companions for a long, long time to come; the two usually ran along the same rights-of-way, just as with that very first telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Together they were the necessary prerequisites of a burgeoning new age of big business; they became the handmaids of the modern bureaucratic corporation, with its tendrils stretching across the country like the arms of an octopus (a rather sinister analogy that would become a populist favorite during the Gilded Age to come).

In the meanwhile, Western Europe was being wired together at a slower pace. The telegraph first captured anecdotal headlines in Britain on August 6, 1844, when it was used to send word from Windsor Palace to Fleet Street that Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, had been born. The Duke of Wellington forgot to bring his best suit down from London with him for the celebratory banquet, but the telegraph and the railroad, those two fast stablemates of Progress, saved the day: an urgent electronic message was sent back up the line, and the duke’s ensemble arrived on the next train.

On January 3, 1845, the railroad and the telegraph had starring roles in a sensational murder case, when one John Tawell killed his mistress in Slough and jumped on a train for London. The police in Slough sent a telegraph message to their counterparts in London to watch for him at the station, and the blackguard was apprehended as he climbed down from his carriage. “It may be observed,” wrote the London Times, “that had it not been for the efficient aid of the London telegraph, the greatest difficulty as well as delay would have occurred in the apprehension of the party now in custody.” After the murderer was duly executed, the telegraph was immortalized in verse as “the cords that hung John Tawell.”

Observing the more rapid expansion of the telegraph in the United States, Britain and the other European nations grudgingly came to accept that Samuel Morse’s simple, robust system was more practical than any of their more baroque approaches. And so, gradually, the rudimentary tool that was the Morse key and the more refined one that was the Morse Code became an international standard. Morse himself, who was determined to receive every dollar and every bit of credit he felt he had coming to him for his inventions, was less pleased than he might have been by these developments, in that he usually wasn’t paid for Europe’s copycat systems. (In 1860, France and several other European nations would finally agree to pay him a one-time joint indemnity of $80,000, far less than he believed he was owed.)

Of course, Morse’s original telegraph had to evolve in some ways in order for a single 40-mile wire to be transformed into a dense network of connections binding entire nations together. Although the core components of Morse’s telegraph — a Morse key used to transmit Morse Code — would remain the same for a century and more, everything else was ripe for improvement. Better batteries and better cables stretched the possible distance between stations and repeaters almost exponentially year by year; switchboards, timetables, and manual routing protocols were developed to move messages through the system quickly and efficiently from any given source to any given destination.

The new telegraph companies attracted the sort of brainy young men who, had they been born in the following century, might have become computer hackers. A freewheeling culture of competitive cooperation that wasn’t at all far removed from the future hacker culture developed around the telegraph, as all of these bright sparks relentlessly optimized their systems, creating their own legends and lore, heroes and villains in the process. They developed shortcuts for talking with one another along the wires that smack of nothing so much as Internet chat: “SFD” stood for “stop for dinner,” “GM” for “good morning”; one almost expects to find an “LOL” lurking around in there somewhere. During downtime, they filled the lines with such idle chatter, or played checkers and chess with their counterparts in other cities using a special system of codes they’d developed — the original form of networked gaming. And surely they must have made fun of the clueless suits who believed they were the ones running things…

As the second half of the nineteenth century began, then, the telegraph had already become an inexorable transformative force on two continents. There now remained only the most world-transforming feat of connectivity of them all: to bridge the aforementioned two continents themselves, thereby to turn two discrete communications networks into one.

Over the last 50 years, the arrival of steamships on the scene had reduced the time it took to get news across the Atlantic from four or six weeks to as little as ten days under ideal conditions. Yet in the new age of the telegraph such an interval still seemed painfully long. What was needed was obvious: a telegraph wire running across — or rather under — the Atlantic Ocean. Samuel Morse had envisioned just such a thing already in 1843: “A telegraph communication on my plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic! Startling as this may seem now, the time will come when this project is realized.” Nine years later, the magazine Scientific American dreamed of a future when “the earth will be belted by the electric wire, and New York will yet be able to send the throb of her electric pulse through our whole continent, Asia, Africa, and Europe in a second of time.” Such aspirations seemed far-fetched even in light of the magical powers of current telegraph systems. And yet one thoroughly remarkable man would soon set in motion a major transatlantic effort to realize them — an effort whose vision, daring, and sheer audacity makes it worthy of comparison to the twentieth century’s Project Apollo.


Cyrus Field

This giant nerve, at whose command
The world’s great pulses throb or sleep —
It threads the undiscerned repose
Of the dark bases of the deep.

Around it settle in the calm
Fine tissues that a breath might mar,
Nor dream what fiery tidings pass,
What messages of storm and war.

Far over it, where filtered gleams
Faintly illumine the mid-sea day,
Strange, pallid forms of fish or weed
In the obscure tide softly sway.

And higher, where the vagrant waves
Frequent the white, indifferent sun,
Where ride the smoke-blue hordes of rain
And the long vapors lift and run,

Pauses, perhaps, some lonely ship
With exile hearts that homeward ache —
While far beneath it flashed a word
That soon shall bid them bleed or break.

— “The Atlantic Cable” by Charles G.D. Roberts

During this antebellum era of the United States, New York City’s Astor House was the most famous hotel in the country, the place where all of the movers and shakers stayed when they came to the business capital of the nation. In January of 1854, two of the Astor’s guests happened to be Matthew Field, a prominent railroad engineer, and Frederick Gisborne, a Canadian entrepreneur who was attempting to secure additional funding for a project that had proved much more difficult than he had first anticipated: a telegraph line linking the town of St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland with the town of Sydney on the island of Cape Breton, which entailed some 400 miles of overland and about 85 miles of undersea cable.

Map of Newfoundland and Cape Breton

The undersea portion of the telegraph line would need to be run between Channel-Port aux Basques and the northern tip of Cape Breton, where Cape Breton Highlands National Park is today.

When they bumped into one another one evening in the bar and Gisborne told Field how strapped for cash he was, his interlocutor could well understand the reluctance of potential investors. He asked Gisborne why on earth he wanted to build a telegraph cable in such a remote and inhospitable location at all, serving a Newfoundland population of fishermen that numbered in the bare handful of thousands. Gisborne’s response surprised him: he explained that St. John’s was actually the most easterly town in the Americas, fully one-third closer to Europe than New York City was. If fast steamers carrying urgent messages docked there instead of at one of the larger eastern cities, then passed said messages on to a telegraph operator there, they could substantially cut the communication time between the two continents. Gisborne envisioned a bustling trade of businesses and governments willing to pay well to reduce their best-case communication lag from ten to seven days.

Matthew Field was intrigued enough that he mentioned Gisborne and his scheme to his brother Cyrus Field, who at the age of just 33 was already one of the richest men in New York City. He had made his fortune in paper, but was now semi-retired from business life; being possessed of a decided taste for adventure, he had recently returned from an expedition to some of the more remote regions of South America, in the company of the great landscape painter Frederic Church. Cyrus Field took a meeting with Gisborne, but wasn’t overly impressed with his plan, which struck him as an awful lot of trouble and expense for a fairly modest gain in communication speed. The matter might have ended there — but for one thing. “After [Gisborne] left,” wrote Henry M. Field (another of Cyrus’s brothers) in his history of the Atlantic Cable, “Mr. Field took the globe which was standing in the library, and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.”

It’s hard not to compare this realization with Samuel Morse’s own eureka moment aboard the Sully 22 years earlier. Like Morse at the time, Field was enough of a rank amateur to believe that his brainstorm was a new idea under the sun. Knowing nothing whatsoever about telegraphy, eager to find out if a transatlantic cable was a realistic possibility, Field dispatched two letters. One was to Morse, the one name in the field that absolutely everyone was familiar with. The other was to one Matthew Fontaine Maury, a noted oceanographer and intellectual jack-of-all-trades who wore the uniform of the United States Navy. Both responded enthusiastically: Morse was excited enough to join the project as an official advisor and to offer Field the use of his precious telegraph patent for free, while Maury explained that he had thought about the question enough already to propose a route for the cable between Newfoundland and Ireland, based upon deep-sea soundings he had recently conducted. The route in question was, he said, “neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed will remain forever beyond the reach of vessels’ anchors, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow that the wires may be readily lodged upon the bottom.”

The planned course of the cable between Ireland and Newfoundland.

Field’s further inquiries revealed that underwater telegraphy wasn’t an entirely black art. As early as 1845, well before the landlocked telegraph became a reality of daily life in the developed world, an experimental cable had been laid under the Hudson River between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey, sheathed in a rubber-packed lead pipe; it had functioned for several months, until the winter ice did it in. In 1851, an underwater cable had bridged the 31 miles of the English Channel, to be followed soon after by another cable connecting Britain to Ireland. Using the latest batteries and wiring, such distances and more were by now possible without employing any repeaters.

So, Field set about enlisting other wealthy men into his cause, whilst getting Gisborne to accept a relegation to the role of chief engineer in what was now to be a much more ambitious venture than he had ever envisioned. In March of 1854, a company was founded with an appropriately ambitious name: the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. The founders estimated that they would need about $1.5 million to complete their task. This was no small sum in 1854; the entire budget of the federal government of the United States that year totaled just $54 million. Nevertheless, the project would end up costing far, far more. “God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish,” Cyrus Field would muse later. Had they known, it is doubtful they ever would have begun.


There is nothing in the world easier than to build a line of railroad or of telegraph on paper. You have only to take the map and mark the points to be connected, and then with a single sweep of the pencil to draw the line along which the iron track is to run. In this airy flight of the imagination, distances are nothing. All obstacles disappear. The valleys are exalted, and the hills are made low, soaring arches span the mountain streams, and the chasms are leaped in safety by the fire-drawn cars.

Very different it is to construct a line of railroad or of telegraph in reality; to come with an army of laborers, with axes on their shoulders to cut down the forests, and with spades in their hands to cast up the highway. Then poetry sinks to prose, and instead of flying over the space on wings, one must traverse it on foot, slowly and with painful steps. Nature asserts her power, and, as if resentful of the disdain with which man in his pride affected to leap over her, she piles up new barriers in his way. The mountains with their rugged sides cannot be moved out of their place, the rocks must be cleft in twain, to open a passage for the conqueror, before he can begin his triumphal march. The woods thicken into impassable jungle, and the morass sinks deeper, threatening to swallow up the horse and his rider, until the rash projector is startled at his own audacity. Then it becomes a contest of forces between man and nature, in which, if he would be victorious, he must fight his way. The barriers of nature cannot be lightly pushed aside, but must yield at last only to time and toil, and “man’s unconquerable will.”

— Henry M. Field, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph

The newly incorporated New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company decided that its first goal ought to be the completion of Gisborne’s original project, which would also constitute the fulfillment of two-thirds of its name: a telegraph line linking Newfoundland to New York City, via Cape Breton. Such a line would hopefully bring some money in to help fund the vastly more audacious final third of the company’s name.

The first stage of this first goal required no underwater cable, but was daunting enough in its own right: it entailed running an overland cable from St. John’s across the widest part of Newfoundland to the point where the underwater cable was planned to begin. Gisborne had managed to complete the first 40 miles of this link before his money ran out; that left 260 miles still to go. Matthew Field took charge of this endeavor in the summer of 1854, anticipating that it would be done within a year. But he hadn’t reckoned with the rugged, isolated, in many places well-nigh unmapped terrain the work party had to cross, where opportunities for living off the land were few. The logistics surrounding the building of the line thus became much more complicated than the construction effort itself; the 600 men involved in the effort had to build their own roads as they went just to get supplies in and out. “Recently, in building half a mile of road, we had to bridge three ravines,” wrote Matthew Field to his brother Cyrus on one occasion. “Why didn’t we go around the ravines? Because Mr. Gisborne had explored twenty miles in both directions and found more ravines. That’s why!” The whole project could have served as a case study in why builders of telegraph lines usually preferred to follow the smooth, straight paths which the builders of railroads had already cut through the landscape. Alas, that wasn’t an option on Newfoundland.

And then the dark, cold northern winter set in, exacerbating the builders’ suffering that much more. “What hardships and suffering the men endured — all this is a chapter in the History of the Telegraph which has not been written, and which can never be fully told,” writes Henry Field. Bridging Newfoundland and then constructing another 100 miles of overland telegraph line on Cape Breton to reach Sydney wound up taking two years and costing more than $1 million all by itself.

While Matthew Field’s party was inching its way across the wilds of coastal Canada, Cyrus Field was growing impatient to begin laying the undersea part of the route, which he saw as an important test run of sorts for the eventual laying of an Atlantic-spanning cable. He went to London to purchase 85 miles of the best undersea cable money could buy, the same as that which had been used to connect Britain to France and Ireland. It consisted of three intertwined copper-alloy wires, sheathed in tarred hemp, gutta-percha, and galvanized iron wire — guaranteed, so the sellers said, to be impervious to water forever. Field made plans to lay the undersea cable already in the summer of 1855, when the overland cable was still only half completed.

Having as keen an instinct for publicity as any tech mogul of today, Field decided to turn the laying of the cable into a junket for existing and potential investors. Thus on August 7, 1855, the luxury coastal steamer James Adgar departed New York Harbor with many of the brightest stars in the moneyed East Coast firmament aboard. It was to rendezvous off the coast of Newfoundland with an older sailing ship, a sturdy brig called the Sarah L. Bryant carrying the shiny new cable from London, then tow it as it paid out the cable behind it across the Cabot Strait that separates Newfoundland from Cape Breton.

Right from the start, everything that possibly could went wrong, a result not only of bad luck but of a thoroughgoing lack of planning and preparation. The Bryant failed to turn up at the appointed time. When it did appear several days late, it was in a sorry state, having been badly battered by a rough Atlantic crossing weighted down by the cable in its hold. More days were spent on repairs, after which an impenetrable fog rolled in and forced the two ships to sit idle for yet 48 more hours. When the weather cleared at last and the Adgar tried to take the Bryant in tow to begin the operation, a series of cock-ups caused the steamship to ram the brig broadside, very nearly breaking it in two. The captain of the Adgar, whose name was Turner, was by now convinced — and not without justification, it must be admitted — that he was dealing with a bunch of rank amateurs; he grew willfully uncooperative, refusing to steer the course and speed asked of him even after he finally had the Bryant in tow. Cyrus Field and his party watched with alarm as the Adgar‘s high speed, combined with the weight of the cable spooling out behind, caused the Bryant‘s stern to dip lower and lower into the water. Meanwhile the light breeze that had marked the morning’s weather was becoming a howling sidelong gale by mid-afternoon, threatening to capsize the already floundering brig. The captain of the Bryant felt he had no choice: he cut both the tow rope and the telegraph cable, letting the latter fall uselessly into the ocean.

John Wells Stancliff, an amateur painter who was a part of the 1855 attempt to lay a telegraph cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, created this dramatic image of the Sarah L. Bryant being towed through dangerously choppy seas by the James Adgar.

The company’s first attempt to lay an undersea cable had proved an unadulterated fiasco, with the chattering class in ringside seats for the whole sorry spectacle. The final price tag: $351,000 almost literally tossed into the ocean.

Publicly, the partners blamed it all, more than a little disingenuously, on Captain Turner of the Adgar: “We had spent so much money, and lost so much time, that it was very vexatious to have our enterprise defeated by the stupidity and obstinacy of one man.” In truth, though, the obstinate captain was neither the only nor the most important reason that everything had gone sideways. The company had learned the hard way that a sailing ship in tow simply didn’t have the maneuverability necessary to lay a cable in the notoriously temperamental waters of the North Atlantic.

Luckily, Cyrus Field was a man capable of learning from his mistakes. He traveled to London again and bought another cable. And the next summer, just as the overland lines across Newfoundland and Cape Breton were being completed, he tried again to lay it under the ocean. This time, however, he used the agile modern steamer Propontis for the purpose, and invited no one to witness the endeavor, in case it all went wrong again. He needn’t have worried: it all went off without a hitch. The newly minted telegraph connection between St. John’s and Sydney would suffer no service interruptions for the next ten years — a very impressive service record for any line by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the completion of Frederick Gisborne’s original project had cost the company all of its starting capital and then some — and yet there were still 2000 miles to go if the cable was to reach Ireland. The completed stretch of line ended up bringing in the merest pittance, as Field had suspected it would when Gisborne first broached his idea to him.

So, Field traveled yet again to London, the financial capital of the world, to beat the bushes for more investors. He met with no less skepticism there than he had in his home country; no less august a personage than the head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory called it “a mathematical impossibility to submerge the cable at so great a depth, and if it were possible, no signals could be transmitted through so great a length.” But Cyrus Field could be persuasive: by the time he left Britain six months later, he had formed a new corporation called the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with £350,000 (the equivalent of £40 million or $53 million today) of investment capital; the roll call of those who had pledged their money to the cause included such well-known names as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Lest anyone accuse him of failing to put his money where his mouth was, know that the total also included the majority of Field’s own remaining fortune.

Almost as importantly, the British government promised to pay £14,000 per year to use the telegraph for diplomatic dispatches, and offered to loan the company the recently commissioned 3500-ton steam-powered battleship HMS Agamemnon for the laying of the cable — a poetically appropriate choice, given how the ship shared a name with the ancient tragedy which contains the first documented description of a long-distance signaling system. So, just like that, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had its first customer. Shortly thereafter, it gained its second, when the American government agreed to virtually the same deal: $70,000 per year to make use of the cable. And the Americans too offered a ship for the purpose of laying it: the USS Niagara, a fast, modern 5200-ton steam-powered frigate that was due to be commissioned in the spring of 1857 in the New York Navy Yard. The pride of the United States Navy already, the Niagara was set to become the biggest and arguably the most powerful warship in service anywhere in the world.

The USS Niagara. It dates from that odd era in naval history when builders were still hedging their bets between sail and steam power by equipping their ships with both. Its hull too was a hybrid of old and new, being made of wood draped over a skeleton of steel.

Working from the proposals of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the company plotted a relatively level course for the cable across the Atlantic seafloor. The company’s engineers believed that, by combining a big power source with a cable big enough to handle all the juice it put out without melting, they could push a signal fully 2000 miles without a single repeater; the old, vexing problem of signal loss down a wire had largely been solved by now by brute force. But another potential problem had since cropped up that rather smacked of this older one.

Earlier underwater telegraph cables had proved to be subject to a peculiar phenomenon: the farther the signal traveled down the wire, the more distorted it became. “A signal which is sent off as a short, sharp, sudden impulse,” writes the historian of telegraphy Silvanus P. Thompson, “in being transmitted to greater and greater distances is changed in character, smoothed out into a longer-lasting impulse, which rises gradually to a maximum and then gradually dies away.” It became harder and harder for the telegraph operator at the other end of the line to work out the dots and dashes of Morse Code from a signal that was slowly being transformed from a stair-step pattern to a series of gentler waves and troughs as it traveled farther and farther down the wire.

This phenomenon, which was dubbed signal “retardation,” was odd in that it didn’t show itself in overland telegraph lines at all. So far, it had been an annoyance rather than a showstopper even for underwater telegraphy — but then, no one had yet tried to lay an underwater cable 2000 miles long. The British physicist Michael Faraday demonstrated retardation to be a direct result of the immersion of an insulated wire into the conductive material that is water; this can cause the insulation to become charged with static electricity, which in turn distorts the signal in the wire it is designed to protect.

A British mathematician and physicist named William Thomson concluded that there was a “law of squares” governing retardation, meaning it was inversely proportional to the square of the cable’s length. But one Wildman Whitehouse, a British surgeon and gentleman experimenter, begged to differ: he claimed that retardation increased linearly down the length of a cable. So, he said, the problem actually wasn’t as big as Thomson made it sound. And there was, he noted, a straightforward solution of sorts to the problem of retardation even when it was at its worst: operators could simply work their Morse keys more slowly to ensure that every pulse remained distinct. In the end, Cyrus Field felt he had no choice but to gamble that he would be able to transmit quickly enough along his line to make a profit.

Field then asked both William Thomson and Wildman Whitehouse what type of cable they thought would work best. Predictably enough, they were in complete disagreement. Thomson believed that the thicker the wire at the core of the cable and the thicker the layer of protective insulation around it, the less retardation the whole would be subject to; he thus recommended a cable as big around as a man’s upper arm. He also believed that a more naturally conductive wire would be subject to less retardation, and therefore proposed a core made of pure copper rather than the more typical copper alloy. Finally, he proposed a new, ultra-sensitive galvanometer for detecting signals on the receiving end, something he had ideas for but had yet to make a reality.

Whitehouse, on the other hand, was vastly more sanguine. A thinner cable made from a copper alloy, combined with the already proven technologies for sending and receiving, would be just fine according to him; his proposed cable would be only as big around as a man’s wrist.

Unsurprisingly, Field opted for Whitehouse’s approach, by far the cheaper and easier of the two to see through in the real world. In fact, his engineers had told him that it was doubtful whether a cable conforming to Thomson’s specifications could be laid at all; it would wind up being simply too heavy to handle.

The future Atlantic Cable being made in London.

So, without considering the matter further, Field sent an order to London for 2500 miles of Whitehouse’s cable, at a price of £225,000. (The peaks and valleys of the ocean floor, plus the fact that the cable would not be stretched completely taut, meant that crossing 2000 miles of ocean would surely take considerably more than just 2000 miles of the stuff.) When Thomson was given a snippet of it to test, he was horrified to discover its alloy core was so sloppily made that some sections were twice as conductive as other sections. But the die was now cast.

Whitehouse’s cable may have been comparatively light, but it still weighed one ton per mile, and there was no ship in the world at the time capable of carrying a load of 2500 tons. Therefore the company made plans to load half of this longest length of cable ever made aboard each of the Agamemnon and the Niagara. The ships would sail together, and when the first ship ran out of cable somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the other would splice the beginning of its cable onto the end of the first and complete the job.

On April 24, 1857, the Niagara departed New York Harbor on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, its decks and holds cleared of guns and ammunition to make room for the massive weight of cable that was to be loaded in Britain. Aboard were the Field brothers, Samuel Morse, and a party of engineers and technicians in the employ of one or the other of Cyrus Field’s recently formed telegraph companies; more personnel would be picked up in Britain. Relations between the United States and Britain were not yet as warm as they would become in later decades; the British Army had, after all, sacked and burned Washington, D.C., within the lifetime of most of the politicians there. The Atlantic cable and the cooperative endeavor of laying it were therefore invested with huge symbolic importance by the governments of both nations. Windy speeches and toasts accompanied the Niagara as it met up with the Agamemnon in Plymouth, England, then continued apace as the two ships loaded their unique cargoes, a tricky process that wound up taking quite some weeks. When that task was completed at last, they sailed on to the tiny port of Queenstown (now known as Cobh) on the southern tip of Ireland, where the eastern end of the cable was to make landfall. As a further symbol of the emerging spirit of transatlantic cooperation and trust, the American Niagara was to begin the laying of the cable on the British side of the ocean, while the British Agamemnon would complete it on the American side.

Loading the cable aboard the ships was no small task in itself. It had to be dragged up from the quay and laboriously wound around the giant spools in the ships’ holds.

But first, the two ships anchored side by side off the coast of Ireland to conduct an important test. The crew of the Niagara ferried the end of their cable over to the Agamemnon, where it was spliced with the one onboard that ship. Telegraph operators aboard each of the ships then sent a series of test signals back and forth. The 2500-mile connection worked. Whatever the ultimate merits of the cable Field had elected to purchase, the moment was a telling testament to an extraordinarily rapid evolution in electrical engineering and materials science since that time less than two decades before when Samuel Morse had struggled to push a decipherable signal down 40 feet of wire.

With the test completed, it was time to begin the actual laying of the cable. Its end came ashore on the evening of August 5, 1857, to the accompaniment of much celebration and speechifying. Cyrus Field was clearly touched when he stepped up to the podium:

I have no words to express the feelings which fill my heart tonight — it beats with love and affection for every man, woman, and child who hears me. I may say, however, that, if ever at the other side of the waters now before us, any one of you shall present himself at my door and say that he took hand or part, even by an approving smile, in our work here today, he shall have a true American welcome. I cannot bind myself to more, and shall merely say, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Paying out the first of the cable from the stern of the Niagara. Note the cage around the ship’s screws, put there to make sure the cable couldn’t become entangled in them. The sailors liked to call it a “crinoline,” after the wire hoops used to support ladies’ skirts.

A 25-year-old British telegraph engineer named Charles Bright had designed an ingenious mechanism for drawing the cable up from the spools in the ships’ holds and paying it out in a controlled fashion behind them. As the Niagara and its escort crept away from Ireland at a speed of three to six knots, Bright himself monitored his machine day and night, adjusting it constantly to account for the shifting topography of the seafloor beneath and the wind and waves that buffeted the vessel on whose deck it rode. Telegraph operators ashore in Ireland and aboard the ship tapped out a constant patter back and forth to confirm that the cable was still functioning. The distinctive, steady rumble of the pay-out mechanism became an equally important source of comfort to everyone aboard, another reminder that everything was working as it ought to. “If one should drop to sleep, and wake up at night,” wrote Henry Field later, “he has only to hear the sound of ‘the old coffee mill,’ and his fears are relieved, and he goes to sleep again.”

Charles Bright’s paying-out mechanism on the deck of the Niagara.

By the dawn hours of August 10, almost 300 miles of cable had been laid without a hitch, and Bright stepped away from his machine for some much needed rest, leaving it in the charge of one of his assistants. At 3:45 AM, the ship plunged into the trough of an unusually large wave. As it rose again, the cable was pulled taut. The attendant Bright had left in charge should have reduced the braking force in the mechanism, to let the cable spool out faster and ease the strain on it. But he failed to do so in time. The cable snapped with a sound that reverberated through the decks like the clap of doom. In a flash, the frayed end was lost forever beneath the ocean.

“Instantly ran through the ship a cry of grief and dismay,” writes Henry Field. “All gathered on deck with feelings which may be imagined.” The captain of the Niagara would remember the moment as akin to the death of a “dear friend”; he promptly ordered his ship’s flag lowered to half mast.

Field and his colleagues did a quick assessment, and concluded that the well over 300 miles of cable they had lost left them without enough of it remaining to start over again and hope to complete their task. There was nothing for it but to return to Britain. Once back in London, Field learned that it wasn’t possible to manufacture the needed additional cable before the Atlantic winter made the project of laying it too dangerous to attempt. So, the Niagara sailed for home for the season, and the naysayers and mockers on both sides of the ocean came out in force. A parody of “Pop Goes the Weasel!” made the music-hall rounds:

Pay it out! Oh, pay it out
As long as you are able:
For if you put the damned brake on:
Pop goes the cable!

But Cyrus Field professed himself to be undaunted — indeed, to be more encouraged than discouraged by recent events. Rather than the dismal failure described in the popular press, he chose to see his first attempt to lay his Atlantic Cable as a successful proof of concept; he had sent and received underwater telegraph signals over a gap several times longer than anyone had ever managed before. All he needed to go the full distance were a modestly redesigned paying-out mechanism and some equally modest operational refinements. He said as much in a letter to his investors:

The successful laying down of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable is put off for a short time, but its final triumph has been fully proved by the experience that we have had. My confidence was never so strong as at the present time, and I feel sure that, with God’s blessing, we shall connect Europe and America with the electric cord.

The first Atlantic cable may have been lost forever beneath the cold, dark waves of the ocean, but Field’s passion for the task burned as warmly as ever.

(Sources: the books The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman, A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Telegraph by John Steele Gordon, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field, and The Life of William Thomson by Silvanus Phillips Thompson; The Atlantic Monthly of November 1862. Online sources include “The Telegraph and Chess” by Bill Wall, Distant Writing: A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 by Steven Roberts, and History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.)

 
 

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The Great Wall of China, Chapter 2: Origin Stories

 
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A Web Around the World, Part 1: Signals Down a Wire

The microcomputer had a well-nigh revolutionary impact on the way that business was done over the first twenty years after its invention: the arrival of a computer on every desk made the workplace more efficient in countless ways. But the gadget’s impact on our personal lives during this period was less all-encompassing. Yes, many youngsters and adults learned the advantages of word processing over typewriting, and a substantial minority of both learned the advantages of computer over console gaming. Meanwhile smaller minorities learned of the pleasures of programming, and some even ventured online to meet others of their ilk. Yet the wide-angle social transformation promised by the most starry-eyed pundits during the would-be Home Computer Revolution of the early 1980s didn’t materialize on the timetable we were promised. For a good decade after the heyday of such predictions, one could get on perfectly well as an informed, aware, plugged-in member of society without owning a computer or caring a whit about them. The question of what a home computer was really good for, beyond word processing, entertainment, and accessing fairly primitive online services at usually exorbitant prices, was difficult to answer for the average person. Most of the other usage scenarios proposed during the early 1980s, from storing recipes to balancing one’s checkbook, remained easier and cheaper on the whole to do the old-fashioned way. The personal computer seemed a useful invention in its realm, to be sure, but not a society-reshaping one.

All of that changed in the mid-1990s, when the Internet entered the public consciousness. By the turn of the millennium, those unable or unwilling to buy a computer and enter cyberspace were well and truly left behind, having no seat at the table where our most important cultural dialogs were suddenly taking place. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact the Internet has had on us: on the way we access information, on the way we communicate and socialize with one another, on the way we entertain ourselves, on the very way we think. The claim that the Internet is the most important advance in the technologies of information and communication since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which once seemed so expansive, now seems almost picayune in relation to the change we’ve witnessed. Coming at the end of a century of wondrous inventions, the Internet was the most wondrous of them all. We may still be waiting for our flying cars and cheap tickets to Mars, but the world we live in today would nevertheless have seemed thoroughly science-fictional just 30 years ago. Seen in this light, the computer itself seems merely a comparatively plebeian bit of infrastructure that needed to be laid down for the really earth-shattering technology to build upon. Or perhaps we were just seeing computers the wrong way before the Internet: what seemed most significant as a tool for, well, computation was actually a revolution in communication just waiting to happen. In this formulation, a computer without the Internet is like a car without any roads.

When I talk about the Internet in this context, of course, I really mean the combination of a globe-spanning network of computers — one which was already a couple of decades old by the beginning of the 1990s — with the much younger World Wide Web, which applied to the network a new paradigm of effortless navigation based on associative hyperlinks. This serves as a useful reminder that no human invention since the first stone tools has ever been monolithic; inventions are always amalgamations of existing technologies, iterations on what came before. In A Brief History of the Future, his classic millennial history of and philosophical meditation on the Internet, John Naughton noted that “it’s always earlier than you think. Whenever you go looking for the origins of any significant technological development, you find that the more you learn about it, the deeper its roots seem to tunnel into the past.”

I thought about those words a lot as I considered how best to tell the story of the Internet and the World Wide Web here. And as I did so, I kept coming back to this word “Web.” In the strict terms by which Tim Berners-Lee meant the word when he invented the World Wide Web, it refers to a logical web of links. But the prerequisite for that logical web is the physical web of cables that allows computers to talk to one another over long distances in the first place. This infrastructure was not originally designed for computers; it is in fact much, much older than they are. Still, this network — the physical network — strikes me as the most logical place to start this series of articles about the Internet, that ultimate expression of instantaneous worldwide communication.


Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon of the fifth century BC deals, like so much classical Greek literature, with the Trojan War, an event historians now believe to have occurred in approximately 1000 BC. In the play, we’re told how the Greek soldiers abroad sent news of their victory over the Trojans back to their homeland far more quickly than any ship- or horse-borne messenger could possibly have delivered it. This ecstatic paean to modern communication issues from the mouth of Clytemnestra, the wife of the Greek commander Agamemnon, who has been waiting on her husband for ten years at home in the Peloponnesian city of Argos:

Hephaestus, who sent the blazing light from Ida;
then beacon after beacon’s courier flame:
from Ida first, to Hermes’ crag at Lemnos.
Third came the Athos summit, which belongs
to Zeus: it, too, received the massive firebrand.
Ascending now to shoot across the sea’s back,
the journeying torch in all its power and joy.
The pine wood, like a second sun, conveyed
the gold-gleam to the watchtower on Macistus.
Prompt and triumphant over feckless sleep,
unslacking in its task as courier,
passing Euripus’s streams, the beacon’s light
signaled far off to watchmen on Messapion.
They sent out light in turn, sent on the message,
setting alight a rick of graying heather.
Potent against the dimming murk, the light
went leaping high across Asopus’ plain
like the beaming moon, and at Cathaeron’s scarp
roused missive fire still another relay.
The lookout there did not defy the light
sent from far off; the new blaze shot up stronger.
The glow shot past the lake called Gorgon’s Face;
arriving at the mountains where the goats roam,
it urged the fire-ordnance on.
With all their strength, men raised a giant flame,
beard-shaped, to overshoot and pass beyond
the headland fronting the Saronic strait —
so bright the blaze. Darting again, it reached
Arachne’s lookout peak, this city’s neighbor;
then it fell here, on the Atreides’ mansion.
The light we see descends from Ida’s fire.
Tourchbearers served me in this regimen,
with every handoff perfectly performed.
The runners who came first and last both win.
This is my proof, the pledge of what I tell you.
My husband passed the news to me from Troy.

In this fascinating passage, then, we learn of what may have been the first near-instantaneous long-distance communications network ever conceived, dating back more than 3000 years. The signal began with a burning pyre atop Mount Ida near Troy itself, then flashed onward like a torch being passed between the members of a relay team: to the highlands of the island of Lemnos, to Mount Athos on a northeastern peninsula of the Greek mainland, to the northern tip of the island of Euboea, to finally reach the mainland city of Aulas, whence the Greek fleet had sailed for Troy so long before. From there, the signal fires spread across Greece. Historians and geographers are skeptical whether such a signal system might truly have been practicable, even given the mountainous landscape of the region with its many rarefied peaks. But even if it never existed in reality, Aeschylus — or some other, anonymous earlier Greek who created the legend before him — deserves a great deal of credit for imagining that such a thing might exist.

Others after Aeschylus refined the idea further, into something that would function over shorter distances in places without mountain peaks in useful proximity to one another, something that might be used to send a message at least slightly more complicated than word of a war won. During the Second Punic War of the late second century BC, both Rome and its enemy Carthage are believed to have built networks of signal towers for purposes of battlefield communication. Very simple messages — signals to attack or withdraw, etc. — could be passed from tower to tower by waving torches in distinctive patterns. Many more short-range optical-signal systems followed: the Chinese used fireworks on their border walls to raise the alarm if one section was attacked by the “barbarians” on the other side; harbors raised flags to inform ships of the height and movement of the tides.

But all such systems were sharply limited in the types of information they could transmit and the distances over which they could send it. On any broader, more flexible scale, the speed of communication was still the same as that of messengers on horseback, or of sailors in ships at the mercy of the wind and waves. The impact this had on commerce, on diplomacy, and on warfare is difficult for us children of the mass-media age to appreciate; there are repeated instance in history of such follies as bloody battles fought after the wars that spawned them had already ended, because word of the ceasefire couldn’t be gotten to the front lines in time. The people of the past, for their part, had equally little conception of any alternative speed of communication; for them, the weeks that were required to, say, get a message from the Americas to Europe were as natural as a transatlantic telephone call is to us.

Claude Chappe

But in 1789, one Claude Chappe, a French seminary student whose studies had been interrupted by his country’s political revolution, began to envision something else. He became obsessed with the idea of a fast long-range communications network that could transmit messages as arbitrary as the content of any given written letter. He first thought of using electricity, a phenomenon which scientists and inventors were just starting to consider how to turn to practical purposes. But it was still a dangerous, untamed beast at this juncture, and Chappe quickly — and probably wisely — set it aside. Next he turned to sound. He and his four brothers discovered that a cast-iron pot could be heard up to a quarter of a mile away if hit hard enough with a steel mallet. Thus by beating out patterns they could pass messages across reasonably long distances, a quarter-mile at a time. But the method had some obvious problems: its range was highly dependent on the vagaries of wind and weather, and the brothers’ experiments certainly didn’t make them very popular with their neighbors. So, Chappe went back to the drawing board again — went back, in fact, to the ancient solution of optical signalling.

After much experimentation, he arrived at a system based on semaphores mounted atop towers. Each semaphore consisted of three separate, jointed pieces which could be positioned in multiple ways, enough so that there were fully 98 possible distinct configurations of the apparatus as a whole. Six of the configurations were reserved for special purposes, the equivalent of what a digital-network engineer would call “control blocks”: stop and start signals, requests for re-transmission, etc. The other 92 stood for numbers. Chappe provided a code dictionary consisting of 8464 words, divided into 92 pages of 92 words each. The transmission of each word was a two-step procedure: first a number pointing to the page, then another pointing to the word on that page. The system even boasted a form of error correction: since the operator of the next tower in the chain would need to configure his semaphores to match those of the tower before his in order to transmit the message further, the operator in the previous tower got a chance to confirm that his message had been received correctly, and was expected to send a hasty “Belay that!” signal in the case of a mistake.

A contemporary sketch of Chappe’s semaphore system.

Optical engineering had by now progressed to the point that Chappe’s towers could be placed much farther apart than any of the signal towers of old, for they could now be viewed through a telescope rather than with the naked eye. Chappe envisioned a vast network of towers, separated from one another by 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) depending on the terrain, the whole extending across the country of France or even eventually across the whole continent of Europe.

The system was labor-intensive, requiring as it did a pair of attendants in every tower. It was also slow — at best, it was good for about one word per minute — and at the mercy of the hours of daylight and to some extent the weather. But when the conditions were right it worked. Appropriately given how the germ of the concept stemmed from Aeschylus, Chappe turned to Greek for a name for his invention. He first wanted to call it the tachygraphe, combining two Greek cognates meaning “fast” and “writing.” But a friend in the government suggested télégraphe — “distant writing” — instead.

Living in revolutionary times tends to bring challenges along with benefits: Chappe and his brothers had to run for their lives during at least one of their tests, when a mob decided they must be Royalist sympathizers passing secret messages of sedition. On the other hand, the new leaders of France were as eager as any have ever been to throw out the old ways of doing things and to embrace modernity in all its aspects. Some of the innovations they enacted, such as the metric system of measurement, have remained with us to this day; others, such as a new calendar that used ten-day weeks (Revolutionary France had a positive mania for decimals), would prove less enduring. Chappe’s telegraph would fall somewhere in between the two extremes, adding a word and an idea to our culture that would long outlive this first practical implementation of it.

On July 26, 1793, following a series of proof-of-concept demonstrations, the National Convention gave Claude Chappe the title of “Telegraph Engineer” in the Committee of Public Safety. And so, while other branches of the same Committee were carrying out the Reign of Terror with the assistance of Madame la Guillotine, Chappe was building a chain of signal towers stretching from Lille to Paris; the terminus in the capital stood on the dome of the Louvre Palace, newly re-purposed as a public art museum.

On August 15, 1794, shortly after the telegraph went officially into service, it brought news of a major French victory in the war with the old, conservative order of Europe that was going on on the country’s northern border. A National Convention delegate named Lazare Carnot ascended to the podium in the Salles des Machines in Paris. “Quesnoy is restored to the Republic,” he read out from the scrap of paper in his hands. “Its surrender took place at six o’clock this morning.” A wave of jubilation swept the hall, prompted not only by the military victory thus reported but by the timeliness with which the news had arrived, which seemed an equally potent validation of the whole forward-looking revolutionary project. A delegate to the Convention named Joseph Lakanal summed up the mood: “What brilliant destiny do science and the arts not reserve to a republic which, by the genius of its inhabitants, is called to instruct the nations of Europe!”

In the end, the republic in question had a shorter career than Lakanal might have hoped for it, but Chappe’s telegraph survived its demise. By the time Napoleon seized power from the corrupt and dysfunctional remnants of the Revolution in 1799, most of France had been bound together in a web of towers and semaphores. Napoleon supported the construction of many more stations as part of his mission to make France the world’s unrivaled leader in science and technology. But Chappe found himself increasingly sidelined by the French bureaucracy, even as he apparently suffered from a debilitating bladder disease. On January 25, 1805, at the age of 42, he either cut his own throat while standing beneath a telegraph tower on the Rue de Saint Germain in Paris, or deliberately threw himself into a well, or stumbled accidentally into one. (Reports of the death of Claude Chappe, like many of those pertaining to his life, are confused and contradictory, a byproduct of the chaotic times in which he lived.)

This statue of Claude Chappe used to stand in central Paris on the site where some say he committed suicide, just next to one of his preserved telegraph towers. It was removed and melted down by the Nazis during World War II.

His optical telegraph would live on for another half-century after him, growing to fully 556 towers, concentrated in France but stretching as far as Amsterdam, Brussels, Mainz, Milan, Turin, and Venice. According to folk history, it was used for the last time in 1855, to bring news of the victory of France and its allies in the siege of Sevastopol — a fitting bookend for a system which had announced its arrival with word of another military victory more than 60 years before.

Remnants of Chappe’s telegraph network can still be seen in many places in France. This semaphore tower stands in the commune of Saverne in the northeastern part of the country.


One morning he made him a slender wire,
As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire
That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.
“We are one!” said the nations, and hand met hand,
In a thrill electric from land to land.

— “The Victory,” written anonymously in honor of Samuel Morse upon his death in 1872

This photograph of Samuel Morse was taken in 1840, in the midst of his struggle to interest the world in his electric telegraph.

In 1824,  a 33-year-old American painter named Samuel Morse traveled to Washington, D.C. An artist of real talent with a not unimpressive track record — he had once been commissioned to paint President James Monroe — he had previously been in the habit of prioritizing his muse over his earnings. But now he was determined to change that: he went to the capital in the hope of becoming one of a small circle of painters who earned a steady living by making flattering official portraits of prominent men.

On February 10, 1825, Morse sent a letter back home to his wife in New Haven, Connecticut, with some exciting news: he had won a lucrative contract to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, a famous hero of both the American and French Revolutions. But his wife never got to read the letter: she had died on February 7. The day after Morse had posted his missive, word of her death finally reached him. He immediately left for home, but by the time he arrived she had already been buried. The episode was a painful lesson in the shortcomings of current communications methods in the United States, a country which had not embraced even the optical telegraph.

In addition to his more well-known accomplishments as an inventor, Samuel Morse was a painter of no small talent and not inconsiderable importance. He painted his rather magnificent Grand Gallery of the Louvre on his trip to Europe of 1829 to 1832.

Seven years later, Morse found himself aboard a packet ship called the Sully, returning to his homeland from France after an extended sojourn in Europe during which he had combined the profitable business of making miniature copies of European masterpieces with the more artistically satisfying one of trying to create new masterpieces of his own. One of his fellow passengers enjoyed dabbling with electricity, and showed him a battery and some other toys he had brought onboard. Morse was not, as is sometimes claimed, a complete neophyte to the wonders of electricity at this point; a man of astonishingly diverse interests and aptitudes, he had attended a series of lectures on the subject a few years earlier, and had even befriended the instructor. Nevertheless, he clearly had a eureka moment aboard the Sully. “It occurred to me,” he would later write, “that by means of electricity, signs representing figures, letters, or words might be legibly written down [emphasis original] at any distance.” He chattered almost manically about it to anyone who would listen throughout the four-week passage home. His brother Sidney, who met him at the dock upon the Sully‘s arrival in New York City, would later recall that he was still “full of the subject of the [electric] telegraph during the walk from the ship, and for some days afterward could scarcely speak about anything else.”

His surprise and excitement at the thought were in some ways a measure of his ignorance: the idea of an electric telegraph that would not be subject to all of the multitudinous drawbacks of optical systems was practically old hat by now in engineering and invention circles. Still, no one had ever quite managed to get one to work well enough to be useful. This may strike us as odd today; as Tom Standage has noted in his book The Victorian Internet, any clever child of today can construct a working one-way electric telegraph in the course of an afternoon. All you need is a length of wire, a breaker switch, an electric lamp of some sort, and a battery. Run the wire between the breaker switch and the lamp, connect the whole circuit to the battery, and you can sit at one end of the wire making the bulb at the other end flash on and off to your heart’s content. All that’s left to do is to decide upon some sort of code to give meaning to the flashes.

But for electrical experimenters at the turn of the nineteenth century, the devil was in the details. One serious problem was that of detecting the presence or absence of electric current at all, many decades before reasonably reliable incandescent light bulbs became available. By 1800, it had been discovered that immersing the end of a live wire into water would generate telltale bubbles; we now understand that these are the result of a process known as electrolysis, in which an electric current breaks water molecules down into their component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Experiments were conducted which attempted to apply this phenomenon to telegraphy, but it was difficult, to say the least, to read a coherent message from bubbles floating in a pot of water.

A breakthrough came in 1820, when a Danish scientist named Hans Christian Ørsted discovered that electric current pulls the needle of a compass toward itself. Electricity, in other words, generates its own magnetic field. By winding together a coil of wire, one can make an electromagnet, which affects a compass or anything else containing ferromagnetic materials just like an ordinary magnet, with one important difference: this magnet functions only when electric current is flowing through the coil. The implications for telegraphy were enormous: an electromagnet should finally make it possible to instantly and precisely detect the presence or absence of current in a wire.

But there was still another problem: it didn’t seem to be possible to transmit currents over really long wires. Over such distances as those which separated two typical towers in Claude Chappe’s optical-telegraph system — much less that which separated, say, Lille from Paris — the signal just seemed to peter out and disappear. In 1825, a Briton named Peter Barlow, one of the eminent mathematical and scientific luminaries of his day, conducted a series of experiments to determine the scale of the problem. His conclusions gave little room for optimism. A current’s strength on a wire, he wrote, was inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the battery that had spawned it. As for the telegraph: “I found such a sensible diminution with only 200 feet [60 meters] of wire as at once to convince me of the impracticality of the scheme.”

Luckily for the world, not everyone was ready to defer to Barlow’s reputation. An American named Joseph Henry, a teacher of teenage boys at The Albany Academy in New York who was possessed at the time of neither a university degree nor an international reputation, conducted experiments of his own, and found that Barlow had been mistaken in one of his key conclusions: he found that the strength of a current was inversely proportional to its distance from the battery, full stop — i.e., not from the distance squared. In the course of further experimenting, Henry discovered that higher voltages lost proportionally even less of their strength over distance than weaker ones. Fortunately, the state of the art in batteries was steadily improving. Henry found that a cutting-edge 25-cell battery had enough “projectile force” to push a current a fairly long distance; it was able to ring a bell at the end of a wire more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) long. He published his findings in 1831, while a blissfully unaware Samuel Morse was painting pictures in Europe. But the world of science and invention did take notice; suddenly a workable electric telegraph seemed like a practical possibility once again.

Meanwhile Morse spent the years after his eureka moment aboard the Sully as busily and diversely as ever: teaching art at New York University, teaching private pupils how to paint, painting more pictures of his own, serving on the American Academy of Fine Arts, writing feverish anti-Catholic screeds, even running for mayor of New York City under the auspices of the anti-immigration Native American Democratic Association. (Like too many men of his era, Morse was a thoroughgoing racist and bigot in addition to his more positive qualities.) In light of all this activity, it would be a stretch to say he was consistently consumed with the possibility of an electric telegraph, but he clearly did tinker with the project intermittently, and may very well have followed the latest advancements in the field of electrical transmission closely as part of his interest.

But while people like Joseph Henry were asking whether and how an electrical signal might be sent over a long distance in the abstract, Morse was asking how an electric telegraph might actually function as a tool. How could you get messages into it, and how could you get them out of it?

Morse’s first solution to the problem of sending a message is a classic example of how old paradigms of thought can be hard to escape when inventing brand-new technology. He designed his electric telegraph to work essentially like a long-distance printing press. The operator arranged along a groove cut into a three-foot (1-meter) beam of wood small pieces of metal “movable type,” each having from one to ten teeth cut into it to represent a single-digit number; ten teeth meant zero. He then slotted the beam into a sending apparatus Morse called a “port-rule,” attached to one end of the telegraph wire. The operator turned a hand crank on the port-rule’s side to move the beam through the contraption. As he did so, the teeth on the metal type caused a breaker connected to the telegraph wire to close and open, producing a pattern of electrical pulses.

Morse’s movable type. We see here two pieces representing the number two, and one representing each of three, four, and five.

The whole port-rule apparatus.

At the other end of the wire was an electromagnet, to which was mounted a pencil on the end of a spring-loaded arm made from a ferromagnetic metal. The nib of the pencil rested on a band of paper, which could be set in motion by means of a clockwork mechanism driven by a counterweight. When a message came down the wire, the electrical pulses caused the electromagnet to switch on and off, pulling the pencil up and down as the paper scrolled beneath it. The resulting pattern on the paper could then be translated into a series of digits, which could then be further decoded into readable text using a code dictionary not dissimilar to the one employed by Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph.

Morse’s receiving mechanism, which he called the “register.”

It was all quite fiddly and complicated, but by 1837 — i.e., fully five years after Morse’s eureka moment — it more or less worked on a good day. Range was his biggest problem; not having access to the cutting-edge batteries that were available to Joseph Henry, Morse found that his first versions of his telegraph could only transmit a message 40 feet (12 meters). Pondering this, he came up with a rather brilliant stopgap solution, in the form of what is now called a “repeater”: an additional battery partway down the wire, activated by an electromagnet that responded to the current coming down the prior section of wire. “By the same operation the same results may again be repeated,” Morse wrote in his patent application, “extending and breaking at pleasure such current through yet another and another circuit, ad infinitum.” If you had enough batteries and electromagnets, in other words, you could extend the telegraph to a theoretically infinite length.

With his invention looking more and more promising, Morse befriended a younger man named Alfred Vail, the scion of a wealthy family with many industrial and political connections. Vail became an important collaborator in ironing out the design of the telegraph, while his family signed on as backers, giving Morse access to much more advanced batteries among other benefits. In January of 1838, he sent a “pretty full letter” down a wire 10 miles (16 kilometers) long. “The success is complete,” he exalted.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to rest it, and I will move the world,” the ancient engineer Archimedes had once (apocryphally) said. Now, Morse paraphrased him with an aphorism of his own: “If [the signal] will go ten miles without stopping, I can make it go around the globe.”

One month after their ten-mile success, Morse and Alfred Vail traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the telegraph to members of Congress and even to President Martin Van Buren himself. The demonstration was not a success; it’s doubtful whether most of the audience, the president among them, really understood what they were being shown at all. This was not least because Morse was forced to set up his sending and receiving stations right next to one another in the same room, then to try to explain that the unruly tangle of wire lying piled up between them meant that they could just as well have been ten miles apart. As it was, his telegraph looked like little more than a pointless parlor trick to busy men who believed they had more important things to worry about.

So, Morse decided to try his luck in Europe. Upon arriving there, he learned to his discomfiture that various Europeans were already working on the same project he was. In particular, a pair of Britons named William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, building upon the ideas and experiments of a Russian nobleman named Pavel Lvovitch Schilling, had made considerable progress on a system which transmitted signals over a set of ten wires to a set of five needles, causing them to tilt in different directions and thereby to signify different letters of the alphabet.

Morse pointed out to anyone who would listen that this system’s need for so many wires made it far more complicated, expensive, and delicate than his own system, which required just one.Yet few of the Europeans Morse met showed much interest in yet another electric-telegraph project, much less one from the other side of the Atlantic. He grew almost frantic with worry that one of the European projects would pan out before he could get his own telegraph into service. Against all rhyme and reason, he began claiming that Cooke and Wheatstone had stolen from him the very idea for an electric telegraph; it had, he said, probably reached them through one of the other passengers who had sailed on the Sully back in 1832. This was of course absurd on the face of it; the idea of an electric telegraph in the broad strokes had been batted about for decades by that point. Morse’s invention was a practical innovation, not a conceptual one. Yet he heatedly insisted that he alone was the father of the electric telegraph in every sense. Europeans didn’t hesitate to express their own opinion to the contrary. The argument quickly got personal. One French author, for example, took exception with Morse’s habit of calling himself a “professor.” “It may be well to state here,” he sniffed, “that he [is] merely professor of literature and drawing, by an honorary title conferred upon him by the University of New York.”

Morse returned to the United States in early 1839 a very angry man. He now enlisted the nativist American press in his cause. “The electric telegraph, that wonder of our time, is an American discovery,” wrote one broadsheet. “Professor Morse invented it immediately after his return from France to America.” To back up his claim of being the victim of intellectual theft, Morse even tracked down the Sully‘s captain and got him to testify that Morse had indeed spoken of his stroke of genius freely to everyone onboard.

But even Morse had to recognize eventually that such pettiness availed him little. There came a point, not that long after his return to American shores, when he seemed ready to give up on his telegraph and all the bickering that had come to surround it in favor of a new passion. While visiting Paris, he had seen some of the first photographs taken by Louis Daguerre, had even visited the artist and inventor personally in his studio. He had brought one of Daguerre’s cameras back with him, and now, indefatigable as ever, he set up his own little studio; the erstwhile portrait painter became New York City’s first portrait photographer, as well as a teacher of the new art form. His knack for rubbing shoulder with Important Men of History hadn’t deserted him: among his students was one Mathew Brady, whose images of death and destruction from the battlefields of the American Civil War would later bring home the real horrors of war to civilians all over the world for the first time. Morse also plunged back into reactionary politics with a passion; he ran again, still unsuccessfully, for mayor of New York on an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic, pro-slavery platform.

So, Morse might have retired quietly from telegraphy, if not for an insult which he simply couldn’t endure. Over in Britain, Cooke and Wheatstone had been making somewhat more headway. They had found that the men behind the new railroads that were then being built showed some interest in their telegraph as a means of keeping tabs on the progress of trains and avoiding that ultimate disaster of a collision. In 1839, Cooke and Wheatstone installed the first electric telegraph ever to be put into everyday service, connecting the 13 miles (21 kilometers) that separated Paddington from West Drayton along Britain’s Great Western Railway. Several more were installed over the next few years on other densely trafficked stretches. One story has it that, when three of the five indicator needles on the complex system conked out on one of the lines, the operators in the stations improvised a code for passing all the information they needed to using only the remaining two needles. The lesson thus imparted would only slowly dawn on our would-be electric-telegraph entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic: that both of their systems were actually more complicated than they needed to be, that a simpler system would be cheaper and more reliable while still doing everything it needed to.

But first, the insult: flush with their relative success, Cooke and Wheatstone wrote to Morse in early 1842 to ask whether, in light of all his experience with electric telegraphy in general, he might be interested in peddling their system to the railroads in his country — in becoming, in other words, a mere salesman for their telegraph. It may have been intended as an honest conciliatory overture, a straightforward attempt to bury the hatchet. But that wasn’t how Morse took it. Livid at this affront to his inventor’s pride, he jumped back into the telegraphy game with a vengeance; he soon extended his system’s maximum range to 33 miles (53 kilometers).

He wrote a deferential letter to Joseph Henry, whose experiments had by now won him a position on the faculty of Princeton University and the reputation of the leading authority in the country on long-distance applications of electricity. Morse knew that, if he could get Henry to throw his weight behind his telegraph, it might make all the difference. “Have you met with any facts in your experiments thus far that would lead you to think that my mode of telegraphic communication will prove impracticable?” he asked in his letter. Not only did Henry reply in the negative, but he invited Morse up to Princeton to talk in person. This was, needless to say, exactly what Morse had been hoping for. Henry agreed to support Morse’s telegraph, even to publicly declare it to be a better design than its competitor from Britain.

Thus Henry was in attendance when Morse exhibited his telegraph in New York City in the summer of 1842, garnering for it the first serious publicity it had received in a couple of years. Morse continued beavering away at it, adding an important new feature: a sending and receiving station at each end of the same wire, to turn his telegraph into an effortless two-way communications medium. The British system, by contrast, required no fewer than twenty separate wires to accomplish the same thing. In December of 1842, the growing buzz won Morse another hearing in Washington, D.C. Knowing that this was almost certainly his last chance to secure government funding, he lobbied for and got access to two separate audience halls. He installed one station in each, and he and Alfred Vail then mediated a real-time conversation between two separate groups of politicians and bureaucrats who could neither see nor hear one another.

This added bit of showmanship seemed to do the trick; at last some of those assembled seemed to grasp the potential of what they were seeing. A bill was introduced to allocate $30,000 to the construction of a trial line connecting Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles (65 kilometers). On February 23, 1843, it passed the House by a vote of 89 to 83, with 70 abstainers. On March 3, the Senate passed it unanimously as a final piece of business in the literal last minute of the current term, and President John Tyler signed it. More than a decade after the idea had come to him aboard the Sully, Morse finally had his chance to prove to the world how useful his telegraph could be.

He had no small task before him: no one in the country had ever attempted to run a permanent electrical cable over a distance of 40 miles before. Morse asked the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company for permission to use their right-of-way between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. They agreed, in return for free use of the telegraph, thus further cementing a connection between railroads and telegraphs that would persist for many years.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start. A plan to lay the cable underground, encased within custom-manufactured lead pipe, went horribly awry when the latter proved to be defective. The team had to pull it all up again, whereupon Morse decided to string the cable along on poles instead, where it would be more exposed to the elements and to vandals but also much more accessible to repair crews; thus was born the ubiquitous telegraph — later telephone — pole.

This experience may have taught Morse something of the virtues of robust simplicity. At any rate, it was during the construction of the Washington-to-Baltimore line that he finally abandoned his complicated electrical printing press in favor of a sending apparatus that was about as simplistic as it could be. It was apparently Alfred Vail rather than Morse himself who was primarily responsible for designing what would be immortalized as the “Morse key”: a single switch which the operator could use to close and open the circuit breaker manually. The receiving station, on the other hand, remained largely unchanged: a pencil or pen made marks on a paper tape turning beneath it.

The Morse key. For well over a century the principal tool and symbol of the telegraph operator’s trade, it was actually a last-minute modification of a more ambitious design.

To facilitate communication using such a crude tool, Morse and Vail created the first draft of the system that would be known forevermore as Morse code. After being further refined and simplified by the German Friedrich Clemens Gerke in 1848, Morse code became the first widely used binary communications standard, the ancestor of later computer protocols like ASCII. In lieu of the zeroes and ones of the computer age, it encoded every letter and digit as a series of dots and dashes, which the operator at the sending end produced on the roll of paper at the other end of the line by pressing and releasing the Morse key quickly (in the case of a dot) or pressing and holding it for a somewhat longer time (in the case of a dash). The system demanded training and practice, not to mention significant manual dexterity, and was far from entirely foolproof even with a seasoned operator on each end of the line. Nonetheless, plenty of people would get very, very good at it, would learn practically to think in Morse code and to transcribe any text into dots and dashes almost as fast as you or I might type it on a computer keyboard. And they would learn to turn a received sequence back into characters on the page with equal facility. The electromagnet attached to the stylus on the receiving end gave out a distinct whine when it was engaged; thanks to this, operators would soon learn to translate messages by ear alone in real time. The sublime ballet of a telegraph line being operated well would become a pleasure to watch, in that way it is always wonderful to watch competent people who take pride in their skilled work going about it.

On May 24, 1844, the Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line was officially opened for business. Before an audience of journalists, politicians, and other luminaries, Morse himself tapped out the first message in, of all places, the chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States. At the other end of the line in Baltimore, Alfred Vail decoded it before an audience of his own. “What hath God wrought?” it read, a phrase from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers.

For our purposes, a perhaps more appropriate question might be, “What hath the telegraph wrought?” Thanks to Samuel Morse and his fellow travelers, the first stepping stone toward a World Wide Web had fallen into place.

(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton; The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage; From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman; The Greek Plays edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm; Les Télégraphes by A.L. Ternant, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, and Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. And the paper “The Telegraph of Claude Chappe: An Optical Communications Network for the XVIIIth Century” by J.M. Dilhac.)

 
 

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