Communicating Underwater

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

A Second Life

By 1900 over 200,000 miles of cable linked the world. The demand for gutta percha soared in the 1850s and 1860s and soon outstripped the available supply. Each fully grown felled tree produced two pounds of gutta percha at most, and Britain imported well over 1,000 tons per year. As early as 1850 the supply of gutta trees around Singapore failed. In the 1880s the Dutch developed gutta plantations in the Dutch East Indies, and by the 1920s most gutta percha came from farmed trees.

For many decades gutta percha protected a worldwide network of communications, particularly that of the British Empire. Only in the 1950s did gutta percha finally give way to a man-made insulator—polyethylene. By then, though, Guglielmo Marconi’s invention—shortwave radio—had destroyed British power over global communications. Further damaging to British cable companies, shortwave outperformed cable in both price and speed and did not require expensive cable or the ships to lay them. Today, almost all intercontinental communications are again carried by undersea cables, which now move in digital form through fiber-optic cables (satellites can carry only a fraction of the world’s messages and cost more than cable). Like the cables of old, modern cables are susceptible to damage by earthquakes and accidents, and the threat posed by modern terrorism makes experts shudder. These cables are the backbone of the Internet, and, like the cables of old, the nervous system of the world.

Michal Meyer is editor in chief of Chemical Heritage. She would like to thank Thomas Twardowski for his chemistry expertise.