June 5, 2023

Speaking Across the Seas

I was lucky enough recently to have the opportunity to travel to Chile along with my missus. In our hotel room in Santiago one evening, whilst she was chatting on the mobile phone with her sister back in England, I pondered the miracle of modern communication.

Until the late 19th century, the fastest form of communication to the Americas was by steam ship. Mail took around ten days to reach North America (weather permitting), many weeks longer to Chile. Ships had to navigate the notorious and storm lashed Cape Horn, round the southern most tip of South America, thence up the west coast of Chile to the port of Valparaiso, and by horse or foot to Santiago.

In 1859 the first transatlantic cable went into operation linking England, via a relay station in West Ireland, to Newfoundland, the messages then being forwarded overland by rail and mail coach southwards. This cable, at first unreliable and prone to breakage, took years to complete, bankrupting several investors, before reliable communication was established by 1870. Early messages were expensive and slow to send, and traffic was mostly limited to urgent diplomatic cables and stock exchange transactions. The coming of wireless telegraphy changed everything. The first transatlantic radio message (a letter ‘S’ in Morse code) was transmitted by Gugleilmo Marconi (who built on earlier research by Nikola Tesla) from Cornwall to St. Johns, Newfoundland in 1901, the culmination of 20 years of technical struggle, finally gaining him a Nobel prize in 1909. Radio messages, bounced off the Ionosphere, finally overcame the need for cables on the seabed, and these cables gradually became redundant.

With the launch in 1957 of Sputnik 1, atop a Russian Soyuz rocket designed by the brilliant engineer Sergei Korolev, the first artificial communication satellites became a step closer. By 1962 the American Telstar satellite relayed the first telephone communications via orbit. The invention of miniature solid state electronics (by a team working at Texas Instruments) and packet data switching technology, now means anyone who can afford a mobile phone has access to virtually instant and crystal clear communication. The English caller’s mobile transmits digitally to a nearby base station, and is then routed to a microwave relay station to be transmitted upwards. After being picked up by a communication satellite in geosynchronous low-earth orbit the signal is ‘bounced’ through two or three similar satellites which find the recipient’s handset by picking up a coded message describing it’s whereabouts anywhere on earth. A satellite then forwards the signal through another microwave relay station to the closest local base station, translates speech back from digital to analogue and relays it to the mobile -all in a fraction of a second. The reaction of Marconi, Tesla, Korolev and the others to this technology can only be imagined.


So what were my wife and sister in law discussing?


They were comparing their poo.

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