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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Future of Transoceanic Telephony - 1942
by Oliver E. Buckley
President, Bell Telephone Laboratories

Introduction: This article was published in the Bell System Technical Journal in June 1942 as the text of the thirty-third Kelvin Lecture, which had been read on April 23, 1942 for Dr. Buckley by Vice President Sir A. Stanley Angwin before the Institution of Electrical Engineers [London].

Although the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT-1, would not be operation until 1956, this paper describes how the concept of carrying voice signals across an Atlantic cable was under consideration as early as 1928. It also gives details of the existing transatlantic voice circuits using shortwave radio, which had been in service since about that same time.

Dr. Buckley then proposes a system of repeaters to amplify the signal across a transatlantic cable, which was to be the method adopted for TAT-1 fourteen years later. The design and operation of these repeaters, using separate eastbound and westbound cables, is remarkably similar to how this was actually implemented in the 1950s.

While Dr. Buckley does not predict mobiles phones and the Internet, he says, "From purely physical considerations, it appears feasible to provide all of the facilities for telephone connection between all points on the earth that its inhabitants are likely soon to require."

—Bill Burns

When Sir William Thomson saw the newly invented telephone of Alexander Graham Bell at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, he stated that “it was the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the telegraph.” Recognizing that the limitations of the first crude instruments would soon be removed, he remarked that “the invention is yet in its infancy and is susceptible of great improvements,” and also said “with somewhat more advanced plans and more powerful apparatus, we may confidently expect that Mr. Bell will give us the means of making voice and spoken words audible through the electric wire to an ear hundreds of miles distant.” Lord Kelvin lived to see these prophecies rapidly proved true. Had he lived only a few years longer, he would have seen the quality of transmitted speech brought close to perfection, and he would have seen the hundreds of miles extended to thousands.

That Lord Kelvin should have looked upon the telephone as an improvement on the telegraph was natural, for that is the way in which Bell approached it. Bell was experimenting with his harmonic telegraph when he invented the telephone. He was extending the possibilities of the telegraph by making use of a wider band of frequencies than were employed in the systems of Wheatstone and Morse. With its sufficient range of frequencies, Bell’s system proved capable of transmitting speech as well as simple signals. Thus, telephony was born from telegraphy by an expansion of the band of frequencies employed in the electrical transmission of intelligence.

More recently, further expansion of the frequency band has been associated both with improvement of quality of transmitted speech and with multiplication of the number of conversations which can be simultaneously transmitted. So far have these developments progressed that today we can transmit speech overland as perfectly as we may desire for any distance we may choose, and we may do so with hundreds of conversations at once over a single coaxial line.

In fact, we have gone further and have so broadened the frequency band that vision as well as speech may be carried long distances overland. It does not require a bold stretch of the imagination to predict that some day we shall have multiple-channel transmission of television as today we have multiple-channel transmission of speech. Conductors consisting of hollow pipes offer promise of such application.

Indeed, frequency band width has become almost a commodity to the communication engineer. Telegraphy takes a certain band width as measured in cycles per second for a particular speed of signaling as measured in words per. minute. We may assign about 100 cycles to a printing telegraph machine that prints 60 words per minute. To get intelligible telephone communication requires about 1000 cycles, though Bell’s original instrument probably used effectively somewhat less than that, which accounts for Kelvin’s difficulty in understanding certain words over it. Commercial telephony has benefited from a gradually widened frequency band, until now we look on 3000 cycles as a reasonable engineering standard. This does not provide, however, for perfect transmission of speech. The frequencies in speech commonly cover about 8000 cycles, though frequencies above 4000 contribute little to either intelligibility or quality. Music requires more band width than speech. The range of the normal human ear is about 15,000 cycles, and perfect transmission of music requires that band width. In practice, however, one loses little of esthetic value if the music is limited to 8000 cycles. In fact, most listeners cannot readily distinguish music transmitted over an 8000-cycle band from that over a 1 5,000-cycle band. Television requires from 20,000 cycles for a recognizable human face, to 20,000,000 or more for vision as well defined as in standard cinema practice, but in present commercial practice the band width is limited to about 3,000,000 cycles.

With a transmission line of given band width, we can allocate its available frequency range to telegraphy, telephony or television as we will. Twenty printing telegraph channels with adequate separation cost in frequencies about as much as one ordinary telephone channel, but for a television channel we must pay the price, in frequencies, of 1000 telephone or 20,000 printing telegraph channels.

It is of the extension of the range of frequencies and their availability for transoceanic communication and particularly transatlantic telephony that I wish to speak. We shall first review what have been the consequences of the extension of frequencies and then explore some of the future possibilities of further expansion of band width in transoceanic communication. Both radio and wire systems must be included to make the picture complete.

The first messages to cross the transatlantic cable were sent at the rate of two words per minute. In frequencies, this means a band width of less than one cycle per second. Lord Kelvin with his mirror galvanometer and later with his siphon recorder and other improvements increased the effective band width and raised the speed to three words per minute. He showed also how to design cables to raise the frequency limits further, with the result that ocean cables were soon made to work at much higher speeds.

Other important advances in terminal apparatus and in methods of operation followed. The application of the duplex principle, permitting simultaneous operation of the cable in the two directions, practically doubled its traffic capacity. Improvements in methods of correcting the signals for the distortion introduced by the cable, and the introduction of mechanical means of sending resulted in a further increase of a third in traffic capacity. Another increase of about the same amount was realized when the cable magnifier was introduced in the early part of the present century.

A major advance ensued with the introduction of the permalloy loaded cable in 1924. The advantages of inductive loading for reducing the attenuation in long circuits had been known for some time and some applications of the Krarup or continuous method of loading had been made to short submarine telephone cables. No practical means, however, of applying this principle to ocean cables was available, since for telegraph frequencies loading with iron wire was not advantageous because of its low permeability. The discovery of permalloy, a material with very high permeability at low flux densities, together with the invention of means for protecting the loading material from the severe stresses that it would otherwise encounter at the ocean bottom, made it possible to build a cable with many times the band width of corresponding non-loaded cables. The increase in traffic over the cable was, however, less than proportional to the increase in frequency range, because duplexing the loaded cable involves a greater sacrifice of one-way speed than is the case for the non-loaded cable. The fastest loaded transatlantic cable has an effective frequency band of over 100 cycles per second and can carry four times as much traffic as a non-loaded cable of the same size and length.

Development of permalloy loading for telegraph cables naturally led to consideration of the possibilities of a loaded telephone cable to span the Atlantic. Whether viewed as an extension of frequency from 100 cycles to the 3000 cycles needed for high grade telephony, or as an extension of distance, the step was a formidable one. The longest deep-sea telephone cable reached only 105 nautical miles from Key West to Havana, where three cables continuously loaded with iron wire were laid in 1921. The transatlantic span called for a minimum of 1350 miles via the Azores, or 1800 miles by the more direct route from Newfoundland to Ireland. It was obvious that such a step could not be accomplished by mere structural changes. New materials were required. For years, a systematic search had been made to improve the properties of electric and dielectric materials for use in submarine cables. By 1928 sufficient progress had been made in the development of materials and in the structure of the cable itself to permit seriously undertaking a transatlantic telephone cable. A decision was than made to embark on a test of a section of such a cable under practical conditions.

In determining the requirements for this cable, it was decided to engineer it for the Newfoundland-Ireland route rather than for the route via the Azores. The longer link made the cable more difficult and its cost per mile higher, but the total cost and considerations of operation and maintenance favored the more direct route.

The structure proposed for the Newfoundland-Ireland telephone cable was of the single-core type with a continuously loaded central conductor and a concentric return conductor similar to that of the Key West-Havana cables, but different in materials and dimensions. Instead of a serving of iron wire or permalloy to provide inductance, there were used four layers of very thin perminvar tape. Perminvar is an alloy which, in the form of loading tape, has a permeability and resistivity suitable for telephone use and at the same time has very low hysteresis, which helps in preventing distortion of speech due to magnetic modulation. The loaded conductor was insulated with paragutta rather than with gutta percha. Paragutta is a mixture of specially purified and deproteinized rubber, deresinated balata or gutta percha, and some wax. It has a dielectric constant 15 per cent lower than the gutta percha in the Key West-Havana cables, and leakance at telephone frequencies about one-fifteenth as great.

The cable was designed on the basis of as high attenuation as would be permitted by considerations of noise at the receiving end and usable power at the sending end. Since the attenuation of such a cable increases rapidly with frequency, only the noise at the high-frequency end of the speech band is significant; here the noise is entirely of thermal origin, for static and other external interference are eliminated by shielding. The sending power is limited by magnetic hysteresis and there is little advantage in applying more than about 50 volts. Most of the power can be concentrated in the high frequencies by placing, at the sending end, part of the network which corrects the distortion of the cable. By these means, it is possible to set a permissible overall attenuation as high as 165 db for a top frequency of 3,000 cycles. This far exceeds attenuation permissible in other wire telephone practice. The cable was designed to give this attenuation with the most economical disposition of materials within practical limits. Its core comprised a loaded central conductor of 800 pounds of copper and 95 pounds of perminvar per nautical mile, 720 pounds of paragutta insulation, and a concentric copper return conductor of 1700 pounds, making the cable much heavier than any that had previously been laid in great depths.

A 20-mile section of this cable was made in 1930 under the supervision of Bell Telephone Laboratories engineers by the Norddeutsche Seekabelwerke in Nordenham, Germany. There it was loaded aboard the cable ship Norderney and taken to a location in the Bay of Biscay where a depth of 2,500 fathoms was conveniently available. This depth was greater than would be encountered on the proposed cable route. The 20-mile section was paid out on the sea floor and its open-end impedance measured over the telephone range of frequencies. From these measurements, changes in its electrical parameters could readily be deduced. The cable was then pulled in and carried to Frenchport Harbor near Belmullet, County Mayo, Ireland, whence it was laid out to sea to permit measurement of terminal noise. Measurements of impedance both from the ship and from the shore showed the cable to be quite unimpaired both at 2½ miles depth and after recovery and relaying in shallow water. Measurements of noise from shore, however, showed that the location was unsuitable for this type of cable because of the rocky bottom. Such a cable is somewhat microphonic on account of the strain sensitivity of perminvar and the terminal sections of the cable must lie quietly on a soft bottom if a low terminal noise level is to be assured.

Simultaneously with the experiments on the cable, experiments were conducted with the terminal apparatus in the laboratory in New York. An artificial line had been built closely simulating the proposed cable in electrical performance, and over this speech was transmitted at the levels intended for the cable. The method of operation was extreme as well as novel. The high attenuation made it impossible to balance the simulated cable for two-way talking, and voice switching had to be used. At both ends the receiving apparatus was normally connected to the line. The speaker’s voice currents caused his end of the line to be switched to the transmitting apparatus. Arrangements were devised to avoid loss of speech during the switching interval, and to minimize interference due to the persons at the two ends of the cable speaking almost simultaneously. The time required for speech to travel over such a cable is not negligible. In this case it was about a tenth of a second. This is long enough to be noticed but not serious enough to count as a major disadvantage.

All of the measurements in the laboratory, at sea, and from shore joined in giving assurance of the technical soundness of the proposal to install a cable of this type. Its performance would have been superior to that afforded by radio. The cost, however, would have been much greater than that for a radio circuit. The cable system from Nova Scotia via Newfoundland and Ireland to Great Britain promised to cost about $15,000,000. When the project was first considered, the radio connection had been subject to frequent interruption and the cable was regarded as an economically justified supplement to the radio services as they then were.

Postponed temporarily because of general business depression, the cable project was later postponed indefinitely because, in the face of improvements in transatlantic radio communication, so expensive a cable to carry a single conversation could no longer be justified. Today it seems improbable that such a cable will ever be laid across the Atlantic. Fortunately, other cable possibilities have in the meantime been developed which look more attractive. Before going into these, however, let us review the development of transatlantic radio telephony and estimate some of its future possibilities.

The development of radio communication, even more strikingly than that of wire communication, has been characterized by widening of its spectrum. In fact, starting with Marconi’s low-frequency transatlantic experiments of 1901, the spectrum has widened until today it provides some thousands of megacycles. Only a small portion of this range is, however, available for transoceanic communication. There are utilized only two isolated ranges each of which, by comparison with the total radio band, is comparatively narrow. The low-frequency or long-wave range is a band some tens of kilocycles wide with a top of about 100 kilocycles. This low-frequency portion of the spectrum was intensely cultivated during the first two decades of the present century and by the close of that period had become rather densely populated with radio transmissions.

In the 1920’s the band of frequencies useful for long distances was widened several hundredfold by the discovery that long-distance transmission could be carried on by short waves, that is, by frequencies in the range 3 to 30 megacycles. This discovery put transoceanic radio communication on its present world-wide basis. Short waves not only contributed greatly to the communication band width but contributed as well as to the demand for service by reducing costs, since the apparatus required for short-wave circuits proved to be less expensive than that for long waves.

The transatlantic telephone like its telegraph predecessor started in the relatively cramped long-wave band and then moved into the freer region of the short-wave range. It was in 1915, 14 years after Marconi had spanned the Atlantic by radio telegraph, that speech was first sent across the oceans from Arlington, Virginia to Paris and to Honolulu . This achievement, somewhat beclouded by the events of the first World War, was the result of a plan to talk across the ocean which was definitely undertaken by Bell System engineers after they had successfully established wire telephone communication across the North American continent. For its accomplishment there were evolved the first high-power vacuum tubes and the first master-oscillator, power-amplifier tube transmitter. This experiment was thus, in a technical sense, the forerunner of modern radio telephony, including broadcasting as well as transoceanic telephony.

It required much study of radio transmission and many further improvements in apparatus technique before speech could be projected across the Atlantic with sufficient clarity and reliability to be truly serviceable. In the long-wave range and for transatlantic distances, radio is seriously limited in two respects : first, the level of noise is high, particularly in summer, due to the frequency of occurrence of thunderstorms in northern latitudes; and second, the received signals become weak during the sunset and sunrise periods. The ionized layers of the upper atmosphere upon which long waves depend for their guidance around the earth are then going through the transition from daylight to nighttime condition. The development of the water-cooled high-power vacuum tube made possible high-power amplifiers to deliver tens of kilowatts needed to lift the signal higher above the level of atmospheric noise. The influence of static was further reduced by the use of directive receiving antennas. Additional improvement was provided by the technique of single-sideband transmission first used on wires. These developments and others assured fairly reliable telephone connections and in 1927 public service was opened jointly by the General Post Office and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. The carrier frequency was 60 kc corresponding to a wave-length of 5000 meters.

The opening of the first transatlantic short-wave telephone circuit in 1928 followed close on the heels of the long-wave circuit, and was followed in turn by the establishment of additional short-wave circuits in 1929. These were years of increasing disturbance in short-wave transmission and about 1929 preparations were started on both sides of the Atlantic for a second long-wave channel to diversify facilities and thus improve the continuity of the service. This work had not progressed very far, however, before there came in sight opportunities for greatly improving short-wave transmission. Accordingly, the project of the second long-wave circuit was deferred and, upon the actual realization of the short-wave improvements years later, was postponed indefinitely. More recently, experiments have been conducted which have demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting two channels at different frequencies using the same transmitting equipment. This may lead ultimately to more economical provision of an additional long-wave circuit.

Short-wave radio has certain outstanding advantages over long waves for transoceanic service; these are less attenuation, lower noise and a wider frequency band in which to operate. The first two factors together with the ability to obtain readily a high degree of antenna directivity, result in considerable economies. In the case of a radio telephone connection between the United States and England, the cost of short waves under present practice for an approximately comparable quality of service is about one-half that of long waves. The wider band provides an opportunity for the service to expand, for although the short-wave band is by no means unlimited in extent and within the last few years has become increasingly congested, much can be accomplished by careful and coordinated planning for use, and in any case it is hundreds of times wider than the long-wave band. These advantages have been reflected in the rapid growth of short-wave transoceanic telephony, as indicated by the fact that by the beginning of 1939 there were in service throughout the world about 170 important long-distance short-wave telephone circuits, of which five were in regular use between the United States and Europe. There has grown up also a host of short-wave broadcasting channels, the better coordination of which has yet to be worked out.

Certain disadvantages of short-wave transmission must nevertheless be reckoned with. The greatest by far is its susceptibility to complete or partial interruption at certain times, particularly around the maxima of the 11-year sunspot cycle. This weakness of short-wave transmission is fresh in the minds of many of us because we are only now emerging from one of these maxima. Short waves are also affected adversely by various types of signal distortion which arise from the circumstance that the signal picked up at a receiving site is usually made up of several components which have traveled over different paths. Sometimes these paths all lie along the same great circle but involve different numbers of reflections between the earth and the Heaviside layer. Sometimes signal components arrive over other than the great-circle path. Occasionally components travel along the longer of the two great-circle paths between the transmitter and receiver or even clear around the world, producing a distinctive phenomenon known as “round-the-world-echo.” Interference between waves arriving over different paths results at times in “general fading” caused by variations in the level of the whole band and at other times in “selective fading” in which portions of the speech band are affected differently.

These phenomena and their causes have been widely and intensively studied ever since the advent of short waves and as a result much progress has been made in improving short-wave telephone transmission. Singlesideband transmission has been helpful in eliminating a particularly disagreeable type of mutilation common to double-sideband transmission wherein the fading out from time to time of the carrier signal gives rise to a harsh, grating character of received speech. The multiple-unit steerable antenna recently developed in Bell Telephone Laboratories, and known familiarly as “musa,” has been found useful in reducing speech distortion accompanying wave-interference effects. The musa reduces selective fading by combining signals arriving over different paths or by eliminating all signals except those arriving over one path. By providing additional antenna directivity it makes possible operation in periods of reduced signal strength, though it does not eliminate circuit interruptions at times of very severe disturbance. Single-sideband transmission and the musa are now in regular use on the New York-London telephone circuits.

The combination of modern short and long-wave technique now provides across the Atlantic a telephone service which is acceptable for general commercial use, though admittedly of somewhat variable quality. Complete interruption of short-wave service with inadequate long-wave service to fall back on, remains the most serious limitation. Neither the reliability nor the quality of transatlantic telephony is yet up to the standards of a well-constructed and well-maintained wire line.

As matters stand today the short-wave bands, carefully used, could be made to handle a very substantially increased load. The long-wave band is much more restricted yet it is on the long waves that we now depend when short waves fail, as they do at times. Marked improvement in reliability of present systems, or some altogether new and independent system, is needed to provide an alternative group of circuits to insure availability of service as users come to rely on it in their business and social intercourse. This is one of the important factors that led to the development of the transatlantic telephone cable.

To predict the future development of transoceanic telephony is presumptuous, to say the least. So rapid has been the advance in the art of communication and so revolutionary have been the discoveries in this field that one is quite unwarranted in setting any limits to the progress that may be achieved. However, there are some developments that have progressed far enough in the laboratory to discuss with reference to their early application; also there are pertinent indications as to the future of transoceanic telephony apparent from consideration of developments which have occurred in long-distance overland telephony.

Perhaps the most significant recent development in land-line telephony is that of broad-band transmission over open wires, cables and coaxial conductors. Broad-band transmission means the tranmission by carrier methods of a considerable group of telephone bands on closely spaced channels. Over open-wire lines and over pairs in lead-covered cables, 12 telephone bands spaced at 4000-cycle intervals are commonly transmitted in a group occupying a total band width of 48,000 cycles. With coaxial conductors, the band has been increased to 2,000,000 cycles giving frequency space for some 500 telephone channels and it may be expanded still further when more channels are required.

The application of broad-band methods to transoceanic radio telephony may be anticipated with some confidence. To achieve it requires broad-band amplifying systems capable of delivering high power without distortion. Commercial success has already been achieved with small numbers of channels in the Holland-East Indies and the United States-England single-sideband systems. More recently, by applying the principles of negative feedback, Bell Laboratories engineers have developed a shortwave transmitting amplifier of 200 kw capable of handling 12 or more closely spaced telephone channels.

One might visualize the broad-band transatlantic radio telephone system of the future as being built up of successive groups of these 12-channel blocks. The number of groups that might be used simultaneously is, of course, limited. Over any path where radio transmission depends upon reflections between the ionosphere and the earth, Nature sets a rather definite limit on the range of frequencies that is usable at any given time. In effect, there is provided a transmission path between transmitter and receiver which is capable of passing a broad but nevertheless limited band of frequencies. Frequencies above this band are not consistently returned to earth from the ionized regions. Frequencies below this range are absorbed. The high-frequency end is marked by a sharp cutoff, while there is a more gradual diminution of effectiveness at the low-frequency end. The position in the spectrum of the useful band shifts with time of day, season of the year and phase of the solar cycle. Its width varies, too, being narrow at night and wider during the day.

Thus, for example, when the sun is over the mid-Atlantic in summer there is available a useful band of frequencies about 4 megacycles wide, extending from about 14 to 18 megacycles. It is not sharply defined on its lower side, and its position in the spectrum varies with the season of the year and the sunspot cycle. But we may say roughly that nature provides at any one time, at least during the most useful hours of the day, a band width of the order of 4 megacycles. If this entire range could be utilized for telephony over this particular path, and were subdivided sharply into telephone bands of 4 kilocycles width, there could be realized 1,000 telephone channels. These might be used in any of the several ways, as to two-way transmission and as to the points at which they terminate.

But public service transatlantic telephony is not the only service requiring these important short waves. There are many other uses of them such as radio telegraphy, ship-to-shore telephony, airplane communication and navigation, and overseas broadcasting. There are also other natural barriers than the Atlantic to be bridged in this manner, and these short waves because of their world-wide effect and despite the directivity that can be imparted to them, cannot be counted upon to be duplicated very often for simultaneous use at different locations throughout the world. So we must allow for the available 4 megacycles to be divided to meet a large number of requirements, perhaps none more important than the Atlantic route, yet collectively of great consequence. Let us say that, in view of all the other requirements, public service telephony across the Atlantic deserves something like a tenth of the total facilities in tnis band. This would mean an allotment of 400 kilocycles or 100 one-way telephone channels, yielding 50 or more two-way circuits realizable under the natural limitations of the medium and the other requirements placed upon it.

Of course, the demand for such a number of transatlantic telephone circuits will depend in large measure upon the economy with which they can be realized, but the estimate serves at least the purpose of pointing out that short waves can provide physical facilities for a volume of telephone communication far beyond that now obtaining. Surely we can anticipate with confidence a great growth of transatlantic telephone traffic, but in proportion as the demands for service grow and we come closer to the realization of the ultimate physical possibilities, the more serious becomes the threat of interruption to this service by magnetic storms.

These conclusions lead us to reconsideration of the transatlantic telephone cable as an auxiliary to short-wave systems. It is readily apparent now, however, that a single-channel cable such as we projected in 1929 would be of little value in supplementing a radio telephone service of so many channels as there may be in the future. To be of any real value in this situation, the cable also must be capable of carrying a considerable group of telephone channels. It was toward such a possibility that we turned when the project of a single-channel cable was suspended. We have made considerable progress in that direction, and I would like to tell you about it, if you will excuse my presenting a proposal which has still many elements of speculation in it.

It was obvious at the start that a multi-channel telephone cable to cross the ocean would have to be provided with intermediate repeaters since even a single-channel cable without repeaters required going to practical extremes in structural design. Consideration of mechanical difficulties ruled out locating the repeaters elsewhere than on the ocean bottom. Problems of laying and lifting made it obvious that the repeater housing should, if possible, be incorporated within the cable structure and treated as a part of the cable rather than as an appendage to it. Hence we were led to develop a small-diameter cylindrical housing to be incorporated as a part of the cable underneath its armor. The whole structure had to be flexible so that it could be bent around a cable drum and passed over the bow or stern sheave of a cable ship.

The structure of the repeater housing which was devised comprises first a succession of pressure-resisting steel rings each having a diameter of about 1½ inches and a width of ¾ inch. Over these is slid a succession of thinner steel rings of the same width but so placed as to overlap the joints of the inner rings. So assembled, the rings form an articulated cylinder about seven feet long. To exclude water, there is placed over this cylinder an annealed copper tube with water-tight seals at its ends. The details of the seal are of the greatest importance. It combines a strictly hermetic seal, in which the conductors are brought out through glass, with a plastic seal through which diffusion of water vapor would be extremely slow, should the glass seal fail. Joined to the copper cylinder, and extending over the cable core for several feet, is a tapered copper sheath which serves to distribute bending strain and protect the conductor joint at the seal. Containers of the type described have been tested at pressures considerably higher than would be encountered in a transatlantic cable. They have also been subjected to repeated bending around a six-foot drum without failure. Within the repeater housing the elements of the repeater are separately contained in plastic cylinders about six inches long, loosely fitting inside the inner steel rings. Connections between these units are made with flexible conductors.

A repeater must, of course, be supplied with power and, as it is impracticable to provide a primary source of power in such a small housing, power must be fed to the repeater over the cable from a direct-current supply. The supply voltage is one of the limiting considerations in the design of such a cable system. It must not be so high as to endanger the insulation of the cable or repeater elements. An operating potential-to-ground of 2000 volts oppositely poled at the ends of the cable was assumed. Power would be supplied on a constant current basis so that fluctuations of earth-potential would not cause variations of current-supply. The repeater elements were designed to withstand the anticipated voltage-to-earth. Tests of cable-core and joints over a long period of time have shown no observable change under this impressed voltage.

The difficulties of lifting a deep-sea cable for repairs are such as practically to prohibit frequent access to the repeaters for maintenance. Hence, the repeater must be provided with elements which will rarely, if ever, require attention. A period of 20 years without replacement of parts was assumed as a reasonable requirement.

The problem of life and maintenance is principally the problem of a rugged long-lived vacuum tube. Ordinary vacuum tubes have limited service-life on account of evaporation of material from thermionic cathodes. By making the level of transmitted signals relatively low, the space current may be kept very small. By making the cathode surface relatively large, this small current can be obtained at a temperature so low that the cathodes of the tubes may be expected to last for a very long time. This is a different approach to the tube problem than has ordinarily been made. New types of tubes based on these principles were developed and put on life tests more than five years ago. As yet they have shown no evidence of deterioration, and one now may be reasonably sure from their behavior and from physical considerations of a life of at least ten years. There is good reason to think that they should last several times that long, but further observation will be required before a life of as much as 20 years steady operation can be confidently predicted. The tubes must also be more rugged than ordinary vacuum tubes since the cable will be subjected to considerable vibration and perhaps to heavy blows in the course of laying and lifting, though the tubes can be protected to some degree by resilient mountings.

Other elements of the repeater structure such as coils and condensers are also subject to special requirements both electrical and mechanical. These requirements have been met in a preliminary way and the assembled repeater in its housing subjected to mechanical tests in the laboratory.

Although the electrical requirements of such a cable are very severe, there are some respects in which the submarine telephone repeater is simpler than a land-line repeater. The temperature at the bottom of the ocean is nearly constant; consequently, the repeater does not have to be regulated to compensate changes of cable characteristics with temperature. Also, once the cable is laid, it is in a very quiet place, and except in shallow water near shore is not likely to be disturbed. True, the electrical characteristics of the cable may show effects of aging, but over a long period of time changes are not great, and they can be allowed for by providing some margin in the electrical design.

In the circuit of the repeater the heating filaments of the amplifying tubes are placed in series with the central cable conductor. The fall of potential through the heater filaments provides the plate potential for the tubes. Appropriate networks compensate for variation of cable attenuation with frequency. A negative feedback circuit gives a high degree of stability over a wide band of frequencies and minimizes the effect of variations of tube characteristics. It is interesting to note that the amplification provided by a single tube could drop to a tenth its normal value with scarcely appreciable effect on the performance of the repeater.

The number and spacing of repeaters depends of course on the length and design of the cable. For a cable 2000 miles long to connect Newfoundland and Great Britain there was calculated a core comprising 516 pounds of copper per mile insulated with 370 pounds of paragutta, surrounded by a return conductor of 600 pounds. This is like the core of the 1930 Key West-Havana telephone cable but somewhat smaller. Paragutta was assumed as the insulating material because of extensive experience with it. By using for the calculation the characteristics of one of the newer synthetic insulating materials a somewhat more favorable design would have been obtained. On this cable 47 repeaters spaced 42 miles apart would provide for the transmission of a band 48,000 cycles wide.

The repeater is a one-way device and to provide two-way conversations two cables have been assumed, one directed eastward and the other westward. This is the simplest solution of the two-way problem but it is not inconceivable that the problem could be solved with a single cable. Using two cables, each transmitting 48,000 cycles, the number of telephone circuits will depend on the band assigned per channel. If we adhere to the present best land-line practice, and assign 4000 cycles per channel there would be room for 12 telephone circuits. For a small sacrifice of quality the number could be materially increased. Even as many as 24 fairly satisfactory circuits could be provided by assigning only 2000 cycles per channel.

Although in Bell Laboratories we have gone a considerable distance in the design of a broad-band repeatered submarine telephone cable, and have developed many of the essential parts, I would not wish to give the impression that all the problems of such a cable have been solved, or that the time has come to proceed with its construction and installation. Indeed, it is only by building trial sections of such a cable and subjecting them to repeated punishment more severe than a cable is likely to encounter, that the problems can be fully recognized. Extensive electrical tests will also have to be made on a complete assembly of repeaters with artificial lines simulating sections of cable. These steps have yet to be taken.

A submarine cable requires a degree of care and precaution in engineering such as is required in few other situations. It is usually not possible to provide large factors of safety, and yet failure of a single part such as a break in the conductor or a leak in the insulation completely destroys the operation of the whole system. Experiences of over eighty years since the failure of the first attempt at an Atlantic cable have led to the development of practices which give good assurance of the reliability of cables of simple construction, but when a device such as the proposed repeater is made a part of the structure a new set of hazards is introduced. Whether these hazards can be guarded against well enough to justify the risks of such a cable project remains to be seen, but I am optimistic that by a sufficiently thorough job of cable manufacture and a well planned program of trials, the hazards can be reduced to an acceptable degree. It will take some years to reach this point, and at best it must be expected that some degree of hazard will still remain. Submarine cables, like all things that go to sea, can never be completely dissociated from some chance of disaster.

As to the costs of such a cable project for establishment of broad-band wire telephony to England via Newfoundland, only the roughest sort of estimates can be made at this time. However, even applying annual charges somewhat higher than have commonly been used for cables, it appears that the total cost per telephone circuit for the system of two cables with associated equipment will be comparable with that of prospective short-wave radio systems. A considerable increment of cost of cable over that of radio would be justified by the better quality of transmitted speech and the very significant advantage of privacy. Added to this is the value of the cable as a supplement to radio systems to provide against their failure. Indeed it is possible that once the cable were in service radio would be looked on as a supplement to it.

The comparison of cable and radio telephony is not easy to make. It is the composite of cable and radio that assures continuity of service since while radio is sensitive to disturbances accompanying magnetic storms, and cable less so, radio service is not so exposed to the possibility of interruption by mechanical accident or malicious intent. An advantage of radio systems is their flexibility, whereby new routes can be established or old routes abandoned without incurring excessive costs. Further, provision can be made for expansion of radio facilities as required without having to install so large a complement of circuits at the outset. The prospect of the combined radio and cable system is a happy one in that it affords the advantage of both types of facility.

In the foregoing discussion I have treated the transoceanic telephone problem principally as the transatlantic problem and more particularly as the problem of connecting North America and Great Britain. Community of language and many interests lend particular emphasis to that connection, but it is, after all, only one of the many transoceanic links required to build the world-wide telephone network of the future.

When we come to look at other situations, the relative advantages of radio and cable weigh differently. Shortwave radio links have a great advantage in affording direct connection between points on the globe far apart, and the tendency has been to establish short-wave connections directly between large centers rather than through extensive land-line links, particularly where political boundaries have been involved. There has thus grown up an extensive network of single-channel short-wave radio connections operated at low power, giving good service part of the time but not to be depended on all of the time. Most of these connections are over routes which would not support broad-band systems such as I have discussed. The introduction of broad-band methods for transoceanic radio telephony will tend to favor centralizing radio traffic at a smaller number of more important radio terminals, but it is hardly to be expected that all transoceanic radio traffic will thus be concentrated. Even with radio systems dispersed rather than centralized, broad-band cable may still serve as an effective supplement to radio not only between North America and Great Britain but also between North America and all of Europe, with land lines extending the circuits to all important centers of the European continent. It is to be expected, too, that the cable will find important application in other locations than across the north Atlantic. Notably, this type of cable is particularly promising for trans-Mediterranean service. Indeed, the same principles of construction which are proposed for the transatlantic cable may be applied over much shorter distances. With some modification of design, the repeater can be incorporated in lead-covered cables for shallow seas and afford transmission advantages of carrier as well as the economy of broad-band.

If one tries to imagine the world-wide transoceanic network of the future, he may well envisage a net comprising a large number of light linkages plus a small number of heavy linkages over the most important routes. The light linkages will represent direct short-wave single-channel or twin-channel connections using relatively small power. The heavy linkages will comprise highly developed powerful broad-band short-wave radio systems making full use of frequency and directional diversity supplemented by broad-band submarine cables and in a few cases by long-wave radio as well.

From purely physical considerations, it appears feasible to provide all of the facilities for telephone connection between all points on the earth that its inhabitants are likely soon to require. To what extent these facilities will actually be developed will depend on demand and that, to a considerable extent, on cost. It will be interesting to survey briefly this question of prospective demand to see whether after all it promises to be great enough to justify the installation of broad-band cable and radio systems such as are here proposed.

There are so many factors that contribute to telephone demand that it is impossible to make any very reliable estimate. In addition to cost, there are factors of differences in time, in language and in telephone habits and also the factors of community of interest and speed of service. Similar factors affect the demand for telegraph service, but the transatlantic telegraph habit has had more time to mature fully and may reflect more accurately than the telephone the demand that exists for rapid communication between Europe and America.

One possible way to estimate what the future may have in store for transatlantic telephony is to compare the flow of telegraph traffic, say between London and New York, with that between New York and some west-coast American city, and then to examine how intensively telephone service has been developed relative to telegraphy over the two routes. Because of its comparative stability over a period of years, New York–San Francisco traffic provides an interesting basis of comparison. The distance and difference in standard time between these two cities compare fairly well with those between New York and London. Difference in community of interest is compensated to some degree by the difference in size of London and San Francisco.

This comparison may be made on two bases not very different in character, but leading to widely different results. In the first, let us compare the two routes as regards telegraph traffic, using as our measure the total number of words transmitted in a single years. In the second, let us use as our measure the number of public service telegraph messages, excluding such telegraph business as is comprised under the headings of press service, leased-wire service and code and cipher messages. In each case the estimate is based on terminating messages and excludes traffic routed via the cities named. Data for the year 1937 are available and this particular year has some further advantage in that it represents something between the peak of the 1929 era and the trough of the succeeding depression.

On the first basis of comparison we find that the total number of telegraph words transmitted between New York and San Francisco in 1937 was approximately the same as that between New York and London. On the second basis we find that the number of telegraph messages was about seven times as great between New York and London as between New York and San Francisco. The wide discrepancy between the two comparisons is doubtless accounted for partly by rates and partly by the character of business and social intercourse. Of the two the second, which is based on plain-word public-service messages, would seem to be more significant in relation to potential demand for telephone service. The information transmitted in press and coded telegraph messages and over leased wires is presumably business of record. Public message telegraphy, as a somewhat closer approximation to the informal exchange of ideas by telephone, may be a better index of telephone demand.

On the basis of these figures we may speculate that the potential demand for telephone connection between New York and London is somewhere between one and seven times that between New York and San Francisco. Actually, in the year 1937 the telephone traffic between New York and San Francisco was about three times that between New York and London. Thus it would appear that not more than a third, and possibly not more than a twentieth, of the potential telephone demand has been realized.

If we assume, as seems reasonable, that the same ratio of potential to realized demand exists for all European-North American connections as for the New York-London connection, we may estimate that in place of the five pre-war telephone circuits across the North Atlantic there will be needed from fifteen to one hundred circuits. Which of these figures proves to be the better measure will doubtless depend greatly on costs that can be achieved but I do not think that I can fairly be accused of excessive optimism in predicting a demand for forty or more telephone circuits in the reasonably near future if full advantage is taken of technical possibilities already in view to decrease costs and improve reliability of service.

In estimating the demand for growth it may be a mistake to attach too much importance to cost of service. Speed and reliability are, within limits, just as important. When it becomes possible to pick up a telephone and get a reply within two minutes, which is about the normal time for a long distance connection in the United States, and when the connection provides the clarity and freedom from noise of a local telephone call, then the transoceanic telephone service will, I believe, be used to a degree not even approached at present.

To provide this indicated increase in number of circuits, and to approach land-line standards of reliability and quality of service will demand utilization of all three types of transmission systems: short-wave, longwave and repeatered cable. Considerations of cost, flexibility and directness of connection suggest that the bulk of the transatlantic business will be handled on the short waves, but any service important enough to justify so large a group of circuits as has been estimated would have to live up to a higher standard of reliability than short-wave circuits alone can provide. A cable between America and Britain would provide this reliability, acting as insurance against serious interruptions of service that would result from a simultaneous failure of all the short-wave facilities during periods of magnetic storm. It would in addition set a high standard of transmission performance in competition with short waves. The cable and shortwave circuit groups plus a few long-wave circuits should provide a high degree of reliability and excellent transmission at a level of cost such as would assure the continued growth of the service.

It may not be necessary to wait until the growth of transatlantic telephone business provides enough traffic to utilize fully a cable of the type described. When once the engineers are ready to give reasonable assurance of the cable, I believe that it will not have to await complete economic justification, because of the tremendous importance which it would have in insuring privacy and continuity of transatlantic telephone service. What the cable really waits on is technical development. To achieve this is fairly straightforward, since there do not appear to be any insurmountable difficulties. There is still much to be done and many difficulties must be overcome before the broad-band repeatered cable can be installed but it does not impress me as a more difficult problem than many that have been solved in the past.

In developing this picture of transoceanic telephony I have endeavored to stay within the realm of engineering fact, and not to count on products yet to be born from the inventor’s fancy. Indeed, I may have been overconservative for there are already partly developed inventions which might greatly modify the picture. One such is the vocoder, an instrument which, in a sense, compresses speech into a narrow band. More accurately it dissects speech, transmits it in code and recreates it at the other end of the line. With vocoders a hundred or more simultaneous conversations might be carried by a pair of repeatered cables. While the vocoder would transmit the primary elements of conversation it would not provide all of those qualities of speech which words alone do not convey. The vocoder gains in band width at the cost of naturalness of speech, but even so, it may find important application.

Other inventions may extend the band width available for transoceanic communication far beyond the range here discussed. Projects such as repeatered ultra-short wave radio systems and undersea wave-guides, which today appear fantastic, may some day come within the range of practicability.

The electrical channels over which peoples of one continent hold their more urgent communication with those of another have always been of surpassing technical interest. Ever since the first electrical impulses to carry words across the ocean were traced in the wavering beam of Kelvin’s mirror galvanometer, the improvement of these channels has been a fruitful field for scientist and inventor. But these paths for the transmission of intelligence have a wider significance than mere technical achievement. They are strands of an ever-growing bond that unites widely separated continents. The newest of these strands, the overseas telephone, has yet to reach its maturity. Not until conversations can be carried on as easily and reliably between continents as between cities within a continent, can we claim that the art of transoceanic telephony has come of age. When this time arrives, we shall probably realize as we look back that the halfdozen telephone circuits of the 1930’s formed indeed a slender thread to bind together in speech the people of North America and those of Europe. Some tens of kilocycles of band width may then appear as inadequate as the slowly dispatched words over the first transatlantic cable appear to us today.

Last revised: 2 October, 2019

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