Do you know what that sound is? Maybe you’ve heard it in a movie somewhere, but it’s not a sound you hear much anymore. It probably sounds like a lot of random beeping, but to a telegraph operator, those dits and dahs sounded like letters and numbers strung together into messages. Telegraph was the first communication system that let people miles away from each other communicate almost instantaneously. Electrical signals were transmitted over wires using a special code called Morse code, after Samuel Morse, who invented both the code and the telegraph.
Starting in the 1830s, the telegraph connected vast areas of land using wires, making it possible for important news and information to travel thousands of miles in a flash. These wires were installed above ground, much like many electrical wires today. But a few people thought we could do even better. They thought it might be possible to lay telegraph cables under the Atlantic Ocean, allowing people in North America to communicate with Europe in the same instantaneous way for the first time. This is known as transatlantic communication.
Cyrus Field, an American businessman in the 1850s, was one of these people. He had more confidence than know-how, but sometimes that kind of personality is helpful when you’re doing something no one has ever tried before. This would be a huge leap forward for communication. Without telegraphy, the only way people could communicate between America and England or Europe was by sending letters. Steamships took at least 10 days to carry a letter over the Atlantic. Usually, it took several days longer as the letter was transferred to a destination farther from the port.
A few underwater telegraph cables had been laid over shorter distances, but crossing the Atlantic was a huge task. Field planned to lay his cable between the island of Newfoundland, in northeastern Canada, and Ireland. Even though this was one of the shortest routes across the Atlantic, it would require a cable nearly 2,000 miles long. No one quite knew how well the telegraph signal would work over such a long distance.
Of course, Field didn’t try to do this project alone. He asked experts on telegraphs and electricity to help him. He consulted with Samuel Morse and hired William Thomson, a well-known scientist, to advise him on the project. He also hired Wildman Whitehouse as the project’s chief electrician. Whitehouse had started out as a surgeon but taught himself about electricity as an adult.
Thomson and Whitehouse clashed from the very beginning. Thomson thought that, because of how long the cable would be, it would need to be thicker than existing telegraph cables used on land. Whitehouse, along with the project’s engineer, thought a thinner cable would work. The thinner cable was already being made, and Field decided to go with Whitehouse’s recommendation.
In the summer of 1857, the cable was ready. Field decided it was time to lay it on the bottom of the ocean. The United States and Great Britain had each loaned a ship to help with the job. Weighing over 200 thousand pounds, the cable was too heavy for one ship to carry! Unfortunately, the cable snapped not long into the journey. They would have to make more. It would not be the last setback the project faced.
But Cyrus Field was determined. The next summer, 1858, they tried again. And again. And again. The first two attempts of that summer were scuttled due to a major storm and another snapped cable. But finally, on the third attempt, the two ships managed to lay the 2 thousand miles of cable!
The project team sent test messages across the Atlantic. Queen Victoria sent a telegram congratulating President Buchanan of the United States. People on both sides of the Atlantic celebrated.
But the celebrations didn’t last long. The messages were hard to decipher and took a very long time to send. Queen Victoria’s short note took 16 hours to send. Hardly instant messaging! It turned out Thomson was right: They needed a thicker cable because of the longer distance. It was only a few weeks before the cable stopped working completely. They would have to start all over.
But Cyrus Field got right back to work. This time, his team designed a new, thicker cable, and spent several years preparing for another attempt. Success finally came in the summer of 1866: the new cable was laid and it worked! By 1940, 40 telegraph cables lay beneath the Atlantic, but by this time, new technologies were starting to replace the telegraph.
One of the first people to think that radio might be used for communication was Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi was born into a noble Italian family, but when Marconi was born was just as important as where, or who his parents were. He was born in 1874. A scientist named Heinrich Hertz discovered radio waves in the late 1880s–just in time for a teenage Marconi to learn about them and become obsessed!
In the attic of his family home, he began building radio transmitters, which send signals, and antennas, which receive them. At first, Marconi was only able to send radio signals about half a mile. But with improvements to his equipment, he found he could send signals over many miles. He called his system wireless telegraphy since it transmitted Morse code like traditional telegraphy.
Marconi went to England to look for people to help fund his work. Soon the British government was using wireless telegraphy to allow ships to communicate with lighthouses onshore. They also gave Marconi money to continue his experiments, and he began working on ways to send his radio signals even further. Wanting to find out just how powerful his transmitter was, Marconi took his experiment to sea in 1903. He got on a boat headed to North America and told his assistants to signal from his transmitter in England at regular times every day while he was gone. He listened for the signals from the ship as it moved a little farther away each day. The signal carried over 2100 miles!
The signal wasn’t quite good enough for everyday transatlantic communication, but it was an amazing accomplishment. Marconi did arrange for US President Theodore Roosevelt to send a radio telegram to King Edward of England. This was the first radio signal to travel all the way across the Atlantic.
Marconi was a visionary when it came to radio, but you probably think of radio as something you listen to music or news on—sounds that are easier for everyday people to listen to than the dits and dahs of morse code. You can thank a Canadian inventor, Regionald Fessenden, for that kind of radio. Fessenden was starting to experiment with radio around the same time as Marconi, in the early 1900s. He wanted to use radio to send the human voice across long distances.
To accomplish his goal, Fessenden developed a different type of radio transmitter that could send longer signals than Marconi’s. Marconi’s transmitter used bursts of radio waves that died out quickly. That was fine for morse code “dits” and “dahs”, but for music or voices, a longer-lasting signal would be needed. Fessenden designed a transmitter for sending such a longer-lasting signal, called a “continuous wave.”
By 1906, Fessenden and his team had set up his transmitter in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, and an antenna to receive the signals in Scotland. They already knew that two people could talk on the new radio system over a few miles, and in the Fall of that year, they got a surprise. An operator in Brant Rock was talking with an operator in Plymouth, Massachusetts, around midnight. Amazingly though, an operator in the Scotland station heard his voice, clear as a bell, all the way across the Atlantic!
Unfortunately, a storm destroyed the Scotland antenna about a month later. Fessenden’s unintentional experiments on transatlantic voice radio communication quickly came to an end. But Fessenden continued to work on continuous wave radio. On Christmas Eve of 1908, he broadcast the first-ever entertainment program on radio. Fessenden was heard playing the violin and singing Christmas carols. Ships all along the Atlantic coast picked up the broadcast!
Others built on Fessenden’s pioneering technology to develop radiotelephone systems. In 1927, the American Telephone and Telegraph company (you might know them as AT&T) set up the first transatlantic radio phone system. The service was open to anyone–or rather, anyone who could pay. It was very expensive to make these transatlantic phone calls at first: $45 for a 3-minute call! And the quality was not great: weather often interfered with the signal. Still, radiophone service expanded in the 1920s and ‘30s to connect North America with Europe, Hawaii, and Tokyo.
By the 1950s though, new technology made it possible to lay telephone cables under the Atlantic, just as telegraph cables had been laid over the previous 100 years. The first Transatlantic telephone cables, called TAT-1, were laid over the summer of 1955 and ‘56. In September of 1956, the cables began operating. Hundreds of calls were made within the first 24 hours! Telephone cable was laid under the Pacific a few years later, and more telephone cables were laid under the Atlantic over the next 30 years.
The next big leap forward came with TAT-8 though. TAT-8, laid in 1988, was the first fiber optic cable to span the Atlantic. Fiber optic cable can transmit phone calls, but also internet and other data. It quickly became clear that more fiber optic cable would be needed to deal with the growing demand for phone calls and the internet.
Fiber optic cables also faced another challenge: sharks. TAT-8 was attacked by sharks, causing outages and service disruptions, not to mention electrocuting the sharks. Five more transatlantic fiber optic cables were installed in the nineties to keep up with the demand. They also included shark shielding!
Today, hundreds of cables criss-cross oceans all over the world, connecting almost every corner of the globe. They allow us to communicate in all sorts of ways, from phone calls to live streams to email and so many things in between. We’ve come a long way since the dits and dahs of morse code made their way across telegraph lines under the Atlantic, but we couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without the efforts, missteps, and vision of those early pioneers. Even if you don’t make a lot of transoceanic phone calls, you use these cables for browsing the internet. Those underwater cables make it possible to send or receive information whenever you want, instantaneously. Much better than waiting weeks or months for a message!
Hunt, B. (2021). Wildman Whitehouse, William Thomson, and the First Atlantic Cable. In Imperial Science: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire (Science in History, pp. 37-96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108902700.003