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On Assignment

Rewiring the World
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.


Connecting the Planet

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By Thomas B. Allen Photographs by Jonathan Elderfield, Getty Images

Distance dissolves as fiber-optic and wireless networks speed e-mails and ideas around the world.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Little orange flags have sprouted along the sidewalks in Bethesda, a Maryland suburb just over the line from Washington, D.C. I have seen enough of these flags to know that they fly for the diggers. Someday soon the diggers and their backhoes and their flashing warning lights will arrive to tear up the roads and slow down traffic so they can bury something. But what?

Not far from my home I caught up with Martin J. Droney, who was running a crew of telephone company workers. Martin introduced me to the rewiring of the world. It is a world of cables buried on land and in seabeds, a world of cascading e-mail messages and a burgeoning Internet, doubling in size every year, spewing information on a scale unprecedented in history. And it is a world with a “digital divide” that separates the connected people from people so unconnected that hundreds of millions of them have never even made a phone call.


The first wiring of the world began in 1850, only six years after Samuel Morse demonstrated the reality of telegraphy. British engineers made a copper-wire cable, insulated it with gutta-percha (a rubberlike Malayan tree sap), and laid it across the English Channel.

Soon came a cable across the Atlantic. On August 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a hundred-word message to President James Buchanan. Some of the royal words reached Washington that day; the rest came through on the 17th. Agonizingly slow and chronically unreliable, the cable went dead after three weeks.

The problem was the behavior of electricity in cables. Convinced that they had found the solution, engineers tried again, this time with the world’s largest ship, the Great Eastern. In July 1865 she set out from England with a crew of 500, a dozen oxen for hauling, a cow for fresh milk, a herd of pigs for bacon—and a thickly insulated 2,800-mile cable that weighed 5,000 tons. They had almost finished laying it when the cable snapped. The next year they succeeded.

Cable laying continued through the 19th century and into the 20th. Words were humming along at more than 200 a minute, compared with 12 a minute in 1866. But cable met competition when wireless telegraphs, in 1901, and commercial telephone calls, in 1927, began crackling across the Atlantic on radio waves. Not until 1956 did a telephone cable span the Atlantic. Then in 1965 the first Early Bird Satellite went into orbit, and again cable became a has-been.

But by the mid-1990s, thanks to fiber optics, cable was making a comeback, carrying most telephone calls between the United States and Europe, Japan, and Australia. Pulsing with Internet data packets, cables connect more than 80 nations, carrying far more telephone calls than satellites or mobile phones. But those mobile phones and satellites are bridging the digital divide, using wireless networks as a way to connect the unconnected.


In the rewired world, as hackers say, the world is one big wire, and distance is dead.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Computer access is denied to much of the world's poor. What are the ramifications of this digital divide? Voice your opinion.

Beating out the boys in telephone courtesy, women in the early 1880s talked their way into operator positions. Send this image as a postcard.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The telephone and the Internet may have been born in the United States, but the most wired countries in the world are in Scandinavia. The five Nordic nations—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—were among the first seven connected to the Internet. Wee Iceland leads the way. According to the International Telecommunications Union, 60 percent of Icelanders use the Internet—the highest percentage in the world. Norway is a distant second, with 49 percent Internet penetration; Sweden is in third with 46 percent. Only 35 percent of Americans are Internet users.

Why are Scandinavians so wired? Is it the weather, the isolation, and their understanding of English, the Internet’s lingua franca? Perhaps, but being relatively wealthy and loaded with communications infrastructure may be more important. Most people still use telephone lines to connect to the Internet, and Scandinavian nations are among the world leaders in teledensity, the number of telephone lines per unit population. There are more telephone lines in Scandinavia than in Africa (excluding technology-rich South Africa), an area with more than 30 times the inhabitants.

—Hillel J. Hoffmann

Pew Internet and American Life Project
Offers good reports on how the Internet affects daily life and different demographic groups.

U.S. Census Bureau
This August 2000 report lists statistics for computer use and ownership in the United States.

International Telecommunication Union
Gives publications, statistics, and links on world telecommunications.

How Stuff Works: How Fiber Optics Work
Provides an easy-to-understand description of how fiber optics and related technologies (e.g. telephones, cable TV) work.

TeleGeography, Inc.
This site contains statistics and analysis on international telecommunications.


Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. MIT Press, 2000.

Berners-Lee, Tim. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.

Hecht, Jeff. City of Light : The Story of Fiber Optics (Sloan Technology Series). Oxford University Press, 1999.

Naughton, John. A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime. Overlook Press, 2000.

Young, Peter. Person to Person: The International Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge Granta Editions, 1991.


Arenofsky, Janice. “Tomorrow’s Technology Today,” World (May 2001), 26-28.

Terrell, Kenneth. “Electronic Explorer: Journeys with Palm in Hand,” National Geographic Traveler (September, 2000), 38, 40.


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