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§ 4. Wars and Waves

Half a world away however, even as Cyrus Field began his research into the transatlantic telegraph effort, seemingly unrelated events were conspiring to thwart him and others by choking off timely access to colonial resources in general, and the future supply-lines of the critical insulating material in specific, as Britain's so-called 'Eastern Question' reared its untimely head. The construction of the Suez Canal, which would facilitate the movement of materials from England's colonies in the Far East had just begun when the balance of power in the Middle East began to shift with the ailing of Sultan Abdul Medjid, sovereign of the Ottoman Empire. The possibility of destabilisation in the region, or worse yet Russian encroachment, was simply unthinkable. 14 As early as 1853, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia conceded to the British Ambassador that the Ottoman territories had no clear successor and the vacuum of power emerging in the region would require delicate handling. 15 The interest of Russian in the Balkans was straightforward, as they hoped to secure the ice-free access to the Mediterranean which Constantinople and the Bosphorus River could provide. However, Britain viewed the mounting Russian influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia as a threat not only to its Mediterranean trade-routes but its colonial holdings in the Sind and Indian sub-continent as well. 16 An additional complication was the rise of a new emperor in France, Napoleon III, who wished to stake a claim to the region in order to establish access to Jerusalem on behalf of his largely Catholic citizenry. 17

By May of 1853, negotiations between the Ottoman Sultan, Napoleon III & Tsar Nicholas, with British diplomats acting as intermediaries, had reached an impasse as Nicholas demanded the right to act as protector of the ten million Orthodox subjects under the Ottoman Empire. By July, Russian occupied Moldovia & Wallachia north of the Danube, and on Oct. 5, 1853, the Turks declared war on Russia. 18 The decisive moment for Britain came in late November, when the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, ambushed the Ottoman fleet at Sinope Bay, using explosive shells for the first time in naval history. Capt. Drummond of the British warship Retribution was the first to arrive and found the fleet obliterated as well as the port town in smouldering ruin, with hundreds of civilians wounded or dead. The ferocity of the attack, combined with the regional interests already outlined, the coverage of the massacre in the English press and the need to re-assert naval dominance, pushed Britain away from neutrality in the conflict and as the winter months passed, England and France formed an alliance to combat Russia, declaring war on Mar. 28, 1854.
France and Britain declared war on Russia and proceeded to land troops in the Crimea. Messages went by telegraph to Marseilles, then by ship to Constantinople, arriving there 16-20 days their eagerness to control their forces...the governments erected a land line from Bucharest, the terminus of the new Austrian telegraph, to Varna on the Black Sea. In April 1855, for the first time, governments were in contact with their armies on a distant battlefield. 19
The significance of the conflict itself, and the handling of the war's logistics by the powers involved, immediately became a series of wholly new developments, as Victorian England found itself deploying its armies in a distant region, but for the first time being able to monitor the progress of the battles underway at unprecedented speed. 20 Whereas ten years beforehand there would quite possibly pass whole months between a significant battle and its effect being registered in the political centre, now there existed a direct line of logistical and tactical support. Yet not surprising, war is still filled with violent and hopeless action, regardless of the technical savvy mobilized to mediate the fact, and of course the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade 21 and calamitous siege of Sevastopol still occurred. New command and control technologies could not mitigate the facts, that the British Army was still an institution in which officers essentially purchased their rank, dragged their wives and wardrobes along with them to battle, and were for all intents & purposes attempting to conduct a 'gentleman's war' while Russian and French forces brought the full strength of cannon artillery to bear. In addition, still unused to the emergent speed of information, the War Ministry in London issued precise reports of the number & nature of troops being sent to the Crimean theatre, which were dutifully reproduced in full detail in the Times. Russian diplomats were soon conveying all this intelligence back to St. Petersburg to assist their nation's preparation for war. The British commander in chief, General Simpson, soon pointed this out: "Our spies give us all manner of reports, while the enemy never spends a farthing for information. He gets it for five pence from a London paper." 22 Again, the promise of a new technology to command and co-ordinate does often not stand up to the unanticipated consequences encountered in the field, whether the domain be business or battle.

Yet in the end it was the Russian forces who capitulated, after the English made an assertive show of retaliation after earlier defeats, establishing a new 'graveness' in British foreign policy, significant in the uprisings of India which were but few years away. The Crimean conflict established the importance of the telegraph as a support and supply mechanism, and were clearly vital for the dissemination of news from abroad. Members of the British establishment were shocked, for example, when it was announced in the House of Lords on the afternoon of Mar 2, 1855, that Emperor Nicholas I had passed away in St. Petersburg four hours ago, that very day. However, the new wires also revealed an negative aspect of telegraphic communication which made it less than ideal for the conveyance of complex commands or instructions. telegraph messages were frequently being issued from a sender to someone unable to respond or ask for clarification, which as a result, would lead to drastic opportunities for miscommunication in the future. Attempting to manage complex situations from a distance, often issuing orders in short bursts which cannot be immediately clarified, often leaves the agent in the field even worse off than if he'd received no instruction at all. Before the telegraph, generals, ambassadors or representatives far removed from their command centre were given a great deal of autonomy and decision-making authority, after all, you couldn't wait months for a decision to travel back from London to Karachi, or from New York to Athens. The telegraph radically changed this, and frequently made for decisions in 'fits & starts' as new information constantly dribbled in, which in turn called for more feedback, which led to some seriously flawed crisis management in the conflicts and commerce of the future. 23 As one historian of colonial governance explains, with the telegraph "information was transmitted piecemeal; abstractions from reality arrived and quickly departed...irregularly and unpredictably...not regularity but jerkiness came to characterize the process of imperial decision making." 24

§ 5. The Atlantic

However, the struggle to wire the Atlantic continued at pace, regardless of the technological flux now being felt around the industrialized world. As Arthur C. Clarke summarizes, "in 1858, a handful of farsighted men succeeded in laying a telegraph cable across the North Atlantic, and at the closing of a switch the gap between Europe and America shrank abruptly from a month to a second." 25 The first cable, as it turned out, would only be operational for two weeks before shorting out as the insulation deteriorated, and it would take another seven years to lay a replacement, but the effect upon the world as distance seemed suddenly to vanish would be profound.

In 1856, just as the soldiers of Britain and France were returning home from the Crimea, and as construction of the Suez Canal began to gather steam in Egypt, another massive project was beginning to form in the commercial centre of London. With the crisis in the Balkans brought to settlement, the way was open for the English to proceed with a plan to span the Atlantic, from Valentia Bay in Ireland to Heart's Content, Newfoundland, with a single armoured cable some 2500 miles long. Cyrus Field, the enterprising American, had already sought out the best route for the cable through the advice of Matthew Maury, a oceanographer who had conducted an extensive study of the ocean's depths and geology years earlier. Maury had responded with cautious enthusiasm, noting that the shelf of seabed between Ireland and Newfoundland has been found to be a relatively shallow plateau, which might make it an ideal route for a cable.

With this information and just after the St. Lawrence River and Newfoundland had been crossed with cable, Field arrived in London to gather support for his idea after securing the blessing of Morse in New York. In the course of his London visit he met with the Brett Brothers (who had continued their English Channel business), Isambard Brunel (builder of the world's largest vessel at the time, The Great Eastern 26 ), a 24-year old wiring whiz, Charles Tilston Bright, and an electrical 'specialist', Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse. By November, the Atlantic telegraph Co. was formed with £350,000 'seed money' to acquire 335,000 miles of iron & copper wire along with 300,000 miles of tarred hemp which would be spun in a cable 2,500 miles long 5/8ths of an inch thick. Each mile would weigh about a tonne.

The next summer, 1857, William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) would be brought into the fray, just as the US steam frigate Niagara arrived to help carry half of the cable, the other half being the burden of the British wooden-hulled Agamemnon. The press coverage of the event was considerable, but led to a false start as within a week of departure from Ireland in August, the cable-reel mechanism jams, causing the cable to snap and fall lost under the waves. The necessity of completing the cable was now however much on the minds of Westminster. By 1856, there had been some 7200 kilometres of telegraph line and 46 cabling offices established in the Indian territories, but even the process of getting information out the region was painfully slow. Still, the terrestrial telegraph system in place in India had proved invaluable to the quelling of an indigenous uprising in the British Punjab earlier that year 27 and during the short time the cable was operating the English government was able to repeal a dispatch order to the Canadian colonies to send troops to India to assist. Without the Cable in place, the Admiralty would never have been able to relay the new orders, for the two Canadian regiments under General Trollope in Halifax to stand down, in time before they set sail in August of 1858, which more than recouped the initial public investment by the government. 28

The project is delayed another year as the reeling system is re-tooled and it is not until June of 1858 that the fleet of cable ships set out from Ireland again, only this time to find themselves battered by one of the fiercest Atlantic storms ever recorded. No ships are lost however, and on June 26 the two meet in the middle of the Atlantic, where the project team has opted to begin laying the cable, from mid-Atlantic, each ship carrying half the cable in opposite direction, the Niagara towards the West, the Agamemnon to the East. On Aug. 16th, both ends of the cable have been secured without fault and linked to land stations on either end, working well enough to send a 96 word message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. Cyrus Field, present at the first test message, with a flourish for history, is said to have produced the current necessary by chemical means, through the submersion of a metal thimble in an acid solution. 29 The celebrations around America came close to hysterical: there were hundred gun salutes in city harbours, flags flew from windows, terrible poetry commemorating the event flooded popular magazines (...speed, speed the cable, let it run,/a loving girdle round the earth,/till all the nations neath the sun/shall be as brothers of one hearth...) and the fireworks display in New York nearly reduced City Hall to smouldering cinder.

In the wake of the international jubilee, Charles Bright received a knighthood for his efforts in overseeing the technical aspects of the project and by Aug. 27, the first commercial and news messages have begun to cross the Atlantic from London:
Emperor of France returned to Paris, King of Prussia too ill to Visit Queen Victoria...Settlement of Chinese Question...Chinese Empire open to trade... foreign diplomatic agents admitted...indemnity to England and France... Gwalior insurgent army broken up...All India becoming tranquil.
Telegraph clerks at the St. John's station were actually begging on the behalf of American newspapers to send more news from abroad, "Pray give us some news for New York...they are mad for news". 30 Yet by Sept. 1 that same year, just weeks later, the insulation on this cable failed, melted by the use of unnecessarily high voltage, which Bright had specifically warned against. 31 There were immediate accusations the whole thing had been a hoax, a sort of "North Sea Bubble," and as investment dried up it would take eight years to re-establish the transatlantic link, this time using not two military ships, but an industrial wonder of the Steam Age and the world's largest transport, The Great Eastern. 32
14 As this wonderful book of economic history points out, the Suez represented an incredible opportunity for England - it was, after all, the fast-track to India and China which explorers and merchants had hoped for since the time of Columbus: "When the Suez Cannal opened in 1869, it fulfilled a centuries-old dream: a short-cut between Europe and Asia. In just three months, shipping costs between London and Bombay fell 30 percent; over the course of a decade the canal, plus improved steamships, cut the trip from Marseilles to Shanghai from 110 to 37 days. Goods, people and ideas moved on an unprecedented scale," from Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and World Economy, 1400-the Present (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 68.

15 That same year, the New York Tribune carried the editorial comment of a British political journalist, who remarked "whenever the revolutionary hurricane has subsided for a moment, one ever-recurring question is sure to turn up: the eternal Eastern Question," which refers specifically to the floundering Ottoman Empire, the importance of the region (esp. Egypt) to Britain's economic interests abroad, and the spreading influence of an expansionist Russia (who wanted access to the Mediterranean). The journalist, incidentally, was Karl Marx, who was just finishing his news career, his Communist Manifesto would not appear for another four years.

16 "Great Britain was as deeply involved in the Mediterranean as France, less for territorial conquest than in order to maintain the Balance of Power between Russia, Turkey, France and Egypt...the UK imported Russian grain, Egyptian cotton, Italian wine...but most important of all was the route to India, Britain's greatest source of power and wealth. Protecting that route loomed even larger in the minds of British Statesmen...British security depended on the Royal Navy and its bases in Gibraltar, Malta and Corfu." from Daniel Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications & International Politics, 1851-1945 (NY: Oxford, 1991), 16. See also John Cell, British Colonial Administration in the mid-19th century : the policy making process (New Haven: 1970), 224.

17 Since the early 1850s, Muslim police forces had been keeping Catholics & Russian Orthodox pilgrims from entering the sacred sights of the Holy Land, leading to reports, namely by James Finn, British consul in Jerusalem, of monks & priests of various faiths battling one another openly in the streets & stairwells of the city's chapels and tombs.

18 The Turkish army was led by a Croat (real name Michael Lotis, renegade from the Austrian army) who has converted to Islam and taken the name Omar Pasha. On Oct. 23, Pasha led his troops across the Danube at Widdin in West Bulgaria and took to Russian forces off-guard, pushing them against the Caucasus mountains where a legendary Chechen tribesman, Shamil, had been fighting a jihad for independence against Russian forces for many years prior to the current battle. Between the two groups, General Gorchakov's forces were in serious trouble.

19 See Willoughby Smith, The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy (London, 1891), 40-42, noted by Daniel Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications & International Politics, 1851-1945 (NY: Oxford, 1991), 17.

20 The Black Sea line was constructed on the order of Her Majesty's Expeditionary Force and put in place by on Charles Lidell, between Varna and Balaclava, some 300 miles in length and 'laid with very little slack' apparently. See Charles Bright, F.R.S.E., Submarine Telegraphs: Their History, Construction and Working (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1898), 21.

21 As an example of how combat information was conveyed in the course of an operation at this time, indicating just how little telegraphic speed matters when the intelligence conveyed is itself flawed, the following passage was the order of Lord Raglan (commander of Her Majesty's Crimean force), passed on by his sub-ordinates to Lord Cardigan in the field. The instructions led to the Charge of the Light Brigade, wherein 607 English soldiers rode into a valley brimming with Russian artillery, two-thirds being killed in minutes by the resulting bombardment : "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry on your left. Immediate," dated Oct. 25, 1854, from The Faber Book of Letters : Letters written in the English Language, 1578-1939 (London : Faber, 1988), 163.

22 Quoted in Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (NY: Walker & Co., 1998), 156.

23 Employees and managers make the same complaints about e-mail and instant messaging, wherein the constant barrage of 'snippets' of information for all different sources completely blots out the ability to accomplish anything beyond the successive treatment of micro-problems. Cases like these seem to show information-flow has to be filtered, even blocked at times, if cohesive analytical skills and situation comprehension is going to take place. Most people know this intuitively outside of the workplace, they wouldn't try to conduct seven simultaneous conversations in a restaurant or read seven books at once at home, yet put people in front a networked computer and they seem to forget their own best instincts. Herbert Simon, exceedingly lucid for an economist, wrote in the Sept. '95 issue of Scientific American, "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information resources that might consume it."

24 John Cell British Colonial Administration in the mid-19th century : the policy making process (New Haven: 1970), 27.

25 Arthur C. Clarke, How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village (NY: Bantam, 1992), 4.

26 The entire weight of the final cable was roughly 7000 tonnes, so the 32,000 ship was the only ship in the world at the time big enough to carry it and the 8000 tonnes of coal and provisions necessary to cross the Atlantic. The ship had five smokestacks, six masts, a six-story paddlewheel and room for a crew of 500. Originally she was to be a passenger vessel, but the era of ocean liner travel was still sometime away.

27 "All quiet here but affairs are critical, get every European you can from China to Ceylon and elsewhere, and also all the Gookras from the hills. Time is everything," was the text of the wire from Sir Henry Lawrence in Lucknow, on May 10th, 1857, as the Indian Rebellion swirled around him, to the Governor General in Calcutta. The message then travelled 2 days by steamer to Bombay, then onto Egypt arriving in Suez on the 27th of May. By Jun. 21st the message has reached Alexandria, and on the 26th was telegraphed from Trieste to London, arriving at Midnight - taking 40 days. Interestingly enough, you may note the only part of that message passed on to the rest of the world in the later message was 'All quiet..." which reveals that as an information hub for the planet, Britain was already acting as a filter as well. See Daniel Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications & International Politics, 1851-1945 (NY: Oxford, 1991), 19-21, and Sir W. B. O'Shaughnessy, The English Telegraph in British India: A manual of instructions for the subordinate officers, artificers and signallers in the Department (London, 1853).

28 "...the English Government had time to countermand the departure of two regiments about to leave Canada...a saving of about £50,000. This circumstance served to demonstrate the advantages to be derived from telegraphic communication between distant lands, and largely helped the starting of other kindred undertakings," from Charles Bright, F.R.S.E., Submarine Telegraphs: Their History, Construction and Working (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1898), 50, or E.B. Bright, F.R.A.S. "The Electric Telegraph" (1867), 115.

29 "...even feeble amounts of electricity, generated by chemically by lead acid batteries, could drive very low frequencies, generally below 30Hz, very long distances. Since the signal was a simple on-off transmission, it would tolerate a high level of noise. In modern terms it was a digital signal, binary, there or not there- unlike the later telephone, which had to send much more complex waveforms, analogue signals which could not tolerate much extra noise." Peter J. Hugill, Global Communications Since 1844 : Geopolitics & Technology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1999), 28.

30 Ibid., 51.

31 The problem here was that Bright and Thomson had turned the electrical upkeep of the cable over to Edward Whitehouse, a former surgeon with interests in the 'electrical arts', entirely self-taught, who served as the company's electrician for land operations. Whitehouse insisted, incorrectly, that only a high intensity current would make for reliable signalling. The loss of the cable likely cost the company some £100,000 as the high currents disintegrated the gutta percha lining. See Peter Hall, The Carrier Wave: New Information Technology and the Geography of Innovation (London: Bantam, 1988), 30, and Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (NY: Walker & Co., 1998), 78.

32 The similarity between this market reaction and the current difficulty in finding venture capital for any Internet start-up is...well...amusing.

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