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SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Turns out the mother’s milk of innovation is, well, MILC.
Money, ignorance, luck, and craziness are the four essential ingredients to success, according to Stanford Engineering Professor Thomas Lee. Lee kicked off DesignCon 2015 with a wildly entertaining story about the design and implementation of the first trans-Atlantic cable and the lessons that that decade-long struggle offers engineers today.
Money, of course, is a given in helping launch a successful design, but “You need to be stupid enough to think everything's going to be great, [that] Murphy's going to be asleep,” Lee said. “Sane people just don't do things that transform civilization."
To illustrate this he told the story of Cyrus West Field, the man behind the concept of the first trans-Atlantic cable. It was a monumental undertaking at a time when engineering was not considered a profession, and standards—especially for electrical properties and characteristics—did not exist.
Field was already a multimillionaire at age 34, having made his fortune in the paper business. Telegraph lines were being stitched across the country, and he cast about for his next challenge.
Field came across Matthew Maury, the head of the US Naval Observatory, who, by luck, had just finished the first depth soundings from New Foundland to Ireland. He described finding an undersea plateau “for the purpose of holding the wires of a submarine telegraph,” Lee said.
As the project progressed, a combination of factors, including luck and ignorance, propelled it forward. For example, there was the challenge of insulating wires deep under the sea for a long period of time.
Gutta percha, a natural thermoplastic sap, was selected for the job because, in part, Britain controlled Malaysia, where gutta percha plants grew in abundance, and Michael Faraday, hired as a consultant, noted that the insulating properties of gutta percha improve under pressure in salt water.
“Anti-Murphy. What do you mean it gets better under water? Has that ever happened to you?” Lee quipped.
This was also a time, Lee, noted before the invention of amplifiers, so the challenge of driving a signal across that distance loomed large.
You need an incredibly sensitive detector and “an incredibly brilliant mind,” Lee noted.
William Thompson (who later became Lord Kelvin) devised the solution after watching light bounce off his monocle. He created a mirror galvanometer in which magnets attached to a mirror were suspended by a thread. The deflection of a light beam magnified the deflection induced by small currents.
When the cable opened for business in August 1858, the total capacitance was 30 seconds and the data rate was one to two words per minute. The going rate for those words? $10 each.
Queen Victoria sent American President James Buchanan a message in Morse code on Aug. 16, 1858, and the achievement was widely embraced, songs were composed, and celebrations held. Unfortunately, the system failed three weeks later. Repairs came and went, the cable snapped many times. Field was investigated for fraud by British authorities. The cable wasn’t reconnected for another eight years, in part because the US Civil War intervened.
In those years, the design was tweaked; the cable thickened with a corresponding 5X reduction in RC, according to Lee. But the cable now became too big for existing ships to carry. Enter Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a mechanical and civil engineer who built a passenger ship designed to travel to Australia and back without refueling with coal. After the Great Eastern was constructed, no other ship would exceeded its displacement tonnage for 47 years, Lee noted.
But the ship’s purpose as a long-range passenger vessel never materialized. Because of its massive size, it did, however, become a perfect solution for the bigger trans-Atlantic cable being designed.
In 1866, a fifth attempt to lay a new cable succeeded and “the US and England have been connected ever since,” Lee said.
“Field's vision drove the creation of the first global network. Building it forced us to grow up and become a profession and EEs have been making trouble ever since."
He noted that in aftermath of the cable project, electrical units, such as the ohm, began to get standardized; professional societies such as the Society of Telegraph Engineers (later England’s IEE) were established.
“History is not over, and you're going to be making it,” Lee told his DesignCon audience. “Whatever it is, you're going to needs lots of MILC to make it happen.”
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