Today we have transatlantic cables of massive capacity, handling all sorts of telecom traffic (including the internet). However, these submarine cables had a modest beginning. The first successfully deployed commercial transatlantic cable was in 1866, after a decade-long series of less successful attempts. Sending messages over this cable was incredibly expensive.
The cost of speed in 1866
The 1866 transatlantic cable could transfer 8 words a minute, and initially it cost $100 to send 10 words ($10 per word and a 10 word minimum).
That was 10 weeks’ salary for a skilled workman of the day. After inflation, $100 translates to about $1,340 today. Due to the cost, it was mainly used by the British and American governments and large corporations.
It should be mentioned that after a while they cut the prices to a “mere” $46.80 for 10 words.
For truly urgent information, cost clearly wasn’t an issue. A New York Tribune editor spent $5,000 in 1870 to transmit one report about the Franco-Prussian War.
A larger version of this image can be found over at Wikipedia.
The 1866 transatlantic cable was laid out by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, a company founded specifically for this reason by Cyrus West Field, a pioneer in the field.
The past 150 years
A lot has happened with our transatlantic cables in the last 150 years. Here is a look at how the capacity has changed over time.
|Cable||Year||Speed or Capacity|
|Atlantic, Ireland-Newfoundland||1858||A few words per hour|
|Atlantic, Ireland-Newfoundland||1866||6 – 8 words per minute|
|Long cables with automatic transmitting equipment||1898||40 words per minute|
|Newfoundland-Azores||1928||2,500 characters per minute (~400 wpm)|
|Atlantic, TAT-1||1956||36 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-2||1959||48 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, CANTAT||1961||80 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-3||1963||138 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-4||1965||138 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-5||1970||845 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-6||1976||4,000 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-7||1978||4,000 telephone channels|
|Atlantic, TAT-8||1988||280 Mbits/s (40,000 telephone channels)|
|Atlantic, TAT-9||1992||2 x 565 Mbits/s (each 80,000 telephone channels equivalent)|
|Atlantic, TAT-10||1992||2 x 565 Mbit/s|
|Atlantic, TAT-11||1993||2 x 565 Mbit/s|
|Atlantic, TAT-12/13||1996||2 x 5 Gbit/s|
|Atlantic, TAT-14||2001||640 Gbit/s (9,700,000 telephone channels equivalent)|
|Atlantic, VSNL (TGN)||2001||2 x 2,520 Gbit/s|
Something tells us that our uptime monitoring service wouldn’t have been much of a success in 1866…
Wikipedia article about transatlantic telegraph cables.
The Great Transatlatic Cable from PBS.
History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from FTL Design. (A great resource with a huge amount of information.)