Plastic Communications

Eighth Wonder of the World

"The Eighth Wonder of the World" celebrates the cable linking Britain to the United States. Library of Congress.

In his 1869 futuristic novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Jules Verne imagined an electric-powered submarine that explored the mysterious underwater world. He described a particular undersea marvel—an electric cable on the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the submarine, the cable existed. It was the first major link in what was to be a 19th-century ocean-spanning global communications network that Victorians predicted would prevent misunderstandings between nations, and so banish war forever. This physical network owed its existence to the coagulated latex of a tree native to Southeast Asia.

Within 20 years of Alessandro Volta’s invention of the battery in 1800, speculation flowed on how to use electricity to communicate over distances. Early attempts at insulating wire against water failed. Hope arrived in the form of the milk-colored sap of a Malaysian Palaquium gutta tree. The sap, called gutta percha, is a naturally occurring structural isomer of polyisoprene, also known as “natural rubber” or isoprene rubber.

In 1850 British enthusiasts laid the first submarine cable between England and France. The 25-nautical-mile strand of copper wire surrounded by gutta percha failed within a few hours, when a fisherman hauled up the wire. The next year an armored cable was laid and news began to speed across the English Channel.

The success and profit of the Channel cable encouraged a larger endeavor—connecting Britain and the United States. Linking the countries would be no easy feat: over 2,000 miles of cable, hundreds of tons of gutta percha, and the laying of cable at almost unimaginable depths.

Many thought the dream impossible. However, in 1854 entrepreneur Cyrus Field began stoking public enthusiasm for the project. He persuaded the U.S. Navy’s Matthew Maury, chief of the U.S. National Observatory, to support him. Fortunately for Field one of Maury’s ships had found a level path on the North Atlantic sea floor, a path Maury described as a “plateau which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of the submarine telegraph.”

Covering the 1857 Atlantic cable with gutta percha

"Making the 1857 Atlantic cable. Machines encase cable wire with gutta percha. Library of Congress.

The first two attempts to lay a cable, in August 1857 and June 1858, failed. But the third attempt succeeded, and in August 1858 U.S. President James Buchanan and Britain’s Queen Victoria clasped electric hands across the ocean. Buchanan declared his hope that the cable might “prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship . . . and an instrument designed by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, liberty, and law throughout the world.”

In the flurry of public excitement Field sold several miles of leftover cable to Tiffany & Company Jewelers, which cut it into four-inch souvenirs and sold them for 50 cents apiece. The Times of London compared the effects of the submarine cable to the discovery of the Americas. Samuel Morse called it “the great feat of the century.” Torchlight processions were held in the United States. The grandiose hopes for this cable were perhaps best expressed by the following lines of verse from the British Workman magazine: “Knitting with firmer, closer bonds/ Man to his brother man.”

But the electric signals quickly weakened and two months later, on October 20, failed. The cable was doomed by a rudimentary understanding of how electric current behaved through thousands of miles of gutta percha–insulated cable. Financial losses, uncertainty as to why the cable failed, and the U.S. Civil War blocked further attempts. Not until 1866 did the Great Eastern, then the largest ship in the world, lay a transatlantic cable that proved successful.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the mastermind behind the Suez Canal, wrote that such 19th-century technologies as the railway and submarine telegraphy all had the same purpose: “to bring peoples closer together and thereby to bring about an era in which men, by knowing one another, will finally stop fighting.”

Behind such lofty ideals in this age of empires lay the belief that quicker communications would diffuse trouble. But as western powers scrambled for colonies and riches in Asia and Africa, they collided with each other, creating tensions that could not be resolved back in Europe. The 1898 Spanish-American War brought communication conflicts into the open when the United States attempted to cut all cables leading into and out of Cuba. In 1914, within a few hours of the outbreak of World War I, the British cable ship Telconia lifted and cut cables that connected Germany to the rest of the world. The internationalist hopes of the science fiction writer, the American president, and the engineering mastermind had failed as utterly as the first Atlantic cables.

Gutta percha protected a worldwide network of communications until shortwave radio revolutionized global communications in the early 20th century. Today almost all intercontinental communications are again carried by undersea cables, covered now in polyethylene rather than gutta percha. Communications now move in digital form through fiber-optic cables, which provide the bedrock of the Internet. Yet peace via a global communications system remains as elusive as ever.

Michal Meyer is a historian of science and editor in chief of Chemical Heritage magazine.