Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Fast for the Truth

Augusta, Maine

When the first transatlantic cable was pulled ashore in 1858, celebrations erupted across the United States, marked by the ringing of church bells, torch-light parades and a hundred-gun salute in New York City. Still, the technology that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances was getting to be too much for some people. In an editorial on the “benefits and evils” of the new transatlantic telegraph, the New York Times described it as “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth… Indeed, one of the ways in which the cable would transform society could be seen the next day when the news was reported in real time on a menu.

Inventor Samuel Morse demonstrated that signals could be transmitted by wire in 1844. There were 20,000 miles of cable crisscrossing the country by the early 1850s when financier Cyrus W. Field established the Atlantic Telegraph Company. With the aid of British and American naval ships, the firm laid the cable across the ocean floor utilizing the relatively shallow plateau between Ireland and Newfoundland. Even so, the line often ran at depths of more than two miles, causing setbacks and delays. When success was finally achieved on August 16, 1858, telegrams were exchanged between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan.

Both congratulatory messages were reprinted on the daily menu at the Stanley House in Augusta, Maine the following day. Unlike the land lines however, the submarine cable was slow. Since it required about two minutes to transmit each character, it had taken many hours to send these telegrams across the Atlantic Ocean using the dots and dashes of “Morse code.Nevertheless, it was a great achievement. It is rare to find a menu that reflects an historic event as it is happening, such as this one featuring a town scene, a few simple dishes like potted pigeons, and a momentous report indicating the world had just become smaller.

The cable lasted only nineteen days. The insulation, which quickly began to deteriorate, failed when the voltage was boosted to increase the transmission speed. The next line would have to wait until after the Civil War. When it went into service in July 1866, the materials of construction had improved to the point that eight words per minute could be transmitted, causing this transatlantic cable to be proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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