There are a few minutes available to me before Spouse and I jet off to Christmas party The First (Office edition) this evening. The logistical problem I should be trying to solve right now is “how to keep seven pounds of perogies warm prior to transport and consumption at a remote festivity” – the office party is always a pot luck affair. What I am doing instead of that is sitting down to quickly rap out a quick bit about an article by Neal Stephenson entitled Mother Earth Motherboard.
Stephenson is the guy who wrote the popular novel Cryptonomicon; I haven’t read that book – yet (please, Santa, please!) – but according to at least one source, the subject matter of that novel was strongly influenced by Stephenson’s work on Mother Earth Motherboard (which he wrote first).
This article is the most fascinating thing I’ve read in any magazine ever. High praise, yes – but all the more astonishing when you consider the subject material: the article is about the history of very long wires. Stephenson turns quite a trick, making the material compelling and astonishingly interesting. The piece is lengthy and involved – the self-described “hacker tourist” author is nothing if not thorough – but this article is unique in my experience in that I can remember it very well more than ten years after I read it for the first time. Just mull that over for a minute or two; can you really remember in detail the subject matter of any magazine article you read eleven years ago?
Mother Earth Motherboard reviews the history of telegraph and telephone cables and some of the more notable folk involved in wiring up the world. In 1996, it was still very much the dawn of the Internet age and trans-oceanic and intercontinental telephone cables were suddenly increasing in importance; an ever-growing amount of voice traffic had steadily driven the demand for more and more circuits connecting all the places in the world to one another, but the flood of data traffic was already beginning to spill over the top of dam. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be a geek to know what the word “bandwidth” meant, or at least to have a notion that it had something to do with increasing our collective capacity to shuttle information across new global networks. Stephenson’s article provides detail as to how the connections are physically established and the types of technical problems that must be overcome. For example, an early passage in the article discusses the technical problems caused by (among other things) the phenomenon of induction; when a wire is physically moved through a magnetic field, a current is induced in the wire. The induced current in a long cable stretched across the surface of the earth and moved through magnetic fields (as a result of the rotation and motion of the earth through space) poses a problem for anyone trying to send a signal (such as a phone call) through the wire: the induced current essentially drowns out the desired signal:
Long cables act as antennae, picking up all kinds of stray currents as the rotation of the Earth, and its revolution around the sun, sweep them across magnetic fields of terrestrial and celestial origin. At the Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno, Cornwall… is a graph of the so-called Earth current measured in a cable that ran from there to Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, decades ago. Over a period of some 72 hours, the graph showed a variation in the range of 100 volts. Unfortunately, the amplitude of the telegraph signal was only 70 volts. So the weak, smeared-out pulses making their way down the cable would have been almost impossible to hear above the music of the spheres.
Stephenson’s piece also affords the reader insight into the commercial interests and processes involved in constructing these enormously costly pieces of infrastructure. He places all of this information in a historical context that includes a discussion of the ways in which people have stored their knowledge from ancient times right through to the present. Sprinkled throughout are fascinating bits of information that establish (pardon the pun) the most astonishing connections: for example, one of the places Stephenson explores is a cable station in Egypt that was being built “virtually on top of the ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria.” The symmetry, for me, was powerful and compelling – a data cable carrying millions of bits of information per second, a piece of the “information superhighway” we used to hear so much about being anchored into the ancient continent very near to what once was the repository for something approaching the sum total of then current human knowledge. I won’t ruin the end of the article for you, but everything – everything – is ulimately tied together, from the “mirror galvanometer” (a device used in the early days of these cables to extract information from it) to the stream of binary data being rocketed through the cables attached to the back of your computer right now in a way that made me sit back and say “wow”.
I was still virtually raving about the article today, when I had occasion to mention it to a friend in conversation over lunch. In fact, just discussing some of the more interesting parts of this excellent piece has prompted me to pull out my copy of the article and vow to read it for a third time.
I know I’m not doing Stephenson’s piece justice, because I can almost hear you thinking to yourself, “well, I’m not really interested in any of that”, and neither was I when I started reading the piece. Thirty-nine pages ( ! ) and eleven years later, though, I can’t stop talking about it.
C’mon, aren’t you just a little bit curious?