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Piece of the 1858 telegraph cable connecting Europe and North America, in its Tiffany & Co. jewelry box. ID.THF77306

Piece of the original 1973 Ethernet system from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. ID.THF77308


July 2010

On the Wire

In this age of cellphones and wireless computing, most of our communication still relies on wires. Though almost invisible to us, mobile communication is the product of an enormous infrastructure of power plants, server farms, cellphone towers - and yes, buried and overhead fiberoptic wires. It takes a physical, literal network to connect the world.

The Henry Ford’s collection holds pieces of the wires that connect us: the 1858 transatlantic telegraph cable, and today’s standard for hardwired internetworking, Ethernet, developed in the 1970s.



MORE:  On the Wire

This wire in a jewelry box is a souvenir of the 1858 transatlantic telegraph cable.  The wired communication technology of the mid-19th century was the telegraph, providing the world’s first mode of instantaneous communication wherever telegraph wires could be strung.  Connections between continents like Europe and North America also had to be hardwired.  How to bridge the vast ocean to connect London with New York?   In a heroic feat of engineering, a team of scientists, engineers and capitalists led by the eccentric Cyrus Field developed and funded an underwater cable that would transmit telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean.  After several tries--plagued with technical difficulties in electrical transmission and physical challenges from uncharted holes and trenches in the sea floor - a telegram was finally able to be sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan, from Ireland to Newfoundland.  About a month later, a victim of excessive voltage, the 1858 transatlantic telegraph cable failed.  A sustainably successful transatlantic cable was not put in place until 1866.  However, leftover cable from this 1858 attempt was cut into three-inch lengths and sold in Charles Tiffany’s renowned jewelry store with a certificate of authenticity, as a symbol of progress and speed.  The transatlantic cable was literally the jewel of a technologically sophisticated society.

Fast forward about 100 years to another wired communication technology, again transmitting information as electrical signals.  When young networking expert Bob Metcalfe came to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, one of his first projects was to figure out how to connect the world’s first personal computers with the world’s first laser printer, all developed at PARC.  In 1973, drawing on the inspiration of a network in Hawaii that connected computers via radio waves, Metcalfe and his collaborator Dave Boggs built Ethernet, which used coaxial cable (what cable TV runs on) as a medium on which computers could share information.  Some reluctant PARC employees soon found that if all of their colleagues were on this network, they needed to be too.  Metcalfe subsequently left PARC to develop and market Ethernet as the standard for local area networking—and it’s still the standard protocol for connecting computers for both large enterprises and small networks.  When Ethernet infrastructure moved from coaxial cable to its current “twisted pair” cable, PARC’s original Ethernet was cut into presentation pieces (though not put into jewelry boxes) and given to employees.

Even at a large history institution like The Henry Ford, it’s difficult to give a sense of the vast scale and impact of the complex technological systems that have changed the world.  These two fragments are symbols of the oceans of information that flowed--and still flow--through networks of wires.

-- Suzanne Fischer, Ph. D., Curator of Technology


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