How to write about technology

Neal Stephenson has a new book coming out on August 15. With typical Stephenson insouciance, it’s entitled Some Remarks but actually it’s a collection of some of his essays, leavened by the transcripts of a few magazine interviews. With some authors, this might be seen as a bit of a con. But for those of us who admire his talent, it’s very good to have them gathered together in a single compendium.

I’ve been reading a proof copy kindly sent (out of the blue) by his publishers, Atlantic Books. Couldn’t put it down. The thing about Stephenson is he writes about technology like Michael Lewis writes about finance or venture capitalism. He’s amazingly well-informed, detached, learned and, sometimes, wickedly funny — the most literate geek we’ve got.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from his December 1996 Wired essay “Mother Earth Mother Board” about the way the world was — and is — girdled by submarine cables:

The Victorian era was an age of superlatives and larger-than-life characters, and as far as that goes, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse fit right in: what Victoria was to monarchs, Dickens to novelists, Burton to explorers, Robert E. Lee to generals, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse was to assholes. He achieved a level of pure accomplishment in this field that the Alfonse D’Amatos of our time can only dream of. The only 19th-century figure who even comes close to him in this department is Custer. In any case, Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse fancied himself something of an expert on electricity. His rival was William Thomson, 10 years younger, a professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University who was infatuated with Fourier analysis, a new and extremely powerful tool that happened to be perfectly suited to the problem of how to send electrical pulses down long submarine cables.

Wildman Whitehouse predicted that sending bits down long undersea cables was going to be easy (the degradation of the signal would be proportional to the length of the cable) and William Thomson predicted that it was going to be hard (proportional to the length of the cable squared). Naturally, they both ended up working for the same company at the same time.

Whitehouse was a medical doctor, hence working in the wrong field, and probably trailed Thomson by a good 50 or 100 IQ points. But that didn’t stop Whitehouse. In 1856, he published a paper stating that Thomson’s theories concerning the proposed transatlantic cable were balderdash. The two men got into a public argument, which became extremely important in 1858 when the Atlantic Telegraph Company laid such a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland: a copper core sheathed in gutta-percha and wrapped in iron wires.

This cable was, to put it mildly, a bad idea, given the state of cable science and technology at the time. The notion of copper as a conductor for electricity, as opposed to a downspout material, was still extraordinary, and it was impossible to obtain the metal in anything like a pure form. The cable was slapped together so shoddily that in some places the core could be seen poking out through its gutta-percha insulation even before it was loaded onto the cable-laying ship. But venture capitalists back then were a more rugged – not to say crazy – breed, and there can be no better evidence than that they let Wildman Whitehouse stay on as the Atlantic Telegraph Company’s chief electrician long after his deficiencies had become conspicuous.

The physical process of building and laying the cable makes for a wild tale in and of itself. But to do it justice, I would have to double the length of this already herniated article. Let’s just say that after lots of excitement, they put a cable in place between Ireland and Newfoundland. But for all of the reasons mentioned earlier, it hardly worked at all. Queen Victoria managed to send President Buchanan a celebratory message, but it took a whole day to send it. On a good day, the cable could carry something like one word per minute. This fact was generally hushed up, but the important people knew about it – so the pressure was on Wildman Whitehouse, whose theories were blatantly contradicted by the facts.

Whitehouse convinced himself that the solution to their troubles was brute force – send the message at extremely high voltages. To that end, he invented and patented a set of 5-foot-long induction coils capable of ramming 2,000 volts into the cable. When he hooked them up to the Ireland end of the system, he soon managed to blast a hole through the gutta-percha somewhere between there and Newfoundland, turning the entire system into useless junk.

Long before this, William Thomson had figured out, by dint of Fourier analysis, that incoming bits could be detected much faster by a more sensitive instrument. The problem was that instruments in those days had to work by physically moving things around, for example, by closing an electromagnetic relay that would sound a buzzer. Moving things around requires power, and the bits on a working transatlantic cable embodied very little power. It was difficult to make a physical object small enough to be susceptible to such ghostly traces of current.

Thomson’s solution (actually, the first of several solutions) was the mirror galvanometer, which incorporated a tiny fleck of reflective material that would twist back and forth in the magnetic field created by the current in the wire. A beam of light reflecting from the fleck would swing back and forth like a searchlight, making a dim spot on a strip of white paper. An observer with good eyesight sitting in a darkened room could tell which way the current was flowing by watching which way the spot moved. Current flowing in one direction signified a Morse code dot, in the other a dash. In fact, the information that had been transmitted down the cable in the brief few weeks before Wildman Whitehouse burned it to a crisp had been detected using Thomson’s mirror galvanometer – though Whitehouse denied it.

After the literal burnout of the first transatlantic cable, Wildman Whitehouse and Professor Thomson were grilled by a committee of eminent Victorians who were seriously pissed off at Whitehouse and enthralled with Thomson, even before they heard any testimony – and they heard a lot of testimony.

Whitehouse disappeared into ignominy. Thomson ended up being knighted and later elevated to a baron by Queen Victoria. He became Lord Kelvin and eventually got an important unit of measurement, an even more important law of physics, and a refrigerator named after him.

My only complaint is that the collection doesn’t include “In the Beginning Was the Command Line”, his great essay on open source. But perhaps that’s because it’s now available as a book.