Congratulations to Alison (agboss) who won Susanne Dietze's The Reluctant Guardian!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Cable Guys ... of history

some history stuff by Debra E. Marvin - who learned to type on a manual typewriter
 and is a better person for it.

On October 21, 1915, the first transatlantic radio voice message was made by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company from Virginia to Paris. Sure, it was scratchy and the receiver wasn’t quite sure what was said until the telegraphed confirmation arrived, but the idea that a voice message (a phone call) could travel under the Atlantic must have quite amazing!

But this is the middle of the story. Authors of historical fiction must have some strange interest in the obscure because we have to like research and have the patience to go digging. Another challenge is not to go too far afield. Bunny trails waste a lot of time.  But in the guise of needing a history post, I chased down something that has always confused me. When did communication between Europe and the U.S supercede shipboard messages, and how?

Let’s go back to my cousin, Samuel F. B. Morse, (kidding... sort of ), a successful landscape and portrait painter for multiple decades in the early 19th century. While away from home, he received a letter telling him his wife was ill. He rushed home (it took him a few days) and arrived too late. Fraught with this loss, he determined to put art aside and work on more rapid long distance communication.
This is NOT Samuel Morse but his portrait of President John Adams

He wasn’t the only one, but in 1832, Morse tried out his first telegraph. It was a system of using electrical charges sent along a wire. It worked. Eventually Morse won the patent on the system and it became widely used and successful. The telegraph system flourished as a means of communication, once the operators got used to Morse’s system of dots and dashes.
A telegraph machine
By the 1840s, the idea 'surfaced' to try and run telegraph line under water using some kind of cable system. I always thought electricity and water didn’t mix, but someone figured this out and the first official  underwater cable was  run in 1850 between England and France.

Transatlantic communication at that time took ten days—the time it took the fastest ships to cross. Again, forward thinkers and entrepreneurs on both side of the ocean dreamed of the impossible. Running a cable between continents! The shortest route was from Ireland to Newfoundland, and in 1858, it was tested and worked. 

A map showing the first transAtlantic cable

To celebrate, Queen Victoria sent a telegram to President James Buchanon. 

She said: “The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work.”

President Buchanan replied:
“May the Atlantic Telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument designed by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.”

IF it was up to the telegraph operator it would been:

Jim - nice job! Victoria

Thank God it works!  Jim

The success was short lived. (A leak, do you suppose?) and within weeks, the system failed. New attempts to lay a successful cable continued until finally in 1866 a functioning transatlantic cable sent telegraphed messages again.  The race was on! Multiple “cable companies” from the U.S, France, Great Britain and Germany laid multiple cables to carry the load of information.

During those same years, the ‘telephone’ battles began. As far back as 1844  Mr. Antonio Meucci  started talking about a “speaking telegraph”. He wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t very good about applying for working patents either. Multiple men including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were also working on new ways to transmit sound, but Bell beat them to the patent office. Lawsuits continued for decades on this and improvements to the system as well.  In 1876, Bell had his first successful telephone call.

Around the turn of the century, (and about where my understanding of technology ends) Wireless –aka “The Marconi”  became the new standard.  Just like all our modern technology nowadays, I can’t figure out how it works. But Mr. Marconi did, and during the first decade of the 20th century WIRELESS transmission of the Morse Code replaced the telegraph line AND… meant ship to shore and ship to ship communication.

Jen –this is where you can say “Yes! The Titanic!”
 a MARCONI "Wireless" Machine

And here we arrive back at the middle of the story: Transatlantic Phone Calls, and where my post will end, because technology went a bit crazy after this.

If I can’t figure out how  Bell’s telephone worked, I’m not going anywhere near Radio, Television, and Wireless Internet  I'm still awed by watching movies on my Kindle!


  1. Really, i suppose I COULD learn how voices were carried by wire... if I wanted to. Might even figure out how television works. maybe not. Hey, if you're so smart, tell me how "bunny ears" picked up television signals.

  2. Interesting post Debra. I'm in awe of the scientific guys. My brain definitely doesn't work in that realm.

    Laughed good and long on the telegraph operator's version of congrats messages. Too true and too funny.

  3. Buchanon went out of his way to sound pious and clever, didn't he? I appreciate you reading it. It fascinates me to think of what limits people had on communication before the 20th century. Would a ship like the Titanic have sailed if there was no way to communicate? The wireless saved the lives of many!

    Consider that the War of 1812 had ended with a treaty in Ghent, Belgium yet hundreds of Brits died at the Battle of New Orleans weeks later! Possibly the most famous U.S. victory of the war was after the war ended.

  4. Cool post, Deb. I listened to a biography about Marconi. Interesting guy. Eccentric, but as so often happens, not particularly good at business despite his smarts. I still don't understand how the machines work either. And I'm content not knowing, just so long as they keep working when I need them!

    1. I believe they could have patented the idea and not waited for the final working model, but few did that.
      Thanks for hanging in while I cleared up my own confusion about the 'when's!

  5. Awesome post! My great-grandfather was a telephone guy, way back when telephones were scarce (can you imagine that these days?).
    Based on the picture of John Adams, I think Mr. Morse was wise to set aside his paintbrushes... eep.
    And, for the record, I learned to type on a manual typewriter, too. My dad has it in his shop/office. One of these days I'll dig it out and see if I can find new ribbon for it. It would be a major finger workout...

    1. He was actually pretty famous as a painter. I'm not sure if we can blame Morse or Adams on this one!
      I must have gotten rid of my typewriter at some point. My groovy Smith Corona portable in harvest gold. I must have been about 10 and I obsessively followed the Teach Yourself to Type book I got with it. I remember how much my little fingers hurt after awhile. Now, that I work on a computer all day and write the rest of the time (and don't forget the lost hours on the internet...) I expect I'd just plain NOT be on the keyboard if it mean using the manual. I miss the sound of it most of all.

      I'm sure you could find ribbon (at some outrageous price?)

  6. Fun post, Deb. I'm still befuddled by how a lot of technology works.

    Loved the congrats message. Loved yours, too!

  7. Deb, you're a marvel! Oh - pun not intended. I'm with you on the techno geek stuff and I appreciate you explaining it so eloquently.

    I have to admit that although I often fly and know it has to do with air currents, I'm in awe that planes actually fly.

    1. So glad we all have our own things to understand and do well. Inventors are an amazing breed.