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Voice Across the Sea by Arthur C. Clarke

Voice Across the Sea (1958)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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  1. 00
    How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village by Arthur C. Clarke (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: This later work contains most chapters from the 1974 Revised Edition of Voice Across the Sea, but brings the subject up-to-date (up to c1992, that is) with a lot of new material on communication satellites and fibre optics. Much of the later had also appeared in other books by Clarke, yet this one, despite plenty of repetition, holds up together pretty well. It may be regarded as Clarke's magnum opus on communications. (The Appendix contains his famous 1945 paper in which he was the first to propose in print geostationary satellites for worldwide telephone and TV coverage.)… (more)

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Arthur C. Clarke

Voice Across the Sea

William Luscombe, Hardback, 1974.

8vo. 228 pp. Revised Edition. ''Preface to the Second Edition'' by the author, 1974 [pp. 3-5]. 32 black-and-white illustrations.

First published, 1958.
Revised Edition, 1974.


Preface to the Second Edition

1. Introduction
2. The Coming of the Telegraph
3. Channel Crossing
4. A Great American
5. Lord of Science
6. False Start
7. Triumph and Disaster
8. Post-mortem
9. The Brink of Success
10. Heart's Content
11. Battle of the Sea Bed
12. Girdle around the Earth
13. The Deserts of the Deep
14. The Cable's Core
15. The Wires Begin to Speak
16. The Man Before Einstein
17. Mirror in the Sky
18. Transatlantic Telephone
19. The Dream Factory
20. Submarine Repeaters
21. Technical Interlude
22. Production Line
23. Laying the Cable
24. The New Cables
25. Communication Satellites
26. Star of India



I well know how dangerous it is to start a new book by Arthur Clarke in the evening. Yet I started this one. Now, after several sleepless nights, here I am. When non-fiction reads like this, you hardly need fiction. For the first time in my life I almost understand those eccentrics who make a point of reading almost, or even only, non-fiction. How’s that for an opening paragraph?

This is the story of Man’s newest victory in an age-old conflict – his war against the sea. It is a story of great moral courage, of scientific skill, of million-dollar gambles; and though it affects every one of us directly or indirectly, it is almost entirely unknown to the general public.

This surely refers to the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858–65 (Chapters 4–11), beautifully described by Arthur in his Preface to the Second Edition as “the Apollo project of its day”. By comparison, the laying of the first transatlantic telephone cable (Chapters 15–23) in 1956, though an impressive engineering achievement, is a bit of an anticlimax. To complete the picture, there is also a self-explanatory opening chapter and some material on the early history of the telegraph (2–3) and the communication satellites (24–25). The essays on radio (“Mirror in the Sky”) and the famous Bell Labs (“The Dream Factory”) are delightful bonuses. The last two chapters were written, and the previous one (23) thoroughly revised, for the 1974 edition. Otherwise the book is the same as it originally appeared in 1958 save for an occasional update.[1]

Has anybody ever written a novel or made a movie about the first transatlantic telegraph cable? It is a magnificent subject of epic proportions and timeless relevance. It clearly shows that “human nature changes little”, as Somerset Maugham observed[2], but also that Aldous Huxley was a little wide of the mark when he described the human animal as “moderately gregarious”[3]. A hundred and fifty years ago Man was just as eager to open new frontiers as to talk with his kind beyond the Atlantic. The story should be much better known indeed.

Today, in our time of miraculous technology, it is almost impossible to imagine how audacious an enterprise laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable was. Electricity was a poorly understood miracle. Electrical science and engineering were in their infancy; even units like ampere and ohm didn’t exist yet. Many short-distance cables had been laid in shallow waters (e.g. The Channel), but the North Atlantic was an entirely different proposition. Even though the shortest distance was chosen, between the south-western tip of Ireland and Newfoundland, it still amounted to some 2,000 miles. Nothing whatsoever was known about the character of the ocean bed; its depth was about 1,500–2,000 fathoms and that was all.[4] Enough was known, however, of the conditions on the surface not to attempt anything except in the summer months.

The first attempt occurred in 1857–58. Both the British Government and, more reluctantly, the American Congress participated with money and ships, but the project was largely privately funded, including contributions by Thackeray and Lady Byron (the poet’s wife). Months of toil, 2,500 tons of cable and £350,000 were sunk on the bottom of the Atlantic. The cable worked for about two weeks, between 16 August and 1 September 1858. The first message was a 99-word greeting from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. It took more than 16 hours to transmit! This sounds ridiculous, but consider the alternative: a letter, a steamship, several weeks at least. Considering how primitive the design of the first cable was, it is a miracle that it worked at all. When it went dead, there was a mass hysteria on both sides of the Pond. A Boston newspaper came with the bold headline “Was it a hoax?”, while an English journalist actually proved that the cable had never been laid at all.

Seven years passed until the next attempt. In 1865, a largely British and almost entirely privately funded enterprise, with the staggering for its time capital of £600,000, challenged the Atlantic again. The cable-laying ship was no other but the Great Eastern herself, the greatest ship of the nineteenth century, and the new cable was far better. Yet setbacks abounded. Suspicions of sabotage were eventually traced to a defect in the cable’s isolation. At one point the cable snapped and went to the bottom – some 2.5 miles down. Then the fathers of transatlantic communications, who had already shown foresight and fortitude beyond belief, did something extraordinary. They decided to lay another cable all the way from Ireland to Newfoundland, then return, haul up the old one and complete it. And they did. By the end of 1865, the Old and New world were linked by two fully functional telegraph cables. The communication time was reduced from a month to a minute.

One wonders if our species has not degenerated since the Victorian era. It has long been recognised that the more efficient the communications, the less worthwhile the communication, or in modern lingo “the smarter the phones, the dumber the users”. It would be a bitterly sarcastic blow if it turned out that the improvement in communications has been one of the major reasons for the increased stupidity of the human race. But that’s another story!

The novelist, or rather the short story writer, in Arthur serves him well when he has to describe concisely the major characters. Huge numbers of them were involved, but two figures loom larger than the rest, Cyrus W. Field, “A Great American” indeed, and the Victorian superman William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin. Field was a businessman of uncommon energy and charisma which he exercised to the full when he had to persuade prospective investors. By 1864, he had crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 31 times (!) on behalf of the project. This sounds impressive even for our “jet age”. Think what it must have meant when it took some two weeks to cross the Atlantic on a steamship. Mr Field must have spent some 16 months overall in sailing the Atlantic alone! As for the “Lord of Science”, he was the chief brain behind much of the scientific background, just one among the numerous accomplishments in his life.

The first transatlantic telephone cable (TAT 1) in 1956 was a much less adventurous project: there was never any doubt that it would work, and work well. Still, it was a massive endeavour that took three years, £14,000,000 raised by three countries (UK, US, Canada), and two types of highly sophisticated cable produced under conditions normally encountered in the pharmaceutical industry. It stretched from Oban in Scotland to Clarenville in Newfoundland, some 2,250 miles, then by shallow waters and radio links to New York. And just think of the impact it must have had! Dots and dashes are nice, but how much more stirring it is to hear another human voice from the other side. This was not the first time human speech was transmitted from Europe to America: radio waves had been used for that ever since 1927. But this “radio telephone” depended on reflections from the ionosphere, which was anything but stable. The transatlantic cables provided service that was cheaper and more reliable. They were also, together with the centenary of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, the main reason for the writing of Voice Across the Sea.

Ironically enough, TAT 1 was completed just one year before Sputnik opened the space era. Surprisingly enough, satellites had a positive effect on the seemingly primitive cables submerged on the ocean bed. Both mediums developed with staggering swiftness, but they complemented rather than competed with each other. TAT 1 had a capacity of only 36 channels. Twenty years later, in 1976, TAT 6 was expected to have – and did have[5] – capacity of 4,000 channels. Intelsat 1 in 1965 could carry just 240 voice or 1 TV channel and had investment cost per a circuit year of $15,300. Intelsat 4 in 1971–72 – merely seven years later! – had a capacity of 6,000 voice or 12 TV channels and the extraordinary investment cost per a circuit year of only $500.

Arthur jokes in his dedication that John Pierce “bullied” him into writing this book, but it’s quite obvious that he relished the subject. He is certainly right that history contains valuable lessons, if only we could learn from them, perhaps the most important being that vast international projects may well succeed “if only the politicians can be kept out of them.” The laying of both the telegraph and the telephone cables succeeded only because the Cable Fathers had zero tolerance to vanity and prejudices, be they personal or national. Another great lesson is that false optimism is not necessarily a bad thing. At one place Arthur remarks perceptively that the first transatlantic telegraph cable was “not the first time that an over-optimistic report had launched a project and sustained its originators in the face of difficulties that they might never have faced had they known the facts.” He immediately adds in a thought-provoking footnote that “sometimes, of course, it works the other way – as when the German physicists decided, from incorrect measurements, that the atomic bomb is impossible.”

It is difficult, for me at least, to imagine how this type of book could be better written. The history is lively, concise and with just the right dose of contemporary journalistic accounts, most of them from press correspondents on the cable-laying ships (one such account is a terrific description of sea storm that Conrad or Kipling would have been proud to pen), and even pure trivia. Already on the second page of the introduction, Arthur admits that “my object has been, frankly, to entertain as much as to instruct”, therefore he “wandered down some odd by-ways whenever the scenery has intrigued me.” He does not apologise for this sort of “trivia” because he thinks, and I agree, it makes history “three-dimensional”. There is plenty of fascinating stuff along these “odd by-ways”. Who knew, for instance, that the brother of Cyrus Field was a notable landscape painter whose depictions of the Niagara Falls are regarded as some of the best ever put on canvas? I didn’t. Who knew, to take another example, that “one of the most remarkable, as well as most opinionated, characters” to appear before the commission that investigated the failure of the first telegraph cable (“Post Mortem”) was the very Robert Fitzroy, he of the Beagle fame? I certainly didn’t. Then there was Charles Wheatstone, the astonishing prodigy who could… But I digress!

At this point I am reminded of the Scots preacher who remarked to his congregation during the course of a sermon on the Holy Writ: ‘Now we come to a verra difficult passage, and having looked it squarely in the face, we pass on.’ Unfortunately, I cannot take such an easy way out; a good deal of what follows will be ‘verra difficult’, but it is the reader who must decide whether or not to pass on.

This is the beginning of Chapter 18, in which, incidentally, there is nothing “verra difficult”. Few writers have managed to make complex science accessible to the lay reader as well as Arthur Clarke. Nobody has done it better for the simple reason that it is not possible. There is a good deal about the structure of the cables and how their properties change underwater, as well as much about esoteric notions like “duplex operation” or “carrier-frequency transmission”, but everything is explained with crystalline lucidity. Even when he describes in minute detail those fabulous submarine repeaters, which bulged TAT 1 every 40 miles or so and amplified the signal 1,000,000 times, no prior knowledge is necessary to follow Arthur’s text. The only exception is self-confessed and aptly titled. This is Chapter 21 which is designed for readers with some background in electronics. Most of it is still comprehensible to somebody, such as myself, totally ignorant of electronics, though once or twice I had to resort to helpless head-scratching. It’s a short chapter anyway.

Last but not least, I must say that the whole book is permeated with the classic Clarkian humour. Some readers find it too puerile, but that's their own business. I find it delicious to read, for example, that the attempts to wire Sardinia and Algeria underwater provided an impressive example of “combined Anglo-French ineptitude” or that the “immunity of the British to seasickness is, of course, proverbial”. More seriously, pig-headed “experts” who roundly declared this or that is “impossible” have always been one of Arthur’s favourite fun targets. He does not miss the opportunity here, either. Believe it or not, one expert in the early days of the steam engine predicted that no steamship could cross the Atlantic. Well, the Great Eastern could sail from England to Australia – and back. Arthur was not averse to poking fun at his younger self as well. In a letter to Wireless World from February 1945, he imagined manned space stations as communication satellites in the “more remote future – perhaps half a century ahead.” He was very wide of the mark indeed, but he knew he shouldn’t blame himself because nobody could have predicted the Electronic Revolution back in 1945. On the other hand, Arthur’s casual remark that “1995 remains a plausible target date for the large, permanently manned space-stations” was uncannily close to the future. The International Space Station was launched in 1998.

The book is beautifully illustrated with 32 black-and-white photos, from cable cross-sections to the Great Eastern meeting a whale, and wonderful endpapers. The latter are remarkably helpful. They consist of maps and profiles of the sea bed for two of the most famous telephone cable routes. One is the historical TAT 1, while the other is reportedly the longest cable ever laid underwater: 2,100 nautical miles[6] from California (Point Arena) to Hawaii (Honolulu, of course). What makes this even more remarkable than it looks at first glance is that the ocean bed, as you can see from the vertical profile, lies mostly 2500–3000 fathoms below the surface, far deeper than the North Atlantic (TAT 1, incidentally, was about 1,950 nautical miles long).

Arthur Clarke has certainly succeeded with both entertainment and instruction. The target reading public of Voice Across the Sea is by no means limited to Clarke aficionados. Every lay reader curious about the history of communications, especially by submerged cables, would probably find this book instructive and even entertaining. Most of it was later reprinted in How the World Was One (1992), Arthur’s magnum opus on global communications, but the 1974 Revised Edition remains relevant by virtue of its compactness and illustrations. Since it consists almost entirely of history, it is very little dated.

[1] I have not seen a copy of the 1958 edition. The information about revisions is based on the author’s Preface to the Second Edition. Except that Arthur wrongly names Chapter 23 as “The New Cables”, there is no reason to doubt his account.
[2] W. Somerset Maugham, “Reflections on a Certain Book” in The Vagrant Mood (1952).
[3] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited [1958], Vintage, 2004, p. 31
[4] Some units: 1 fathom = 6 ft = 1.8 m; 1 mile = 8 furlongs = 1,760 yards = 1,602 m = 1.602 km.
[5] See Arthur C. Clarke, How the World Was One, Gollancz, 1992, which continues the history of comsats and introduces the weird world of fibre optics.
[6] 1 nautical mile = 1.151 mi = 1,852 m. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Apr 23, 2016 |
A very interesting story about the laying of trans-Atlantic cables first for telegraphic and later for telephone use.

Arthur Clarke has a unique ability to make a rather dry subject into an great read. I especially liked the first half of the book when science advancement was due to the genius of individual scientists rather than the group efforts of modern days. I was surprised to learn how mathematicians were so important in the development of the cables.

The book is entertaining with a conversational discussion of every aspect from inventor to stories of the trials and tribulation the implementation of the technology. The last 50 or so pages seem dull to me as there was less drama and his emphasis on the "modern" vacuum tube technology techniques and manufacture seem a bit amusing at times. But then this was the birth of electronics as we now know it and in 1958 when this was written it was rocket science.

Fascinating informative read with excellent illustrations. ( )
1 vote Lynxear | Jun 4, 2012 |
Very interesting read about the history of ocean telegraph and telephone cables. ( )
  paul.marcino | Oct 29, 2009 |
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