The earliest text messaging technology @ 150 missives a day

The Cable
April 2, 2004

In 1865, it took 12 days for news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination to reach the readers of London's newspapers. When President James Garfield suffered the same fate 16 years later, the news reached the UK within a few hours, about a hundred times more quickly. This remarkable acceleration in communications was entirely due to the invention of the electric telegraph and the laying of the first transatlantic cable.

Soon after the first cable was laid in 1858, Queen Victoria sent a 98-word note to President James Buchanan, to which he replied only after his staff were convinced that the message was not a hoax. He described the event as a glorious triumph, "far more useful to mankind than was ever won by a conqueror on the field of battle". This reference was especially telling as the American government had been the first to realise the military significance of the technology and of the potential disaster if it fell into enemy hands in wartime.

The global network of electric telegraphy machines comprised the first internet, as Tom Standage describes in his entertaining and underrated book The Victorian Internet (1998). He points out that the hype attending today's internet is puny compared with the hysteria that followed the realisation that fast long-distance communication was possible. That development was a real technological revolution, to which today's web mania is arguably a footnote.

Gillian Cookson might be accused of hyperbole for subtitling her account of the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable The Wire that Changed the World . Yet this would be unfair - for once, the apparently over-the-top subtitle is justifiable. Cookson has a great story to tell, a rich brew of science, technology, economics and politics. It is fascinating to learn how many false starts and disappointments plagued the project. Even the celebratory exchange between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan was premature - the first cable connection proved unreliable and had to be abandoned, entailing a huge loss (£500,000), frightening off potential investors for several years.

The tide turned in 1862, and the project was completed three years later.

Soon, the American backers began to reap handsome rewards for their sagacity as the technology caught on, even though cable capacity was feeble by modern standards. Early estimates were that it could handle a mere 150 messages a day, at a whopping cost of £5 each.

Alas, Cookson makes little of this wonderful story. Although there are excellent photographs and illustrations, for the most part the book is a dreary read. There are many missed opportunities: in the course of the story we come across a host of great characters including Michael Faraday, who worked on the underlying science, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose gigantic Great Eastern ship belatedly found a profitable use in helping to set down the successful cable. Sadly, none of these figures is brought to life.

Cookson would have been wiser to have followed Standage's example in highlighting the story's contemporary context. She would have attracted more readers had she stressed that she was talking not only about a cable that changed the world, but also about the first internet's most crucial piece of wiring.

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow, Science Museum.

The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World

Author - Gillian Cookson
Publisher - Tempus
Pages - 622
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 7524 2366 5

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