NICOLE STAROSIELSKI - Circuits to the Past

Writtten By: Nicole Starosielski

          In the short story “White Noise” a pair of telecommunications engineers travel to an undersea cable landing station on the Red Sea on a routine maintenance trip. Upon their arrival, they see a speaker mysteriously hooked up to the submarine circuits. A live feed is being broadcast from the bottom of the ocean. Animals are silently gathered around, tuned into the subaquatic transmissions—a set of historical vibrations trapped in the ocean’s endlessly circulating cold currents. As the engineers detect human voices through the clash of metal, and rumbling wheels, they realize that they are hearing Moses cross the Red Sea. The undersea cable is not simply a conduit between continents, but a circuit between past and present. In “White Noise,” the undersea cable station is the location of this exchange, a place haunted by its past and a site where connections between technical networks and historical circulations are aurally manifested.

          This photo essay charts the remnants of undersea telegraph stations in the Pacific with the aim of opening a similar conduit between networks past and present. Though we often imagine contemporary media and communication as moving us beyond territorial limits, almost all transoceanic internet traffic currently runs along more than half a million miles of undersea fiber-optic cable. These cables have rarely developed in isolation and are often grounded in existing transportation and resource systems. Internet cables tend to follow the paths of analogue telephone cables from the 1950s, which were in turn layered over telegraph systems from the previous century. Telegraph lines trace the vectors of other historical movements, including mobilizations of bodies, goods, and ships via colonial networks. Between layers of infrastructure development, the cable station has often served as an invisible gateway for exchange, a place where the spatiality of one kind of network is tied into another.  

Figure 1. A watchtower looks over Botany Bay at the site of the La Perouse cable station, a point of Australia’s connection to New Zealand from 1876 to 1917.

Figure 1. A watchtower looks over Botany Bay at the site of the La Perouse cable station, a point of Australia’s connection to New Zealand from 1876 to 1917.

          As a result, cable stations play a role in stabilizing networks over time. In Australia, cables were brought ashore at Botany Bay, the site where Captain Cook first staked the British Flag in 1770 and where French explorer La Perouse landed in 1788. Although it was ten kilometers south of Sydney, Botany Bay was selected as a site for a cable station in part due to this proximity to nautical traffic and ship landings, which in turn helped to attract military and defense installations. Even after the telegraph station closed for signal traffic, the building continued to serve surrounding publics – emergent circulations continued to leverage the resources of existing nodes. It was used briefly as quarters for Coast Hospital nurses and subsequently as a women’s refuge operated by the Salvation Army. Traffic was eventually redirected to central Sydney, landing at Bondi Beach, where internet signals continue to enter Australia today. The builders of at least one subsequent cable system, however, still toyed with the idea of returning to La Perouse. The old cable station building (now a museum housing the artifacts of transnational communication), a nearby watchtower originally meant to look out for smugglers, and a monument named for the early French explorer all serve as reminders of the location’s significance in drawing in heterogeneous historical currents. 

Figure 2. A plaque graces the side of the old cable hut at Southport, Australia, where the Pacific Cable Board’s systems operated between 1902 and 1964.

Figure 2. A plaque graces the side of the old cable hut at Southport, Australia, where the Pacific Cable Board’s systems operated between 1902 and 1964.

          The cable station is a location where network history materializes and becomes visible, aural, and perceptible. It is the architecture in which history is celebrated and displayed, where generations of communications workers construct a sense of shared tradition, and where major network transitions are experienced. Our treatment of the early cable stations evidences, in part, a cultural relationship to communications past. In Southport, Australia, it is hard to miss where the cable landed, even though the station is no longer there, since a park, a street, and an apartment building have been named after it. The cable hut still stands, and is marked in the Queensland Heritage Register as an important site of cultural history. When the station’s owners sought to tear down the buildings to build a retirement home, residents spearheaded a campaign to transform them into the music complex of the local Southport School. In “Cable Park,” a monument commemorates the Pacific Cable Board telegraph system. A large map, engraved in metal, delineates its colonial routes, extending outward from Southport, connecting to Norfolk Island, branching off to New Zealand and to Fiji, from which it snakes northward to Fanning Island and eventually Bamfield, Canada. A quote from Shakespeare, “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,” anchors the system in British history. 

Figure 3. The telegraph rooms at the Bamfield cable station, which operated from 1902-1959, have since been turned into science labs

Figure 3. The telegraph rooms at the Bamfield cable station, which operated from 1902-1959, have since been turned into science labs

          The first set of British and American colonial stations in the Pacific were typically located in remote environments. Cablemen were a critical part of the circuit and spent long days transmitting and re-transmitting signals. The large and often out-of-place complexes built to house them were later valued as support architectures for local and regional projects. As in Southport, the cable station at Bamfield, Canada was evacuated after telephones replaced telegraphs. The multi-story building, designed by a leading architect in Victoria, had close to fifty rooms, including telegraph offices, accommodations, a billiard room, a music room, and a library with books about the British empire (Scott 1994). In 1972, the cable station buildings were converted to house the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. As at La Perouse, references to the history of the area remain part of the landscape. A monument to the original cables stands at the facility’s center. Cable memorabilia remains inside the building. Marine scientists have made use of cable facilities not only at Bamfield, but also across the Pacific. Scientists seeking new species near Wellington, New Zealand briefly utilized the cable house at Titahi Bay and the University of Honolulu leased the Fanning Island station for its oceanographic experiments. 

Figure 4. Part of the cable complex at Doubtless Bay, New Zealand was floated on a barge up a river to i­­­­ts landing spot at Oruru, where it now serves as a local community center and a cinema.

Figure 4. Part of the cable complex at Doubtless Bay, New Zealand was floated on a barge up a river to i­­­­ts landing spot at Oruru, where it now serves as a local community center and a cinema.

          At the Far North Regional Archives, I sit at a table with residents eager to share the history of the Northland, New Zealand and their encounters at the original telegraph house, now a local cinema theater. Each recounts a movie that they had seen at the “Swamp Palace” and the extensive stories about the films that would be told by its outgoing exhibitionist. The history of the Northland station, which operated for only a decade between 1902 and 1912, isn’t limited to the archives. Images are mounted on the walls at the local “Cable Bay” general store. The landing is commemorated with a stone monument, coordinates emblazoned on its surface. These stories and the visual culture of cable history resonate across the Pacific. In another “Cable Bay” in New Zealand, on the country’s South Island, a local couple has set up Cable Bay Holiday Park, dedicating a room to images of the bay’s history – an amateur archive. The original telegraph building in Fiji has been restored to house FINTEL, Fiji’s international communications company. Even after they ceased to be hubs of communications activity, stations along the original British line have housed other social circulations – of science, of cinema, of culture. The buildings, and the histories they preserve, allude to the colonial past yet simultaneously are woven into the fabric of local networks, serving specific community needs.

Figure 5. Remnants of old telephone cables lay across the beach at Vatuwaqa, Fiji. The original telegraph building has been renovated and now houses Fiji’s international telecommnications company.

Figure 5. Remnants of old telephone cables lay across the beach at Vatuwaqa, Fiji. The original telegraph building has been renovated and now houses Fiji’s international telecommnications company.

          At the Far North Regional Archives, I sit at a table with residents eager to share the history of the Northland, New Zealand and their encounters at the original telegraph house, now a local cinema theater. Each recounts a movie that they had seen at the “Swamp Palace” and the extensive stories about the films that would be told by its outgoing exhibitionist. The history of the Northland station, which operated for only a decade between 1902 and 1912, isn’t limited to the archives. Images are mounted on the walls at the local “Cable Bay” general store. The landing is commemorated with a stone monument, coordinates emblazoned on its surface. These stories and the visual culture of cable history resonate across the Pacific. In another “Cable Bay” in New Zealand, on the country’s South Island, a local couple has set up Cable Bay Holiday Park, dedicating a room to images of the bay’s history – an amateur archive. The original telegraph building in Fiji has been restored to house FINTEL, Fiji’s international communications company. Even after they ceased to be hubs of communications activity, stations along the original British line have housed other social circulations – of science, of cinema, of culture. The buildings, and the histories they preserve, allude to the colonial past yet simultaneously are woven into the fabric of local networks, serving specific community needs.

Figure 6. The ruins at Sumay, Guam remain on the Naval Base and are inaccessible to the public without a pass and an escort.

Figure 6. The ruins at Sumay, Guam remain on the Naval Base and are inaccessible to the public without a pass and an escort.

          The other stations along the American transpacific telegraph line also remain unknown, unexcavated, and insignificant in their surrounding landscapes. At Ocean Beach in San Francisco numerous pictures were taken to document the original landing, but nothing remains of the cable’s infrastructure today. The original cable hut has been demolished and an apartment building has been put up in its place. Like Ocean Beach, Hawai‘i’s Sans Souci Beach is a major tourist attraction in downtown Waikiki. No street signs, monuments, or parks mark its former landing. The only mention of the cable is a brief note at the bottom of the menu of a local restaurant. The ruins at Midway Island cannot be accessed since there are no regular commercial flights to the atoll. Only military groups, research teams, and eco-expeditions that charter flights may visit. Much of Manila’s coastal shoreline has been built out into the bay. The telegraph landing point here is likely submerged beneath roads and shopping malls. Transpacific communication histories live on solely in the historical images of cable landings and commemoration ceremonies, scattered few and far between, and often buried in remote archives.

Figure 7. At the telegraph landing in San Francisco apartment buildings now stand at the location of the original cable hut.

Figure 7. At the telegraph landing in San Francisco apartment buildings now stand at the location of the original cable hut.

          Several of the American sites are still critical locations for signal exchange. Guam and Hawai’i remain major hubs for transpacific internet traffic. In contrast, many of the early sites along the first British Pacific routes are not close to contemporary cable landings. Just as the cables moved north from La Perouse to Sydney, and later to Sydney’s northern suburbs, cables have been dislocated from Nelson, Northland, Darwin, Bamfield, Norfolk Island and Fanning Island. Canada’s traffic is now routed south through United States cables. New Zealand’s internet leaves the country through Takapuna, north of Auckland, and Muriwai, on its west coast, rather than two original cable landings. The visibility of cable history along the British colonial route – from the museum at La Perouse to the reconstructed walls at Darwin – is accompanied by a shift away from these locations as significant telecommunications hubs. In contrast, the solidification of American telecommunications networks at nodes such as Hawai‘i and Guam is accompanied by a lack of institutional interest in the maintenance of early cable sites.

Figure 8. At Hawai‘i’s Sans Souci Beach (left), the only remnant of the original transpacific cable landing is a mention at the bottom of a restaurant menu. The poles that mark contemporary communications cables (right) blend into the dry landscape of O‘ahu’s west shore.

Figure 8. At Hawai‘i’s Sans Souci Beach (left), the only remnant of the original transpacific cable landing is a mention at the bottom of a restaurant menu. The poles that mark contemporary communications cables (right) blend into the dry landscape of O‘ahu’s west shore.

          There are a number of practical reasons for this divergence, including the increased infrastructural awareness at typically remote British stations, the urban buildup around American stations at San Francisco and Honolulu, and the differing cultural relationships to a colonial past in the United States and in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Regardless, our forgetting of cable stations, especially in places that remain network hubs, serves to keep contemporary network infrastructure invisible. It is difficult to think of cable systems when they are spatially or temporally proximate. The nodes of the networks we are hooked into remain the most difficult to grasp. At stake in the forgetting of these systems is our understanding of the historical development of interconnections between places, the ongoing cost of maintenance, and the embodied difficulties of continued operation. Although cablemen are today relegated to oversight of the network, rather than the physical retransmission of messages, cable stations continue to be sites for the active monitoring and maintenance of transoceanic communications. How might we re-cast the global networks of media distribution – from the cable systems through which our internet flows; to the satellites that register the Earth’s surface; to the data centers where our information is stored – as inhabited architectures?

Figure 9. The cable landing at Nelson, New Zealand has been re-purposed as a campground. Inside Cable Bay Holiday Park’s reception area, an amateur archive of collected historical material documents the system’s impact.

Figure 9. The cable landing at Nelson, New Zealand has been re-purposed as a campground. Inside Cable Bay Holiday Park’s reception area, an amateur archive of collected historical material documents the system’s impact.

           At the climax of “White Noise,” as the engineers are listening to Moses cross the Red Sea, one of the pair suggests that they should tape and analyze the sounds emanating from the depths. The second engineer resists, arguing that if they continue to listen in and happen to overhear the voice of God, this knowledge would destroy them. “We musn’t hear it,” he exclaims, “We would know for sure. It would make a worthless thing of faith” (Kilworth 514). He pulls the plug, cuts the circuit, and fires a gun at the system. Destroying the cable station, he attempts to preserve a continued faith in the world’s mysteries and a belief in the possibility of earthly transcendence. This short story conveys at least one reality about today’s cable stations: they register traces of the past that are difficult to reconcile with the transcendence networks promise to us. As Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry have argued, “the full recognition of the materiality of space, and spatial relations, does violence to certain visions, themselves perhaps quite comforting, of what media are” (2004: 3). It is only through the symbolic destruction of this material past that we can continue to believe in the immateriality of our communications networks. Counter to this imagination, the images here suggest that by revisiting and recording the history of cable stations, we might open up a circuit of exchange between today’s systems and the colonial infrastructures that constitute their early foundations. 

Figure 10. Bricks from the old Darwin communications complex, destroyed during World War II, are embedded into the walls of the city’s government buildings.

Figure 10. Bricks from the old Darwin communications complex, destroyed during World War II, are embedded into the walls of the city’s government buildings.

WORKS CITED

  1. Couldry, Nick and Anna McCarthy, eds. MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
  2. Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures,
  3. Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London: Routledge, 2001.
  4. Kilworth, Gary. “White Noise.” In Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Volume 3, Ellen Datlow, ed.. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990. pp. 508-16.
  5. Scott, R. Bruce. Gentlemen on Imperial Service: A Story of the Trans-Pacific Telecommunications Cable told in their own Words by those who Served. Victoria: British Columbia, 1994.

Nicole Starosielski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her forthcoming book project, The Undersea Network, examines the cultural and environmental dimensions of transoceanic cable systems, beginning with the early global telegraph network and extending to the fiber-optic infrastructure that carries almost all international internet traffic.

 

RYAN NEMETH - Rising Tides

Design by: Ryan Nemeth

Design by: Ryan Nemeth

 

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Nemeth

Tides are defined by the alternate up and down movement of the water levels in the ocean that usually occur twice a day in a particular place as a result of gravity. These somewhat predictable swells are the result of the gravitational pull and the gravitational interaction between the Sun, the Moon and the Earth’s ocean.  Based on the number of high and low tides and their relative heights each tidal day, tides are described as semi-diurnal, mixed, or diurnal. When the moon is directly over the Earth's equator, its associated tidal bulges are centered on the equator. In theory, all locations on the planet except those at the highest latitudes rotate through the two tidal bulges and experience two equal high tides and two equal low tides per tidal day; this is known as a semi-diurnal tide. Semi-diurnal tides have a period of 12 hrs and 25 min, and theoretically have a wavelength of more than half the circumference of Earth.

Different types of tides occur when the moon is either North or South of the equator.  When the moon is above the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn, the diurnal inequality is at its maximum and the tides are called Tropic Tides. When the moon is above or nearly above the equator, the diurnal inequality is minimum and the tides are known as Equatorial Tides.  Whereas Semidiurnal tides are observed at the equator at all times, most locations North or South of the equator experience two unequal high tides and two unequal low tides per tidal day; this is called a mixed tide and the difference in height between successive high (or low) tides is called the diurnal inequality. Notably, points at high latitudes are often impacted by only one tidal bulge and experience one high tide and one low tide per tidal day. When this occurs, this singular Diurnal tide has a period of 24 hrs and 50 min.

The separate sets of ocean tides related to the moon and sun act at times together and at other times in opposition. About every two weeks, the positions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth form a straight line. This occurs during the New and Full Moon Phases as viewed from Earth (see Full Moon and New Moon positions on the diagram). During this period, the lunar and solar related ocean swells line up and add up to produce tides having the greatest monthly tidal range (that is, the highest high tide and lowest low tide); these are called Spring Tides.

Between spring tides, at the first and third quarter phases of the moon, the sun's pull on Earth is at right angles to the pull of the moon. During this time, tides have their minimum monthly tidal range (that is, unusually low high tide and unusually high low tide); these are called Neap Tides or Fortnightly Tides. Furthermore, the moon orbits Earth in an ellipse (rather than a circle) so that the moon is closest to Earth (stronger tide-generating force) at perigee and farthest from Earth (weaker tide-generating force) at apogee. The moon completes one perigee-apogee-perigee cycle once every 25.5 days.

Tidal Measurement Systems

The methods for the prediction and measurement of tide heights are classified as Harmonic and Non-Harmonic. Via the Harmonic method, all tidal actions exerted on the earth are combined into a composite tide using calculations from planetary (sun, moon, earth, etc.) motions and oscillations. This method is rooted in Exdoxas’s 356 B.C. discovery, which explains irregular motions of the planets mathematically and geometrically through combinations of uniform and succinct circular motions. 

The other method is the Non-Harmonic method of tidal prediction, which is made by applying the moon's transit times to the mean height of the tide. This method of calculation is a summation of average conditions and various inequalities that arise due to changes in the phase of the moon and the declination and parallax of the moon and sun. Notably, this method of measurement is noted as a less complex method for computing tides; but it is also a less accurate method of tidal measurement.

Up to and including the year 1884, all tide predictions for the tide tables were computed by means of auxiliary tables and curves constructed from the composite results of tide observations at different ports. From 1885 to 1911, the predictions were generally made by means of the Ferrel Tide-Predicting machine. From 1912 to 1965, tidal predictions were made by means of the Coast and Geodetic Survey Tide-Predicting Machine No. 2. It should be known that without the use of a tide-predicting machine the Harmonic method of tide computation would involve too much labor to be of practical service. However, with such a machine, the Harmonic method has many advantages over the Non-Harmonic system of measurement.

Predicting machines were superseded in 1966 with the advent of digital electronic computers. Initially these computers were of the large main-frame type. In the late 1980s, mainframes were replaced by the growing sophistication of desktop computers.  Desktop computers are now used exclusively by the National Ocean Service in making tidal predictions for standard ports in the United States.

Problems with Tidal Prediction

As noted, physicists have derived precise mathematical expressions to describe the gravitational effects of the Moon and the Sun on the Earth. In theory, therefore, it should be possible to make very precise predictions of the timing and size of all ocean tides. In fact, absolutely precise predictions are not possible because of the large number of factors that contribute to the tides at any one particular location.  The shapes of various ocean basins are primary among these variables. The ocean floor is so irregular and complex that seawater does not behave in a simple and predictable manner. Other variables also complicate the situation; these include variations in the Earth's axial rotation and variations in Earth-Moon-Sun positioning; including variations in orbital distance and inclination. Estimates of tidal behavior are therefore still based primarily on previous tidal observations, continuous monitoring of coastal water levels and astronomical tables.

Tides Matter

For centuries, people who live in coastal areas or who look to the sea for their livelihood have been observing the tides and tidal currents. They have benefitted from their observations and practical knowledge of tides in a variety of ways. For example, tidal knowledge has improved the safe navigation of ships to and from port.  Prior to the development of motorized vessels, this navigational skill helped fuel exploration, maritime shipping and military activities at sea. However, most of all, tidal knowledge has helped in maintaining aquaculture and fishery related activities in the inter-tidal zones near our shores.  Thus, the vitality of a days catch and the widespread availability of marine based foods has benefited dramatically from our knowledge of tidal patterns.

The Intertidal zone is defined as the area between the high tide and low tide mark. This is the spot where land based habitats and humans often interact with the sea. It is also the place where many integral ocean species such as bi-valves (oysters, mussels, clams, etc.) make their home.  Thus, the health of the ocean is highly dependent on the intertidal zone and consequently human health also fits neatly into this picture. The thing to know is that the intertidal zone is currently being subjected to unprecedented and accelerated ecosystem stressors; such as ocean acidification, temperature changes in the water and overall sea level rise. The latter, has produced a sizable and permanent affect on human populations that reside near shorelines and within intertidal zones.

Core samples, tide gauge readings and most recently, satellite measurements, tell us that over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). However, the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches (3.2 millimeters) a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years.  Climate change models project that global sea-level rise will accelerate in the 21st century. Models based on thermal expansion and ice melt estimate that global sea levels will rise approximately 20 to 39 inches by the end of the century. However, due to uncertainties about the response of ice sheets to warmer temperatures and future emissions of greenhouse gases, higher values are possible and cannot be excluded.

When sea levels rise rapidly, small increases in the volume of ocean water can have dramatic and catastrophic effects on coastal habitats. As seawater reaches farther inland, it often causes destructive erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants.  Furthermore, when ocean charged storms hit land, heightened sea levels mean larger and more powerful storm surges that become highly destructive to human habitats near the coastline. 

The fact of the matter is that hundreds of millions of global residents currently reside in areas that will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding. In some cases, higher sea levels will force residents to abandon their homes and relocate.  Based on modeling and some predications, many low-lying islands could be submerged completely in the very near future. This is an interesting thing to ponder given the fact that so many global residents live near the ocean. In the United States, counties directly on the shoreline constitute less than 10 percent of the total land area (not including Alaska), but account for 39 percent of the total population. From 1970 to 2010, the population of these counties increased by almost 40% and they are projected to increase by an additional 10 million people or 8% by 2020. Currently, the population density of U.S. coastal shoreline counties is over six times greater than the corresponding inland counties. Could it be that the current trends of coastal settlement and the relevant coastal migration patterns will be challenged as we head into a new millennium of unpredictable and rising seas?

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