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The proto-internet

The early telegraph routes were strikingly similar to today’s internet pathways

Charlie McCann | July/August 2015

This is two maps masquerading as one. The map we see here was made in 1877 by the Eastern Telegraph Company, a British firm that was on the verge of creating the world’s first global communications network. The other map, its shadow, would not be created for another century, until the effects of research by the American Department of Defence had begun to unspool around the globe.

The telegraph system’s cables were as numerous as they were far-flung; they streamed west from Ireland to Newfoundland, and down the coasts of the Americas, festooning the New World in red. From Cornwall, they unfurled south to Gibraltar and Cape Town, and east to Suez, Aden, Bombay and then Hong Kong. By 1902, ships had crossed the 4,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean, laying cable that connected Vancouver to New Zealand.

The telegraph girdled the globe, whizzing messages from London to New York in a matter of minutes. The world was shrinking and, as Peter Cooper, an American who was one of the earliest backers of the transatlantic telegraph cable, wrote, its completion marked “the consummation of that great prophecy, that ‘knowledge shall cover the Earth, as the waters cover the deep’.”

This map, hung in some executive’s wood-panelled office, would have shown prospective clients exactly which company had mastered the art of trans-world communication. Today, a reprint hangs in the offices of TeleGeography, a data-driven market-research firm, in Washington, DC. It is TeleGeography’s business to know everything there is to know about the infrastructure of the internet, the offspring of that Defence Department research. The network of telegraph cables provided an early blueprint. “We’ve all seen that map a lot,” says Alan Mauldin, TeleGeography’s research director. “We use it in presentations. It’s a great way for us to make the point: ‘Look, here’s the cables that used to exist, the telegraph cables, and here are the current cables.’”

The lines he traces on the 1877 map and its current counterpart are notably similar, but what happens inside each set of cables is different. The old ones sent pulses of electricity through long copper cores; the new send pulses of light through strands of glass as fine as a human hair. But although the mechanics have changed with the times, the effect of each technology has been the same: to accelerate the speed at which we communicate. And where the telegraph cables were laid, over a century ago, the fibre-optic cables now follow. No matter when they were laid, “they go where the money is,” says John Liffen, curator of the Information Age exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

“You use the most number of cables to link the major population and business centres of the world,” Mauldin adds. Laying long-distance cable has always been expensive, so the routes chosen were as direct as possible, given the geography of the depths. “The seabed”, Liffen says, “is just as hilly as the land.”

The crews laying the first submarine cables in the 1850s and 1860s soon learned just how hilly. The first transatlantic cable snapped when it was inadvertently hung over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (which was only discovered 15 years later by a team of scientists who had been belatedly dispatched to map the best route). Deep-sea mountain ranges, icebergs and volcanoes get in the way. Anchors can be even more treacherous, so cables are kept away from shipping lanes.

This map of the internet is no longer spot-on. Since 1877, the circulatory system of communications has grown new arteries. TeleGeography’s current maps show far more activity in the East, with cables slinging from Japan to Singapore and many points in between. But old maps like this, which trace the highways where our messages travel, have a lesson: “Everybody thinks global technology is wireless,” says Mauldin. “But it’s only wireless to the nearest base station or cell-phone tower. The rest of the way, it’s happening at the physical level. There’s wire and cables that link back to all these massive servers.”

Satellites have hardly anything to do with it. Some 95% of international internet traffic travels not through the air, but below the waves. “The internet is not a cloud,” Mauldin says. “It’s under the ocean.” ~ Charlie McCann

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