SP-4217 Beyond the Ionosphere


Chapter 1
Radio Versus Cable: International Telecommunications Before Satellites
by Daniel R. Headrick


[3] The current rivalry between satellites and fiber optic cables in long-distance and intercontinental telecommunication is not the first case of two technologies coexisting to meet a similar demand. Consider trucks versus railroads, cable versus broadcast television, and movies versus videos. Sometimes the two rival technologies coexist because they complement each other, such as trucks and railroads. In other cases, they compete until one displaces the other, such as steamships for sailing ships. By studying an earlier rivalry in intercontinental telecommunications--namely, that between submarine telegraph cables and radiotelegraphy in the first half of this century--we may find some parallels and fruitful insights into the current rivalry between satellites and fiber optic cables.1


Intercontinental Telecommunications Before 1907


Before 1907, all intercontinental telecommunications used submarine telegraph cables with a copper core insulated with gutta-percha and protected by an armor of iron wires. Submarine cables, in turn, were synonymous with an overwhelming British preponderance in the international telecommunications business. Thus in 1908, British firms owned 56.2 percent of the world's submarine cable network, compared with a U.S. share of 19.5 percent and a French share of 9.4 percent.2 Taking into account the commercial use of cables, the British share shrinks, because the most heavily used cables across the Atlantic belonged to two American firms, Western Union and Commercial Cable; in 1911, Western Union leased the last two cables owned by British firms.3 If, however, we focus on the military and political value of cables, Britain had an even greater advantage than its share indicates, for many foreign cables passed through Britain or its colonies; the dominant British firms, Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies, controlled both the Danish telegraph firm that operated the land lines from Europe across Russia to China and the American company that operated the American transpacific cable.4

[4] It is important to understand this preponderance because it gave Britain the power to scrutinize, censor, or ban foreign telegrams around the world--a power that it first exercised during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. This power naturally irritated Britain's rivals, France and Germany.5 Around the turn of the century, both countries tried to build up rival submarine cable networks--a hopeless endeavor, for cables were too costly and remained vulnerable to cutting by British cable ships in the event of war. What the world learned during the turn of the century, and even more clearly during World War I, was that international communication was not just a technology or a business, but an instrument of power in the rivalry between nations.


The Era of Complementarity: Cables and Radio, 1907-1927


Guglielmo Marconi did not invent radio all by himself, but he certainly was the first to think of commercializing it as a communications system. His first customers, not surprisingly, were the British and Italian navies, the major shipping companies, and Lloyd's of London insurance. Thus, he created--and quickly occupied--a new niche in telecommunications. Marconi had greater ambitions, however, for he wanted to create a global telecommunications network that would rival the Eastern Telegraph Company's submarine cable network. In 1907, he opened the first transatlantic stations at Clifden, Ireland, and Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, challenging the cables on their home ground.6

Some countries adopted radiotelegraphy without Marconi's help. The German government encouraged its two electrical equipment manufacturers, Siemens and AEG, to found a new company, Telefunken, to provide equipment and service to German ships. By 1906, Telefunken began building a gigantic station near Berlin to communicate with North America and the German colonies in West Africa. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Navy built a station in Arlington, Virginia, which was the first of a chain able to reach any ship in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.7

During this period, radio not only reached ships at sea, but it also competed with cables between land locations. The competition, however, was restrained for both economic and technological reasons. It must be remembered that long-distance radio during that period used long waves--that is, wavelengths measured in kilometers with frequencies of 100 kilohertz or less. Propelling such waves across an ocean required enormous and [5] costly stations. The French station built at Sainte-Assise after World War I, for instance, had an antenna supported by 16 towers, each one of which was almost as high as the Eiffel tower. Moreover, the station consumed 1,000 kilowatts of electricity, as much as a small town. The cost was stupendous. A pair of transatlantic stations cost up to $4 million dollars--at a time when a Model-T automobile cost $300. A transatlantic cable in that same period cost $7 million.

Across the Atlantic, the two technologies were fairly evenly balanced, for if radio was slightly cheaper, cables were more reliable, worked 24 hours a day, and were less vulnerable to storms or equipment failures. As radio technology improved--moving from spark transmitters to arcs and alternators and then to vacuum tubes--so did cable technology--first with regenerative repeaters and automatic printers and then with loaded cables and time-division multiplexing that could carry a higher volume than their prewar predecessors.

During World War I, every cable and radio station was fully occupied with military and war-related traffic. Although the two technologies were evenly matched technologically, after the war radiotelegraphy gradually expanded its market share. By 1923, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), founded by General Electric and the U.S. Navy, had captured 30 percent of the North Atlantic traffic and 50 percent of the Pacific traffic.8 The reason was not technical superiority; it was because the cables were all operating to capacity in those years, and it took much longer to lay cables than to build radio transmitters.

Radiotelegraphy politicized telecommunications even more than had been the case before during peacetime, for it changed the playing field between nations. Germany had lost its cables in the war. Britain's radio company, Marconi, was pushed out of the American market by General Electric and the U.S. Navy. The British government, in financial straits and already well connected to its "empire" by cables, hesitated to subsidize radio. In contrast, France, which had few cables, invested heavily in radio to bypass the British cable network. And in the United States, where demand was greatest and capital was abundant, investors were eager to put their money into radio enterprises.9 The result was that by 1923, the United States had 3,400 kilowatts of high-powered long-distance stations, France had 3,150 kilowatts, and the British Empire had only 700 kilowatts, hardly more than defeated Germany's 600 kilowatts.10 Britain's erstwhile predominance in global telecommunications had vanished.


The Shortwave Revolution


In 1924, a bombshell overturned the cozy modus vivendi between cable and radio: shortwave radio. Ironically, it was the result of efforts by the same man who had introduced long-wave radio thirty years earlier: Guglielmo Marconi. The technology, which is well known, is not discussed here. Its economic impact, however, is not well understood, and the politics behind it, even less.11

[6] In the fall of 1924, Marconi dispatched experimental shortwave sets to several places around the world. Transmissions from England were received in Canada (Montreal), Argentina (Buenos Aires), and Australia (Sydney), twenty-three and a half hours a day. Not only was shortwave radio a technical success, it was also incredibly cheap. From the very beginning, a shortwave transmitter cost one-twentieth as much as a long-wave station of equivalent reach, and it used one-fiftieth of the electricity. Furthermore, it could transmit up to 200 words per minute, as fast as the newest cables and much faster than long-wave radio. In a speech to the Institute of Radio Engineers in October 1926, Marconi confessed: "I admit that I am responsible for the adoption of long waves for long-distance communication. Everyone followed me in building stations hundreds of times more powerful than would have been necessary had short waves been used. Now I have realized my mistake."12

From 1926 on, manufacturers began building shortwave equipment, and radio communications companies adopted them as quickly as possible. For the first time, radio communication was within the reach of small towns and previously isolated outposts around the world. Because the equipment was cheap to buy and operate, shortwave services could offer rates that cable companies could not begin to match. For instance, radiograms between England and Australia via the British Post Office shortwave service cost four pence per word, one-twelfth as much as a cablegram. Within six months of opening for business, the British Post Office shortwave service captured 65 percent of the cable traffic to India and Australia, as well as 50 percent of the transpacific traffic. Between France and Indochina, shortwave service captured 70 percent of the traffic within the first year.13

This was a completely different kind of competition compared with the genteel rivalry of the early 1920s. This time, the cable companies faced ruin. Eastern and Associated announced it would shut down, sell off its cables, and distribute reserves to its shareholders. The British government, in a rare display of energy, merged all British overseas telecommunications systems--public as well as private--into one company called Imperial and International Communications, later renamed Cable and Wireless.14 The purpose of this merger was to make radio subsidize the preservation of the now-obsolete cable network. Needless to say, this was a heavy burden on the new company. The Depression, which began soon thereafter, weakened it even further. In the United States, Western Union kept only its most profitable cables in operation, while France simply abandoned its cables. Companies that had no cables, such as RCA, profited at the expense of their rivals.


Strategy Versus Business: Cables After 1928


Why did Britain preserve its cables--including barely used ones between such out-of-the-way places as Sierra Leone and Ascension Island or Lagos and Saint-Vincent--at a cost estimated at $2.5 million dollars a year? Because the British government knew, through long experience, that radio was vulnerable to eavesdropping and espionage. Indeed, during World War II, as in World War I, Britain's cable communications with the United States and the rest of the British Empire remained secret, while German and Japanese [7] radio communications, as we now know, were regularly breached. Furthermore, during the war and for several years thereafter, every channel of communication was filled to capacity. Not until the 1950s were the last of the old copper cables finally laid to rest on the ocean floor.




What can the story of cables and radio before World War II tell us about the current rivalry between satellites and fiber optic cables? First, the two modern technologies seem evenly matched, but not identical. Satellites are best at mobile communication with ships and planes and the like. Fiber optic cables, meanwhile, are best at handling high-volume traffic between important urban centers in the developed countries. Both technologies improve daily, demand is strong, and there is plenty of room for both to grow. The situation is uncannily reminiscent of the situation in the early 1920s: a bit of competition, much complementarity, and good times for all. Second, if international telecommunications were considered strategic resources before World War I, and even more so between the wars, there is no reason to think that they are less strategic today, although such matters are never discussed publicly.

But does history help predict the future? Based on the history of telecommunications before World War II, one can predict not one, but two futures.

The first of these two alternative futures can be called "the scenario of continuity." It assumes refinements in technology, but no revolutionary changes. There will be more and more satellites until every American, European, and Japanese can go anywhere with a pocket or wristwatch phone and call up anyone anywhere in the world by his or her personal identification code. Cables, meanwhile, will be fully occupied with computer data, video images, and the "chatter" of deskbound people, talking to friends overseas for next to nothing. Already, dozens of fiber optic cables cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. According to the British journal Public Network Europe, the "Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe," slated to open in 1997, stretching from Britain to Japan, will contain 120,000 digital circuits, each capable of carrying images and video as well as voice.15 Other cables are planned around Africa, between Europe and Southeast Asia, and on almost every other major route. Although satellites always will be needed, cables are likely to increase their market share into the early twenty-first century. Fiber optic cables have the same advantage as their copper-cored ancestors: they are practically impossible to eavesdrop on, and they are much less vulnerable than radio or satellites to electromagnetic interference, including nuclear explosions.

The other future, "the scenario of discontinuity," involves an unprecedented and revolutionary technology that might make cables and/or satellites obsolete, just as shortwave radio ruined the submarine telegraph cables. Discontinuities, by definition, cannot be predicted.

Which of the two scenarios is likely to take place? It is anyone's guess.



1. This paper is based on Daniel R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

2. Maxime de Margerie, Le réseau anglais de câbles sous-marins (Paris: A. Pedone, 1909), pp. 34-35.

3. Charles Bright, "Extension of Submarine Telegraphy in a Quarter Century," Engineering Magazine 16 (December 1898): 420-25; Vary T. Coates and Bernard Finn, A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy. The Transatlantic Cable of 1866 (San Francisco: San Francisco Press, 1979), ch. 5; Alvin F. Harlow, Old Wires and New Waves: The History of the Telegraph, Telephone and Wireless (New York: Appleton-Century, 1936), 425-28; Gerald R. M. Garratt, One Hundred Years of Submarine Cables (London: H.M.S.O., 1950), 30; Kenneth R. Haight, Cableships and Submarine Cables (Washington, DC: U.S. Underseas Cable Corporation, 1968), pp. 316-21.

4. On the British cable network, see Hugh Barty-King, Girdle Round the Earth: The Story of Cable and Wireless and its Predecessors to Mark the Group's Jubilee, 1929-1979 (London: Heinemann, 1979). On their strategic value, see Paul M. Kennedy, "Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1879-1914," English Historical Review 86 (1971): 728-52.

5. Charles Lesage, La rivalité franco-britannique: Les câbles sous-marins allemands (Paris: Plon, 1915); Artur Kunert, Geschichte der deutschen Fernmeldekabel. II. Telegraphen-Seekabel (Cologne-Mulheim: Karl Glitscher, 1962). On cables and the great-power rivalries at the turn of the century, see Headrick, The Invisible Weapon, chs. 5 and 6.

6. Hugh G.J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 218-32, 286-90; Rowland F. Pocock, The Early British Radio Industry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988); W.P. Jolly, Marconi (New York: Stein & Day, 1972), pp. 32-91; W.J. Baker, A History of the Marconi Company (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 25-51; Rowland F. Pocock and Gerald R.M. Garratt, The Origins of Maritime Radio (London: H.M.S.O., 1972), pp. 34-44.

7. On the beginnings of German radiotelegraphy, see Hermann Thurn, Die Funkentelegraphie, 5th ed. (Leipzig and Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1918); "Telefunken-Chronik" in Festschrift zum 50 jahrigen Jubiluum der Telefunken Gesellschaft fur drahtlose Telegraphie m. b. H., special issue of Telefunken-Zeitung 26 (May 1953): 133-47. On the early years of American radio and the Navy, see Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Captain Linwood S. Howeth, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: Bureau of Ships and Office of Naval History, 1963); Hugh G.J. Aitken, The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900-1932 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). On the impact of long-wave radio on international politics up to 1919, see Headrick, The Invisible Weapon, chs. 7-9.

8. On the origins of RCA, see Aitken, The Continuous Wave, chs. 6-8; Robert Sobel, RCA (New York: Stein & Day, 1986); Kenneth Bilby, The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).

9. On telecommunications and international conflicts after World War I, see Headrick, The Invisible Weapon, ch. 10.

10. Sir Charles Bright, "The Empire's Telegraph and Trade," Fortnightly Review 113 (1923): 457-74.

11. See Daniel R. Headrick, "Shortwave Radio and its Impact on International Telecommunications between the Wars," History and Technology 11 (1994): 21-32; Headrick, The Invisible Weapon, ch. 11.

12. Quoted from Douglas Coe, Marconi: Pioneer of Radio (New York: J. Messner, 1943), p. 237.

13. Baker, A History of the Marconi Company, p. 229; Barty-King, Girdle Round the Earth, p. 203; L. Gallin, "Renseignements statistiques sur le développement des communications radiotélégrahiques en Indochine," Bulletin économique de l'Indochine 32 (1929): 370-74.

14. Barty-King, Girdle Round the Earth, pp. 203-26; Baker, A History of the Marconi Company, pp. 223-31; Headrick, "Shortwave Radio," passim.

15. Public Network Europe (July-August 1995): 31, quoted in the monthly bulletin of the International Telecommunications Union, Teleclippings 929 (August 1995): 33.