Networking & Communications

This month in tech history: August - Communication firsts

It seems August is a popular month for first communications; the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed in 1858, the first commercial telegram was sent around the world in 1911, and the first e-mail was sent from space in 1991. Here’s a brief history of each event.


16 August 1858 - First transatlantic telegraph cable completed

American businessman Cyrus West Field and the Atlantic Telegraph Company were behind the construction of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Finance for the project was shared between the US and the British, including a pledge from the British government, and this joint effort was reflected in the choice of cable ships: the British HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara.

It took five attempts to successfully lay the cable, with the two ships finally reaching their respective destinations on 4th and 5th of August 1858.

The first official telegram to cross the Atlantic, on 16 August 1858, was:

“Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”

Unfortunately, just two months later, on 20th October 1858, it stopped working.

A second attempt at transatlantic telegraph communication began in 1865 with better materials and, while this also suffered setbacks, a connection was completed and put into service on 28 July 1866. The new cable could transmit eight words a minute – 80 times faster than the 1858 cable.


20 August 1911 - First commercial telegram sent around the world

In a test to find out how fast a commercial message could travel around the world, The New York Times sent a telegram reading simply, “This message sent around the world”. It left the NYT offices at what is now One Times Square (best known for the New Year’s Eve ball drop) at 7 PM, travelled over 28,000 miles and was relayed by 16 different operators through, amongst other locations, San Francisco, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Bombay, Malta, Lisbon and the Azores. It arrived back at The Times 16.5 minutes later - the fastest time achieved by a commercial cablegram since the opening of the Pacific cable in 1900 by the Commercial Cable Company.


9 August 1991 - First e-mail from space

STS-43 was the ninth mission for Space Shuttle Atlantis, which launched on 2 August 1991 from Kennedy Space Centre. A nine-day mission, the main goal was to launch the fourth Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-E. However, the mission is also known for having sent the first e-mail from space.

Using an Apple Macintosh Portable computer and the AppleLink online service, Atlantis astronauts Shannon Lucid and James C. Adamson sent the following message:

“Hello Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,…send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,…we’ll be back!”

While the Macintosh Portable only needed a few minor modifications to operate in space, the AppleLink software was specially configured to connect to NASA’s communication system. The AppleLink software was configured with a special Macintosh Communications ToolBox Connection Tool that interfaced to NASA’s communication system and allowed the Shuttle to call up GEIS’ network from space.

You can see a video with highlights of the mission here.


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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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