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Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading List: A Thread Across the Ocean

Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. ISBN 978-0-06-052446-3.
There are inventions, and there are meta-inventions. Many things were invented in the 19th century which contributed to the wealth of the present-day developed world, but there were also concepts which emerged in that era of “anything is possible” ferment which cast even longer shadows. One of the most important is entrepreneurship—the ability of a visionary who sees beyond the horizon of the conventional wisdom to assemble the technical know-how, the financial capital, the managers and labourers to do the work, while keeping all of the balls in the air and fending off the horrific setbacks that any breakthrough technology will necessarily encounter as it matures.

Cyrus W. Field may not have been the first entrepreneur in the modern mold, but he was without doubt one of the greatest. Having started with almost no financial resources and then made his fortune in the manufacture of paper, he turned his attention to telegraphy. Why, in the mid-19th century, should news and information between the Old World and the New move only as fast as sailing ships could convey it, while the telegraph could flash information across continents in seconds? Why, indeed?—Field took a proposal to lay a submarine cable from Newfoundland to the United States to cut two days off the transatlantic latency of around two weeks to its logical limit: a cable across the entire Atlantic which could relay information in seconds, linking the continents together in a web of information which was, if low bandwidth, almost instantaneous compared to dispatches carried on ships.

Field knew next to nothing about electricity, manufacturing of insulated cables thousands of miles long, paying-out mechanisms to lay them on the seabed, or the navigational challenges in carrying a cable from one continent to another. But he was supremely confident that success in the endeavour would enrich those who accomplished it beyond their dreams of avarice, and persuasive in enlisting in the effort not only wealthy backers to pay the bills but also technological savants including Samuel F. B. Morse and William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), who invented the mirror galvanometer which made the submarine cable viable.

When you try to do something audacious which has never been attempted before, however great the promise, you shouldn't expect to succeed the first time, or the second, or the third…. Indeed, the history of transatlantic cable was one of frustration, dashed hopes, lost investments, derision in the popular press—until it worked. Then it was the wonder of the age. So it has been and shall always be with entrepreneurship.

Today, gigabytes per second flow beneath the oceans through the tubes. Unless you're in continental Eurasia, it's likely these bits reached you through one of them. It all had to start somewhere, and this is the chronicle of how that came to be. This may have been the first time it became evident there was a time value to information: that the news, financial quotes, and messages delivered in minutes instead of weeks were much more valuable than those which arrived long after the fact.

It is also interesting that the laying of the first successful transatlantic cable was almost entirely a British operation. While the American Cyrus Field was the promoter, almost all of the capital, the ships, the manufacture of the cable, and the scientific and engineering expertise in its production and deployment was British.

Posted at October 15, 2012 23:43