Global Communications History Around The World

As anyone who has spent any time on the internet can tell you, the ocean is a terrifying place full of horrible monsters that would make HR Geiger have trouble sleeping. Even if you aren’t into viral lists, the oceans are (with the exception of volcanos, perhaps) the most literally inhuman places on our planet. This is unfortunate, since they take up 75% of it. Leaving aside the grim fanged and weird creatures of the deep, the oceans seem to exist to mock us. They were here before our species and they will be here after, disappearing our largest ships and patiently eroding the continents we fight wars to rule.

Global Communications – Across Oceans

For most of human history, these oceans were the great inhibitor to global communications. After all, if you lived in London and wanted to send a letter to your cousin in Pittsburgh, you had to wait for the next transatlantic ship and hope it didn’t sink, or that the letter wasn’t intercepted by redcoats thinking it contained a code for the revolutionaries (here we’re assuming your cousin was William Pitt). The point is, communication was tough, and the ocean made it a gamble. That’s why it’s amazing that defeating the ocean was the first step toward the global communications we enjoy now.

Transatlantic
The path of the first transatlantic cable.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Telegraph lays the foundation

Telegraph was one of the first devices that really made the world feel smaller. The Pony Express has a romantic place in American history, but it barely lasted a year, with transcontinental telegraph lines making it largely obsolete. It’s almost odd that it took until 1860 for the telegraph system to start spanning continents, because they had been laid down on the Atlantic floor two years earlier. The first line stretched 2,000 miles from America to England, and the first messages were sent from the leaders of the two countries. On England it was Queen Victoria, who had a whole age named after her, and on the American side it was James Buchanan, who is pretty much the worst President ever. It’s amazing he didn’t mess it up somehow. However, the cable only lasted a couple of months before it began having problems. Clearly, further advances were needed.

The call heard partly around the world

Telegraph was one thing, but actually being able to talk to someone was far more exciting. Dots and dashes can hardly capture the majesty of human speech. For that you need telephones, and after experimentation in WWI, particularly with ships at sea, the first Transatlantic telephone service was ready to go by 1927. Calls had been made before, but this was a full system that subscribers could access. You can even hear the very first call, made between telephone executives, at that link. You might think that is less noteworthy than queens and presidents, but at least it wasn’t Buchanan.

The call that actually went around the world

Of course, once it was established that lines could be stretched underseas, it was just a matter of time before they could connect anywhere. Eight years later, in 1935, the first call that went all the way around the world was made, when an AT&T President in New York called an AT&T Vice-President, also in New York. They were actually about 50 feet away from each other. That seems silly, but the call transversed the entire planet, proving that such a thing was possible, and opening up phones to become universal. You can hear the call here, although they’re a lot calmer than I would have been. “My voice is passing over the entire world!” It’s not often you get to be the first person to do something so momentous.

The satellite of love and LBJ

In 1962, just five years after Sputnik, the West proved that satellites could be used for commercial purposes, and not just beeping and pinging or whatever Sputnik did. Telstar 1 was a multi-national project which included phone transmission capabilities. The first call went from Andover, Maine, to Washington, DC, where it was answered by then-VP Lyndon Johnson. Telstar didn’t last very long though, partly because it was new technology, but mostly because it was knocked out of orbit by a series of high-altitude nuclear tests called Starfish Prime. The 60s were a crazy time.

Thankfully, we stopped trying to blow up the sky and started focusing more on making global communications easy. It took a long time – satellite phones costs tens of thousands of dollars until very recently. Now, we take for granted that you can idly pull out your phone and call a buddy in Istanbul or a co-worker in Taiwan. Have a few minutes before the game starts? Catch up with a pal in London. We aren’t at the point where it is cheap and easy yet, but we are at the point where it is assumed and possible. So when you take it for granted, remember that all it took to get us to this point was: 1) conquering the ocean, 2) conquering space, and 3) overcoming the legacy of James Buchanan. It’s actually kind of inspiring.

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