Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made. ... FLAG, a fiber-optic cable now being built from England to Japan, is a skinny little cuss (about an inch in diameter), but it is 28,000 kilometers long, which is long even compared to really big things like the planet Earth. When it is finished in September 1997, it arguably will be the longest engineering project in history. ... we all depend heavily on wires, but we hardly ever think about them. Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn't know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry. ... it behooves wired people to know a few things about wires - how they work, where they lie, who owns them, and what sorts of business deals and political machinations bring them into being.
Williams’ discovery of the mysterious block was followed by dozens of reports of similar findings on beaches across western Europe. The blocks, materializing from the Atlantic surf, would cast the spotlight on gutta percha, a Victorian commodity whose obscurity belied its crucial place in modern communications. The humble latex would accelerate global telecommunications to a previously unimagined pace; cement the British empire’s grip over the world’s critical messaging systems; and spur industry and academia to devise some of the foundational theories of modern physics. ... The Victorian system of submarine cables literally laid the foundation, in many cases, for today’s fiber-optic networks. The globe-spanning networks of the day spawned business titans, and technological innovators, that bear close parallels to today’s internet-enabled tycoons. Gutta percha was largely replaced by polyethylene by the 1950s, ending a century of industrial telecommunications use. ... in 1832, a Scottish surgeon stationed in Singapore with the East India Company named William Montgomerie wrote a paper about gutta percha’s unique properties: it could be moulded in hot water but it hardened as it cooled. ... It was as if the Elon Musks or Steve Jobs of the day were all focused on the same, potentially world-altering technology. ... Pender’s businesses left a legacy. Vestiges of his cable empire live on in today’s telecom conglomerates. His firms formed the core of Cable & Wireless