Past Forward

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Posts Tagged communication


Cyrus Field wanted to wire the world. A successful paper merchant turned telecommunications pioneer, Field established the American Telegraphy Company in 1856 and set to work raising the funds and gathering the minds needed to bridge the oceanic divide between Europe and America.

In 1858, after several failed attempts, an underwater cable—capable of transmitting telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean—was laid from Valentia, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. In August the first messages were sent, including an exchange between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan. It took 17 hours to transmit Queen Victoria’s 98 words. The triumph of the 1858 cable was short-lived; a month later, it failed, a victim of excess voltage in an attempt to increase the speed of messages.

This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., was used to prepare telecommunications cable at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, for the second transatlantic cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. One mile of finished cable weighed almost a ton, but it was as flexible as a rope, built to withstand the pull of the ship laying it and hazards on the ocean floor.

In 1865, 2,300 nautical miles of cable were carried aboard the leviathan iron steamship, the SS Great Eastern. The ship left in July but was forced to return to port when the cable snapped and the end was lost at sea. A second cable excursion began a year later and was successful. This was the first truly sustainable and durable telegraph cable, continuing to carry the Morse code “text messages” of telegraph operators across continents—at a rate 80 times faster than the first cable. It remained in operation until the mid-1870s, by which time four additional cables had been laid.

This machine was essential to the “wiring of the world,” reorganizing basic materials into the spine of the first permanent transcontinental telecommunications network. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities.

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On August 11, 1909, as his ship struggled off Cape Hatteras, telegraph operator Theodore Haubner had an urgent choice to make: How should he call for help?

Haubner worked the key on the commercial steamship S.S. Arapahoe. His ship had just broken her propeller shaft and was drifting off the North Carolina coast.

For years, ships in trouble had used the telegraph code “CQD,” which means “calling all stations—distress.” But a new code for distress had recently been agreed upon: “SOS.” Would anyone recognize it?

Deciding to split the difference, Haubner signaled SOS as well as CQD—and his ship was picked up just twelve hours later.

Haubner had sent the world’s first SOS signal. He later donated his headphones and telegraph key to The Henry Ford, where they are now on exhibit in our Driving America exhibit.

Radio headphones used by Theodore Haubner while transmitting the first "SOS" distress signal, August 11, 1909. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

Wireless telegraphy, perfected only a decade earlier by inventor and entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi, used radio waves to connect ships with one another as well as with stations on land. In 1904, CQD was adopted by Marconi Company wireless telegraph operators as their emergency signal.

But an international industry would need an internationally standardized emergency signal. At the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin, in 1906, participants agreed on SOS as the international distress signal. They chose SOS not because it was an abbreviation for any particular distress call (it does not stand for “save our ship,” as many have thought), but because it was easy to send and receive - three dots, three dashes, three dots. When the Arapahoe was drifting, the signal was just coming into use.

Theodore Haubner used this telegraph key to send the first "SOS" distress signal. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

So why are these telegraph artifacts in an exhibit on cars?

When Haubner sent that first SOS in 1909, American culture was adjusting to a feeling of new, wider horizons. Wireless telegraphy was one of many technological marvels making their way into culture and, more slowly, into everyday life. Another of those marvels was the automobile.

Driving America puts cars into the context of these new visions of the future - this optimism that new technology, standardized across the world, could do anything.

Saving a ship was only the beginning.

Suzanne Fischer is the Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.

communication, communication technologies, SOS