Mother Earth Mother Board
The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide
and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of
the longest wire on Earth.
By Neal Stephenson
The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous
meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and
dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn
Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the
Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers
of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk; also,
biographical sketches of the two long-dead Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage
Lords of global telecommunications, and other material pertaining to
the business and technology of Undersea Fiber-Optic Cables, as well as
an account of the laying of the longest wire on Earth, which should not
be without interest to the readers of Wired.
Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been
popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the
information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways:
moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and
sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a
short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made.
Wires warp cyberspace in the same way wormholes warp physical space:
the two points at opposite ends of a wire are, for informational
purposes, the same point, even if they are on opposite sides of the
planet. The cyberspace-warping power of wires, therefore, changes the
geometry of the world of commerce and politics and ideas that we live
in. The financial districts of New York, London, and Tokyo, linked by
thousands of wires, are much closer to each other than, say, the Bronx
is to Manhattan.
Today this is all quite familiar, but in the 19th century, when the
first feeble bits struggled down the first undersea cable joining the
Old World to the New, it must have made people's hair stand up on end
in more than just the purely electrical sense - it must have seemed
supernatural. Perhaps this sort of feeling explains why when Samuel
Morse stretched a wire between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, the
first message he sent with his code was "What hath God wrought!" -
almost as if he needed to reassure himself and others that God, and not
the Devil, was behind it.
During the decades after Morse's "What hath God wrought!" a plethora of
different codes, signalling techniques, and sending and receiving
machines were patented. A web of wires was spun across every modern
city on the globe, and longer wires were strung between cities. Some of
the early technologies were, in retrospect, flaky: one early inventor
wanted to use 26-wire cables, one wire for each letter of the alphabet.
But it quickly became evident that it was best to keep the number of
individual wires as low as possible and find clever ways to fit more
information onto them.
This requires more ingenuity than you might think - wires have never
been perfectly transparent carriers of data; they have always degraded
the information put into them. In general, this gets worse as the wire
gets longer, and so as the early telegraph networks spanned greater
distances, the people building them had to edge away from the
seat-of-the-pants engineering practices that, applied in another field,
gave us so many boiler explosions, and toward the more scientific
approach that is the standard of practice today.
Still, telegraphy, like many other forms of engineering, retained a
certain barnyard, improvised quality until the Year of Our Lord 1858,
when the terrifyingly high financial stakes and shockingly formidable
technical challenges of the first transatlantic submarine cable brought
certain long-simmering conflicts to a rolling boil, incarnated the old
and new approaches in the persons of Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and
Professor William Thomson, respectively, and brought the conflict
between them into the highest possible relief in the form of an inquiry
and a scandal that rocked the Victorian world. Thomson came out on top,
with a new title and name - Lord Kelvin.
Everything that has occurred in Silicon Valley in the last couple of
decades also occurred in the 1850s. Anyone who thinks that wild-ass
high tech venture capitalism is a late-20th-century California
phenomenon needs to read about the maniacs who built the first
transatlantic cable projects (I recommend Arthur C. Clarke's book How
the World Was One). The only things that have changed since then are
that the stakes have gotten smaller, the process more bureaucratized,
and the personalities less interesting.
Those early cables were eventually made to work, albeit not without
founding whole new fields of scientific inquiry and generating many
lucrative patents. Undersea cables, and long-distance communications in
general, became the highest of high tech, with many of the same
connotations as rocket science or nuclear physics or brain surgery
would acquire in later decades. Some countries and companies (the
distinction between countries and companies is hazy in the telco world)
became very good at it, and some didn't. AT&T acquired a dominance
of the field that largely continues to this day and is only now being
seriously challenged by a project called FLAG: the Fiberoptic Link
Around the Globe.