How Were Undersea Cables Laid Back In Ye Olde Days?

How Were Undersea Cables Laid Back In Ye Olde Days?

Compare and contrast. This monochrome photo, above, is how submarine cables were laid back in the day (in 1906, to be exact). It’s not much different from how companies like Cable&Wireless Worldwide and Alcatel-Lucent do it now, right?

While cables aren’t as sexy or riveting a topic as the latest Android phone, I find it really interesting and almost humbling that the method of laying them has stayed much the same for 150 years. Sure, the first cables may’ve only carried telegraphy messages, but they went on to connect people with the transport of telephony and now in the modern-day fibre optic cables, internet.

Companies began laying out submarine cables in the 1800s, and continue to do so today, using different-sized cables for various depths. Funnily enough, the thicker, stronger cables are actually for shallower depths, because anchors and fishermen’s nets can wreak more havoc on them than sharks. Many countries – and the companies that lay them—consider these undersea cables to be of huge importance and value. If you speak to the Australian government for example, they believe them to be “vital to the national economy” and have actually built protection zones around the cables, for fear of damage.

There are around 250 submarine systems around the world today, a large jump from the mid-1800s when the first cable was laid – and they connect all of the continents now too… except for cold, lonely Antarctica, which still relies on satellite.

It wasn’t until 1858 that the first-ever transatlantic cable transmission was made, however, from Queen Victoria in England to President Buchanan in the US. It actually took 16 hours to send, despite it being just 98 words in length. By 1870, the process had sped up – but it still would’ve taken 37 days to send over the full text of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Now though, it’s estimated that 150,000 copies of the book can be sent over every second.

Want to know something even funnier? Nowadays the rope that is used to remove cables (with a grappling hook attached at the end) actually costs more than the cables themselves. Sounds like money for old rope to me.