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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 17:40 GMT
Wiring up the 'Victorian internet'
By Martin Redfern
BBC radio science unit

Porthcurno beach (BBC/Amos)
Speak to the world: From Porthcurno beach it was possible

The world's first global communications system for exchanging text messages was not the internet nor the mobile phone.

It was the great engineering project undertaken 150 years ago to put wires across the globe.

In an editorial on 20 April, 1857, the New York Herald commented: "The laying of the telegraph around the world is the great work of the age."

For the first time in history, the telegraph made rapid communication possible between Europe and America, and between Britain and her distant colonies such as Australia.

"It's worth trying to imagine how fantastic it would have been when that cable was finally completed and instead of taking 45 days for a message to get through from Britain to Australia, it took less than 24 hours," says Mary Godwin, director of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall.

The story of how they put a "A Wire Around The World" and Porthcurno's central role is told in a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

Simple code

The idea of electrical communication seems to have begun as long ago as 1746, when about 200 monks at monastery in Paris arranged themselves in a line over a mile long, each holding ends of 25ft iron wires.

The abbot, also a scientist, discharged a Leiden jar (a primitive electrical battery) into the wire, giving all the monks a simultaneous electrical shock.

Gutta percha (Porthcurno Telegraph Museum)
Gutta percha provided the key to good cable insulation
"This all sounds very silly, but is in fact extremely important because, firstly, they all said 'ow' which showed that you were sending a signal right along the line; and, secondly, they all said 'ow' at the same time, and that meant that you were sending the signal very quickly," explains Tom Standage, author of the Victorian Internet and technology editor at the Economist.

Given a more humane detection system, this could be a way of signalling over long distances.

With wars in Europe and colonies beyond, such a signalling system was urgently needed.

All sorts of electrical possibilities were proposed, some of them quite ridiculous. T