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Since You Asked: Phone calls, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

My wife and I were having a rather lively discussion on the history of the telephone, long, long before cell phones. Could you tell me how we communicated with a person in England via telephone, say in 1964? I seem to remember that the telephone company laid cables on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. My wife laughed hysterically at me when I told her that's what I remembered from school 40 to 50 years ago. Please enlighten me. You folks have a great column and always seem to find the answer to all the readers' questions.

— Larry B., Medford

You were having this discussion long before cell phones, or talking at no defined time about pre-cell phone technology? Forgive our syntactical snark, we simply cannot help ourselves. On to your question!

Yeah, sure, Larry ... right! They had enormous spools of copper "cables" ... miles and miles and miles of these "cables" of yours, made special by a giant from Lapland ... and, and, and they had a big giant floating wire spool with a captain wearing a fancy tricorne hat who dropped these "cables" into the water, and magical sea monkey fairies pushed them to the sea floor, see, all so we could hear people talk in funny accents. Right! Like moving pictures fly through the air and are displayed on a glass box in our living rooms! Hoo-hah!

OK, it's your turn to laugh now, Larry. Sounds crazy to your wife, but you are absolutely right. Transoceanic cables still carry many messages between continents. It was quite an enormous physical and technological effort in the beginning.

AT&T, a company that has played a role in telecommunications history, has a technology timeline on its Web site that tracks how people called across the seas, along with other innovations in the industry.

Bell System engineers achieved the first voice transmission across the Atlantic, connecting Virginia and Paris briefly, in 1915, the site reports. A year later, they held the first two-way conversation with a ship at sea, and they had the first two-way conversation across the Atlantic in 1926. On Jan. 7, 1927, commercial telephone service using shortwave radio began between New York and London. Pacific service began to Hawaii in 1931 and Tokyo in 1934, with around-the-world service available by 1935.

In the '30s, engineers were already looking at undersea cables like those used for telegraphs to transmit voices. However, delicate voice signals couldn't make it across the sea without a boost from long-lasting, low-maintenance amplifiers that would work under the ocean.

AT&T engineers came up with amplifiers, or repeaters, built around a specially developed electron tube and encased in flexible multi-metal housings. They were spaced at four-mile intervals along the cable, which had an outer sheath of armor wires to provide strength and protection against abrasion and an extra copper sheath to keep out marine worms, which had plagued telegraph cables. The system's two cables — one for signals headed in each direction — were installed by ships over the course of two summers and started commercial service Sept. 26, 1956.

The 2,650-mile, $42 million cable between Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, and Oban, Scotland, was financed and owned by AT&T, the British Post Office, and Canada's Overseas Telecommunications, reported Time magazine in an August 1956 story heralding the coming of this technological innovation. (Thanks to another technological innovation called the Internet, that story, "Voices Under the Sea," is available online at www.time.com, as is one touting the first undersea fiberoptic cable in 1987.)

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. The volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.