Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Signal & Noise

Signal & Noise by John Griesemer

It is hard to remember that not too long ago wireless telephones were status symbols for the likes of Bill Gates and Hollywood moguls, out of reach for the rest of us. Today, most children carry phones in their backpacks and an increasing number of households have dropped land line telephones altogether. Twenty years ago, laptop computers weighed ten pounds, today a hand-held phone can manage appointments and contacts, find restaurants, give directions, and buy and sell stock; computers continue losing weight and bulk while gaining capability and utility. With Apple announcing innovations every couple of years and cars learning how to drive themselves, it is useful to pause and consider the story of communication technology.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with “discovering” that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm and experiencing a shock. He was one of a long series of scientists bent on understanding and harnessing this mysterious, invisible force for some useful purpose. Meanwhile, semaphore code, a language using flags was the only form of distance communication, and that was limited by visibility. As the need for communicating over long distances became more critical, experimenters discovered that electrical signals could travel over a wire almost instantaneously. One of these innovators was Thomas Morse who refined the ability to send pulses, short and long, over a wire, leading him to develop a code representing the alphabet and numerals zero through nine. Morse became inspired to experiment with electric impulses as a result of his wife’s death. He was in New York painting a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette when a courier informed him that his wife was ill. By the time Morse arrived in New Haven, his wife was in her grave. Morse channeled his grief into a study of speeding up long-distance communication and with his code, the commercially viable telegraph was born. The Marquis’ portrait remained unfinished.

Initially, telegraph signals could only travel short distances before degrading into noise, given the tolerances of copper wire; but innovations built upon each other and soon the pulses could span ten miles. Once that milestone was reached, the possibilities seemed limitless. Telegraph communications were successfully applied in the Civil War, enabling President Abraham Lincoln to communicate with his generals. The value of this new technology became clear during the battles of Bull Run and Manassas in Virginia where a gap in the wire required couriers to take messages from one telegraph station to the other. According to Tom Wheeler, the author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins, 2006), telegraph communications gave birth to the White House “situation room”, where to this day presidents monitor crises in real time.

Signal & Noise is an elegant and entertaining work of historical fiction about how a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, industrialists, and entertainers succeeded in stringing a telegraph cable from Europe to North America. While most of the characters are amalgams of real people, a few – Cyrus Field and Wildman Whitehouse – did exist and have secure places in history.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts and huge financial losses, Cyrus Field managed to overcome the constraints posed by the Atlantic Ocean, cable technology, and human folly, and by 1866 transatlantic communications happened at the breathtaking speed of eight words per minute. This marked the beginning of a new era in communications technology. The cable over which these words traveled consisted of seven parallel copper wires, coated with three layers of gutta-percha (a natural latex derived from the sap of the Malaysian palaquium gutta tree), and covered with tarred hemp fibers, over which a sleeve of twisted wire strands was laid in a close spiral. It weighed 1.1 tons per mile, was flexible enough to be wound on large spools, and could withstand a pull of several tens of kilonewtons (a measure of tension tolerance for cables).

At the same time that telecommunications technology debuted, magicians and vaudeville performers were also dabbling in the secrets of magnetism, electricity, and optics. Signal & Noise explores how this era was ripe for both discovery and for mystery. The main characters of this story are a married couple, Chester and Franny Ludlow, whose marriage came undone when their daughter fell to her death into the rocky waters of Casco Bay, Maine. Little Betty’s death haunts Franny and eventually causes her to turn to spiritualists in an attempt to contact her daughter. Chester, an engineer, finds himself cast in the role of the main salesman for shares in corporation Cyrus Field created to raise funds for the transatlantic cable. While this role is beneath him, Chester cannot say no and so he travels to London and back seeking investors by presenting a phantasmagoria, which was a show weaving together many themes and mysterious images in a dynamic format. The show, seemingly miraculous, created tremendous interest and excitement about transatlantic communications, and used the same technological innovations employed by magicians, spiritualists, and charlatans of the day.

The story of the telegraph cable exemplifies the ability of humans to pool our intelligence, strength, vision, and accumulated knowledge in order to do the impossible. First of all, the cable had to stretch 1,800 miles across the ocean floor and at 1.1 tons per mile, the total weight was close to 2,000 tons. So the engineers decided to start one end of the cable in Newfoundland and the other in western Ireland and splice the two ends together in the middle of the ocean. Paying for the project was another problem because investors had to be convinced of the project’s feasibility and that they would enjoy a significant return on their sizeable investments if it succeeded. This required a type of salesmanship heretofore not seen. Finally, the cable was only as good as the receivers and transmitters on either end and there was strong disagreement between American and English engineers over whose technology would work. The author, John Griesemer, does a masterful job of telling this web of stories while simultaneously taking the reader back in time, to an age of innocence and innovation.

In the background, meanwhile, the Civil War was tearing apart the fabric of America, and in London, raw sewage had built up to toxic levels, polluting drinking water sources and festering in the heat wave of 1858. The air became so foul that the city almost shut down until heavy rains finally came and cleared the air. Signal & Noise illuminates how profoundly and rapidly the world was changing: cities were growing, pushing farmland further out. Masses of people created massive amounts of sewage, and other waste which antiquated cesspits and streams could no longer carry away, leading to countless deaths from typhoid fever. The Industrial Revolution changed where people lived and how they worked, and it demanded a faster flow of information than was possible via courier. Scientists, industrialists, visionaries, and inventors who congregated in cities such as London and Pittsburgh set about creating the infrastructure upon which our modern world was built, largely financed by private investors.

In the United States, Western Union consolidated several independent telegraph lines creating a nationwide network of telegraph stations, enabling far flung family members to be summoned to a relative’s deathbed. In 1871, Western Union set up a way for funds to “travel” over the wires bypassing highway bandits, a service still used today. Telephone technology eventually surpassed the telegraph as a means of person-to-person communication, and by 1980, the telegraph was in its twilight. Walkie-talkies were simple versions of wireless telephones, using low frequency radio signals between two points. Mobile telephones became feasible when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its strangle-hold of a high range of radio frequencies. This enabled AT&T to create local mobile calling areas, or cells, which by the early 1990s could service a large volume of simultaneous calls. Long-distance cell phone calls required switching out of the home cell to one or more in a series of cells to connect. At first, these calls were quite expensive as were so-called “roaming” calls. With increased use of satellite technology, however, national and even global calling became so reliable and inexpensive that, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 13% of homes had no landline telephone service by the end of 2006. What all this suggests is that ten years from now, those iPhones we waited in line to buy at full price will be distant memories. Whether hearing aids merge with wireless telephones or Apple invents the iBrain, a handy little implant which will eliminate the need to carry all those pesky little devices, remains to be seen.

Signal & Noise reminds us that the technology we take for granted represents the culmination of almost two centuries of research, development, investment, and government involvement. Today we have telephones embedded in tiny computers which can connect with computers all over the world while we carry on conversations. The inventors and investors who created the wire which they unspooled across the Atlantic Ocean, thus allowing two continents to communicate in real time, didn’t realize what they had put in motion. As we rush headlong into the future, experimenting with genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology, we should all listen carefully for the signals – information -- lest the message be drowned out by the increasing amount of noise we make.

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