book-reviews

How the World Was One

by Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: ★★★★

The mad bastards actually did it. It took four tries, and staggering sums of money, but they did it. Two ships -- one of them wooden -- rendezvoused in the middle of the Atlantic, took hold of two ends of a giant copper cable, and with a single escort each, daring the hazards of storm, shipping, and simple snags, spooled it out between them from Ireland to Newfoundland. They barely even understood how the telegraph cables worked (and this line wouldn't last long) but they bridged the New and Old Worlds.

This is Arthur C. Clarke's history of global communications, from the Victorian pioneers watching the flickering light of the early telegraph stations, right up to mobile telephony and fibre-optic transmission. It is a history written by an incredibly suitable author, as Clarke is not only a supremely talented writer, but was also involved in a great deal of the development of telecommunications in the latter half of the 20th century -- Clarke's own short article on the possibility of communications satellites, written in 1945, was motivationally prescient of the modern world.

The book is an excellent example of the nonfiction genre. Every chapter develops and communicates a critical element of technological history, being just short enough to keep you focused and just detailed enough that you really do learn something. Clarke has no allergy to changing his stride, and masterfully incorporates quotations from aged newspapers (and boy, those Victorian journalists could really write), his own speeches, and even particularly pointed examples of his science-fiction. Through it all, he carries a narrative, a story of a world growing closer together, and of the continual surprise that technology poses even to the most forward-thinking and well-grounded men of the day.