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Wednesday April 23rd 2014




The history of two-way communication is embedded in a series of much deeper histories: technology, imperialism, and the rise of the nation state, to name but a few. These, in turn, are embedded in a discourse that returns theory to a central place in non-Marxist histories. Several theoretical enterprises emerging from the academic disciplines of economics and political science look to technology as one of the major engines that drive history and to telecommunications technology as the most significant technology in the current world economy.

Tilly notes that there are essentially two types of states: trading states and territorial states. Trading states are maritime in nature, exert weak geopolitical control over long distances, and excel at the long-distance communications needed to manage their economies. To exchange goods profitably, trading states have needed a great deal of mutual trust and sophisticated commercial arrangements among a community of spatially distant merchants. Updating Tilly’s argument, one would add managers and consumers to merchants. Trading states have fairly fluid social structures and a mutually supportive relationship between commerce and government. In the political realm they tend to relative democracy. The archetypes have been Holland and Britain. Territorial states are continental in nature, exert strong geopolitical control over short distances, but have very little reach beyond that. The economies of territorial states tend to be command economies, with the government in charge, and with a one-way information flow down a strict social hierarchy. In the political realm they tend to relative autocracy. The archetypes have been China and Russia. Some states such as the U.S., France, Germany, Japan, and Spain have caused untold chaos at different times in world history shifting between different aspects of the two types or, worse, attempting to be both at the same time. From the1400s onward, wealth generation has been driven by the remarkable success of trading states and their ever-increasing domination of the world economy. During the 1900s, this proved to be even more the case, although it did not seem that way in 1904 when British geopolitician Mackinder suggested that nineteenth century improvements in communications, especially terrestrial telegraphy and railroads, meant the commercial domination of the world economy by trading states was ending. In the early 1900s, however, wireless telecommunications began to shift the balance back toward trading states. The three main wars of the twentieth century (World Wars I and II, and the Cold War) were about the containment of the two main territorial states of the period, Germany and Russia, by the two main trading states, Britain and the U.S. Much of this containment was through superior telecommunications. Although the global telecommunications system was shaped by the spectacular growth of the British submarine cable system after the first successful transatlantic cable opened for business in 1866, the 1900s saw considerable improvement of a system that had reached much of its modern shape by the late 1800s. Seven innovations stand out:
1. Low-frequency wireless telegraphy, starting around 1900
2. High-frequency wireless, which allowed telephony as well as telegraphy, in the 1920s
3. Microwave wireless, which led to radar, in the 1930s
4. Submarine telephone cables in the 1950s
5. Satellites in the 1960s
6. Fiber-optic submarine cables in the 1980s
7. Cellular wireless telephones in the 1990s.

These seven innovations have increased the capacity or convenience of the global communications system and have trended towards radically lowered costs. Developments in two-way communications often encouraged one-way communications, such as the development of broadcast radio entertainment out of wireless telecommunications. Occasionally the flow of innovation has reversed, as in the importance of electronic television technology to the development of radar. Two areas of interaction between commercial and state power have been driven by telecommunications. First, states have sought to control communications systems, to prevent other states controlling them, or both. Most states, America being a rare exception, developed post, telegraph, and telephone systems (PTTs) as government monopolies in the 1800s, and frequently added such new technologies as broadcasting as they arose in the 1900s. Second, wireless telecommunication allows real-time connections without people or vehicles being tied to a spatially fixed infrastructure. The advantages of the cellular telephone to individuals are obvious. Commercially, the global positioning system (GPS) allows us to operate the world economy in an efficient, ‘‘just-in-time’’ way. Militarily, GPS allows considerable geopolitical control at very great distance, with the extreme accuracy and concentration of force afforded by ‘‘smart’’ bombs and cruise missiles, and without committing large numbers of ground troops. Telecommunications are inextricably bound up with geopolitical power. In 1866 British capital began the successful installation of a global network of submarine cables that was never surpassed, investing as freely in Buenos Aires as in Birmingham. The geography of the network was such that most of the world’s telegraphic messages passed through Britain. The cable companies involved cooperated closely with the British government. In World War I, Britain’s control over global telecommunications and the skill of British code breakers was so complete that Room 40 in the British Admiralty was able to intercept and decode the notorious Zimmerman telegram. In 1917 German foreign minister Zimmerman offered Mexico the return of historic Spanish possessions in the American Southwest for attacking America, helping bring America into World War I. The technological history of telegraphy is in three parts: terrestrial, submarine, and wireless, with only the last being a technology of the 1900s. The first great terrestrial companies were established in America after 1844. The first global telecommunications system was the British submarine cable system that grew after 1866, but required ‘‘repeater’’ stations on islands under British control dotted around the world’s oceans, hence some of the odder territorial acquisitions of the Empire. Of the seven innovations in telecommunications of the 1900s, the first—low-frequency wireless—built on this base of global control. Low-Frequency, Long-Wave Wireless The possibility of wireless telegraphy was demonstrated by Hertz’s empirical verification of Maxwell’s equations in 1888. Eight years later, Marconi patented the first wireless telecommunications system. In 1901 Lloyd’s gave Marconi’s a monopoly on ship-to-shore wireless and required it for a ship to achieve their highest insurance rating. Marconi’s commercial success was assured and the Titanic disaster of 1912 made Marconi a household name.

Wireless quickly became one of the most contested technological arenas of the early twentieth century. Nonmilitary researchers and entrepreneurs of this pioneer period dreamed of something like cellular telephones, well beyond the available technology, but it was in the geopolitical and military arenas that wireless took deepest hold. Several countries, the U.S. and Germany in particular, saw it as a way of challenging Britain’s telecommunications dominance with all that that implied for British global hegemony. At the military level, navies quickly realized that wireless offered centralized command and control of ships at sea and began to force the ship-to-shore technology Marconi pioneered. Afraid of depending on a British supplier, the U.S. and German navies made major investments in wireless before 1910.

World War I caused even more rapid evolution of wireless than the naval armaments race before the war. By 1915, the British Army was using lowfrequency wireless telegraphy to allow airplanes to spot for guns. By late 1918, Allied airplanes were being fitted with higher frequency, wireless telephone systems to allow centralized command and control of the air war. ‘‘Plan 1919’’ called for Allied wireless telephony to coordinate air and ground advance using attack airplanes and tanks. In World War II, Germany, laggard in 1918, demonstrated such blitzkrieg to perfection. The huge numbers of vacuum tubes produced for ‘‘Plan 1919’’ allowed commercial broadcasting to develop in the early 1920s, operating at the same frequencies as the radios built for mobile war, today’s medium waves or AM band.

High-Frequency, Short-Wave Wireless Vacuum tubes also made possible much higher frequencies for telecommunication. Marconi experimented successfully in the 1920s with highfrequency short waves, and ‘‘beam’’ antennae for global wireless telegraphy and telephony. The resulting imperial network of short-wave beam wireless stations was extremely cheap to build and operate and effectively renewed Britain’s control of global communications by the mid-1920s. The submarine cable companies, seeing their profits evaporate, persuaded the British government to save them in 1929 by forcing Marconi to merge with them. The resulting company became Cable and Wireless in 1934.

Microwave Wireless
Although microwave wireless had its origins in the commercial world when Standard Telephones and Cables, based on work in their Paris laboratories, installed a ‘‘micro-ray’’ telephone relay across the English Channel in 1931 operating in the 17.6- centimeter band, microwave technology matured in war, not peace, and with radar, not telephony. In 1908 Wells’ novel, The War in the Air, suggested an irresistible fleet of German zeppelins could cross the Channel, destroy the British fleet, bomb Britain into submission, then continue across the Atlantic to destroy the American fleet and bomb New York. Zeppelins fared poorly in World War I, but German airplane raids scared Britain into developing the world’s first independent air force to both attempt defense against bombers and to bomb back. Three strands of reasoning developed: in Italy, Douhet argued that bombing civilians into submission would be the way to win future wars; in America, Mitchell argued for precise bombing of strategic targets; and in Britain, Trenchard argued that air forces could control fractious provinces of the Empire more cheaply and with less loss of (British) lives than could occupying armies, a policy known as ‘‘control without occupation.’’ Despite arguments that ‘‘the bomber will always get through,’’ defense began to seem possible when Watson-Watt suggested to Britain’s Committee for Imperial Defence that radio might locate incoming bombers. Watson-Watt routinely transmitted bursts of high-frequency radio to examine the ionosphere and inform the imperial short-wave beam wireless stations what the best frequencies were that day. He noted early returns when aircraft flew overhead during transmissions. Radar matured very rapidly under renewed German aerial threat after 1934. Radar was not really new, being patented in Germany in 1904 to help ships enter harbors in fog. STC’s ‘‘micro-ray’’ telephone link across the Channel led the French to equip Atlantic liners with experimental (and unsuccessful) collision-avoidance radar in the late 1930s. At the military level, after World War I all the major navies experimented secretly with radar to solve the problems of gunnery in poor visibility; by World War II all had implemented radar systems. It was air war did the most to improve radar. In ships or onshore radar could be heavy, bulky, and use lots of energy. Britain’s Committee for Imperial Defence decided by 1936 that a day battle for Britain could be won using ground radardirected fighters, forcing Germany into night bombing and requiring lighter, smaller, more energy-efficient microwave systems in fighters themselves. Massive technology forcing ensued and the British deployed Mark IV airborne intercept radars operating at 1.5 meters in early 1941, during the nighttime blitz on London. In part, this technology succeeded by drawing on Britain’s pioneering electronic television, commercially deployed in 1936. Television engineers maintained the crucial radar systems and, at war’s end, radar engineers found employment in television. Blumlein, Britain’s greatest electronics engineer,
helped develop electronic television, Mark IV airborne intercept radar, and H2S ground-imaging, bomb-aiming radar before his untimely death in June 1942. H2S radar was crucial for Britain’s commitment to strategic bombing, allowing bombing by night or through thick cloud or smoke. It and its counterpart, Airborne Intercept Mark IX radar, operated in the 10-centimeter microwave band, later moving to 3 centimeters. After World War II was over, microwave technology returned to its peacetime origins in microray telephony. Because little real estate had to be acquired, just hilltop sites for line-of-sight relay towers, microwave telephony was cheap, offered high-capacity communications, and was rapidly installed in countries such as the U.S. and Canada where sheer distance made co-axial cable expensive. By the late 1940s such microwave relays were also planned to carry television signals coastto-coast in North America.

Submarine Telephone Cables
In 1956 Bell Telephone laid the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT-1, using analog transmission technology. Initial capacity was only 36 simultaneous calls but it also carried more telegraphic traffic than the then total capacity of all existing submarine telegraph cables, rendering them obsolete. Unlike the submarine telegraph cables, telephone lines need a great deal of power to drive speech long distances. Bell devised vacuum tube amplifiers compact enough to be installed within the cable and reliable enough for 25 years serviceon the sea floor. TAT-1 needed 51 amplifiers in each direction to push signals across the Atlantic. Although such telephone service was well beyond the pockets of the average person, TAT- 1, its successors through TAT-7, and its competitors, the Anglo-Canadian CANTATs-1 and -2, ushered in a revolution in business communications across the Atlantic. Capacity mushroomed, from 36 simultaneous calls in 1956 to 11,173 when TAT-7 opened in 1983. Together with jets, which entered transatlantic service in 1959, the TATs made possible effective multinational corporations. The large American automobile manufacturers, Ford and General Motors, became proto-multinationals before World War II, but operated their American, European, and Japanese factories as independent fiefdoms with independent management structures. The communications and transport revolutions of the 1950s made centralized management possible from America through instant voice communication and rapid site visits to remote factories. As the European economy recovered following World War II, European companies such as Nestle´ followed suit. Pacific telephone cables and the development of jets able to reach Tokyo from London or New York nonstop have ushered in the era of global companies, especially once the Cold War ended and Russian airspace was opened to Western jets. Telecommunications capacity grew more slowly across the Pacific in the analog era. The first Pacific telephone cable was Transpac-1, installed in 1964 with 142 lines. By 1977 there were only 987 lines from America to Asia with a further 1380 from Canada to Australia and New Zealand. Submarine telephone cables had severe limitations. TAT-1, at approximately $1 million per voice circuit, made calls expensive. Even TAT-6, at $179 million for 4,000 circuits, was stunningly expensive, as was TAT-7. AT&T proposed a 16,000-circuit analog TAT-8 that would have cost close to $1 billion and required a thousand built-in amplifiers. A cheaper solution was needed.

Satellites were seen as the first alternative to the expensive, low-capacity submarine telephone cables of the 1950s. The first communications satellite, Telstar, was designed by Bell Telephone and launched into low-earth orbit in 1962. Satellites were relatively cheap, especially when launched into geosynchronous orbits so they appeared stationary above the earth’s surface. They promised much higher capacity than analog submarine cables. The American International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) was created in 1964 to manage the satellite system, although with geopolitical as well as commercial aims. Although the experimental satellites of the 1960s and 1970s had limited capacities Intelsat-V, launched in 1980, and -VI, launched in 1981, added 45,000 transatlantic telephone circuits between them.

Until the early 1990s Intelsat had as much of a telecommunications monopoly as Britain’s Eastern Companies before World War I or Cable and Wireless in the late 1930s. As signals passed through Intelsat they were decrypted by the National Security Agency, giving America the same geopolitical advantages that Britain had previously accrued. Four events have reduced the commercial and geopolitical advantages of satellites. First, the 1986 failure of the American space shuttle, Challenger-7, threw the American launch program into disarray and resulted in most commercial satellite launches moving to the French Ariane program, although they would have likely done so anyway because the shuttle’s cargo bay restricted satellite diameter. Second, the success of the noise- and delay-free fiber-optic cables after TAT-8 was laid in 1989, markedly reduced the utility of satellites for communications.

Third, the technology of satellites is such that there are relatively few parking slots in geosynchronous orbit, they last only about ten years, and their stability is controlled by their diameter, which in turn is controlled by the launch vehicle. Fourth, rapidly improving encryption capabilities have made decryption impossible without acquiring the cryptography of other states through intelligence assets. Satellites have therefore had to find other uses: gathering remotely sensed data of human and natural activities on the earth’s surface; for GPS location of mobile assets; and for digital television transmission. By the mid-1990s there were 30 satellites in geosynchronous orbit, most of which were launched aboard Arianes, 22 owned by Intelsat, 4 by Inmarsat of London, and 4 by PanAmSat of Greenwich, Connecticut. Fiber-optics In a talk given in 1969 Alec Reeves, the father of pulse code modulation (PCM), the digital  encoding system universally used in telecommunications, forecast submarine fiber-optic cable using PCM within twenty years. The first, TAT-8, entered service in late 1988 carrying some 11,500 circuits and operating at 280 million bits per second with amplifiers about every 65 kilometers. Despite considerable problems developing an optically pure glass with low transmission losses and optical amplifiers that could be installed in the cables, fiber-optic technology has exploded since 1988. Capacity has skyrocketed and amplifier spacing has lengthened. By the late twentieth century, 20 billion bits per second was possible in the laboratory. The target is a trillion bits per second through an individual fiber no bigger than a human hair, the equivalent of ten million simultaneous telephone calls.

Replacing analog with fiber-optic cables has returned emphasis to submarine transmission. Fiber-optic cables not only have very much higher capacity than analog ones, but also have the vanishingly low sampling errors important to PCM transmission. Laid over true terrestrial distances, they have none of the conversation interrupting transmission delays that occur in sending signals to a geosynchronous satellite and back to earth again, a fraction of a second even at the speed of light. Their low error rate makes them ideal for business data transmission, which is where most of their capacity is being used, although their vast overcapacity has led to extremely low cost for international telephony. Without them, the Internet would be impossible.

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