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Paul Davies uses the latest satellite technology to re-link the ends of the original trans-global cable and hear the epic story of its construction.
Monday 28 November 2005 11.00-11.30am

In 1872, the final link in a historic connection was made: a cable around the Earth, joining Adelaide and London. To reach this stage, engineers and explorers had hacked their way through the forests of Borneo, tramped across the blistering deserts of central Australia and pioneered new marine cable laying technology. For the first time continents could communicate in hours rather than weeks using the newly invented telegraph. The cable was still there to carry news of the bombing of Darwin in 1942.

Alan Renton, Curator of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
Alan Renton, Curator of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in the cable hut where 14 submarine cables once came ashore, connecting Britain with the rest of the world.
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In the early days, the cable carried messages in the newly-invented Morse code. The signal grew weaker with distance, so repeater stations were needed. They were not automatic! Someone had to listen to the beeps, write down the message, and then re-transmit it down the wire. In the arid interior of Australia, water was the limiting factor and telegraph offices were established wherever it could be found. One spring, in the centre of the continent, was named after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs for South Australia. The telegraph station in Alice Springs still stands today.

In this programme, physicist and writer Paul Davies uses the latest satellite technology to re-link the ends of the original cable and hear the epic story of its construction. He talks by satellite from Alice Springs with the director of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall, where the submarine cables reached the British mainland. At it's height, Porthcurno was the hub of world communications, with 14 cables coming ashore to link by land lines with London.

It was only in 1849 that the first successful trial was held of a submarine cable, linking London with a ship in the English Channel. The secret of that success was the insulation: a latex called gutta percha, from trees in the Malay Peninsular. But it was not strong enough for long distances and the first cable between Britain and France, laid a year later, lasted less than 24 hours. But in 1851, they tried again, with cable reinforced with galvanised iron and tarred hemp.

Perhaps the greatest marine cable-laying feat was performed in 1866 when Britain was linked by wire with North America. In the years before there had been several attempts, and several times the heavy cable had broken, with the loss of hundreds of miles of expensive wire. One link had even been completed, allowing Queen Victoria to exchange messages with President Buchanan, using Samuel Morse's new code system. But that cable too failed a few weeks later. But the Great Eastern was modified to contain 2,300 miles of cable and pay it out gently and the task was completed.

By 1870, there were cables linking Suez to Bombay and on through Madras, Penang and Singapore. News that the cable would soon reach Java set Australians competing to host the route onwards to the South. It had only been in 1860 that Queen Victoria had sent Burke and Wills on their ill-fated expedition across the heart of Australia, and the interior of the continent was still mostly unexplored by Westerners. So, to survey and construct a 3,200 Km telegraph line there just ten years later was ambitious indeed. The logistics of transporting thousands of poles and wire, to say nothing of finding food and water for the teams, are incredible. But, on 22 October 1872, the link was complete and Queen Victoria could send another message, this time to her most distant dominion, that previously had had to wait months for any news from Europe.

PAUL DAVIES is a successful writer and physicist and a Professor at the Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarrie University. He has presented many radio programmes on physics and cosmology. This is another of his interests.
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