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How the World Was One

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Clarke, the 50 million-copy bestselling science fiction visionary who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, addresses the rapid transformation of our society spurred by great leaps in communication technology. From submarine cables to fiber optics to neutrino and tachyon (faster than light) communications, he traces the global changes these innovations left or will leave in their wake.

296 pages, Hardcover

First published June 1, 1992

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About the author

Arthur C. Clarke

1,075 books9,801 followers
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century science fiction. He spent the first half of his life in England, where he served in World War Two as a radar operator, before emigrating to Ceylon in 1956. He is best known for the novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-created with the assistance of Stanley Kubrick.

Clarke was a graduate of King's College, London where he obtained First Class Honours in Physics and Mathematics. He is past Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, a member of the Academy of Astronautics, the Royal Astronomical Society, and many other scientific organizations.

Author of over fifty books, his numerous awards include the 1961 Kalinga Prize, the AAAS-Westinghouse science writing prize, the Bradford Washburn Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for his novel Rendezvous With Rama. Clarke also won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1972, 1974 and 1979, the Hugo Award of the World Science Fiction Convention in 1974 and 1980, and in 1986 became Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He was awarded the CBE in 1989.

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Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Carmelo Medina.
141 reviews4 followers
March 21, 2019
Un excelente libro en el que se repasa toda la historia de las telecomunicaciones desde sus inicios. Está tan bien escrito y cuenta episodios tan poco conocidos que muchas veces parece una novela de aventuras, lo que añade más valor a la manera de hacer didáctica de Clarke. Incluye algún relato suyo sobre el tema que ayuda a contextualizar las distintas tecnologías y sus usos según la época en la que fueron escritos... Un libro de obligada lectura para los amantes de la ingeniería y que demuestra que no se puede dar por sentado nada con respecto a las tecnologías que damos por establecidas y cual puede ser su futuro.
Profile Image for Betawolf.
372 reviews1,471 followers
August 18, 2018
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 fibreoptic 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 motivatingly 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.
Profile Image for Zac.
33 reviews8 followers
December 11, 2014
This is really five short books sandwiched together into one medium-length book. The first book is about the laying of the transatlantic cable in the 19th century. The second book is about telephony and radio. Books three, four, and five are a grab-bag of essays about satellite technology, fiber-optic cable

The first book is as good as historical engineering nonfiction gets. I read the entire thing in a night and a day, carrying it with me from place to place. I read it on my couch, I read it at the train station, I read it at the dentist's office (in the waiting room). If I had been mugged on the street while I was reading this book, I would have absentmindedly handed over my wallet while continuing to read. The first book explains the conception of the idea of submarine telegraphy to connect the Old World to the New and its execution. This is the story of the Atlantic Telegraph company, and comprehends the rivalry between Wildman Whitehouse and William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), Kelvin's invention of the mirror galvanometer, Kelvin's coinage of the term "data rate" to describe the rate at which a message could be transmitted down the length of the cable, two failed attempts to lay cable and one success that included the rescue and repair of one of the earlier, failed cables. I urge anyone interested in the early history of computer networking to read this book.

Books three, four, and five are a grab-bag of essays (and one unwelcome, longueur-filled short story) in which Clarke writes about his contributions to the field of satellite communications and speculates about the future of communications technology. In it, Clarke displays his worst writerly side: by attempting to be cool, he becomes obsequious. He committed the same offense in 3001, when Frank Poole makes a dreadful, unfunny reference to Batman, clearly thinks that it is a terribly witty joke, and then behaves dismissively toward a confused 31st-century man for not understanding it.

The last three parts of this book (books three, four, and five, as I have called them) are filled to bursting with information, despite their cloying tone and disorganized presentation.
Profile Image for Obed M. Parlapiano.
198 reviews15 followers
July 29, 2017
This is a magnificent history book. It's surprising how little you think of things that work all around you but you never see.

In "How the world Was One" Arthur C. Clarke, one of the "Big 3" sci-fy writers of his time, explains how the world went from sending messages via messenger boys and horses and waiting for days, months or even years for a reply, to sending messages via telegraphs that took minutes.

The book is very well formulated, and even though it's composed of Clarke's many different writings put together, they all make a sense together and feel continuous, there's no abrupt change from one chapter to the next. The story flows through history, mentioning each of the remarkable people that had an influence in the communication history, giving minute detals and dates and really good trivia here and then.

The book is a bit too specific for my liking, I'm not good with dates or names, and most of the people mentioned will fade (or have already faded) soon enough, but the teachings of the book, the understanding of how the world telecommunication industry and it's pioneers came to be, will never leave me.

From the laying of the submarine telegraph cables protected by Gutta Percka, to the discovery and invention of short and long wave radio, up to the skies with the sattelite industry boom, back down into the seas with the comeback of submarine fiberglass cables that eventually gave us The Internet! It's all here.

This is my second book of Clarke, and so far he seems to be one of those authors you enjoy more and more as you read more of his works.

Totally recommended book for anyone that loves history, science, or has any curiosity to understand How the World Was One.
Profile Image for Diego González.
194 reviews88 followers
November 29, 2016
Breve historia de cómo las redes de comunicaciones envolvieron el mundo y cualquier parte del planeta pasó a estar a minutos de cualquier otro lugar gracias a los cables. El libro consta de dos partes de calidad desigual. La primera, la prodigiosa historia de los primeros cables telegráficos trasatlánticos, es formidable. Es cierto que la historia en sí es tan maravillosa que a poco que un narrador sepa juntar un par de frases le sale un relato fabuloso, pero Clarke además lo hace genial (no así su traductor, que es capaz de confundir billions con billones sin que se le caiga la cara de vergüenza).

La segunda parte es básicamente una sucesión de anécdotas, muchas de ellas protagonizadas por el propio Clarke, acerca del nacimiento y la expansión de los satélites de comunicaciones, precedidas todas ellas por unos breves apuntes acerca de los cables telefónicos transoceánicos. Hay también mucha épica en estas historias, pero a Clarke o no supo o no le apetecía encontrarla, y le resultaba más cómodo copypastear alegremente fragmentos de otros libros suyos, discursos en sociedades científicas y artículos de prensa.
Profile Image for Capri Caviedes.
14 reviews
January 20, 2018
Para los amantes de las telecomunicaciones, una historia (sin detalle) de la evolución de los sistemas de telecomunicaciones desde el telégrafo hasta el satélite; toma el tema de fibra óptica pero sin entrar en profundidad. Es interesante lo que se menciona sobre la capacidad de elaborar sistemas de comunicación basados en neutrinos u ondas gravitacionales.
Profile Image for Enrique.
48 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2019
Magnífico libro, lleno de humor y buenas historias (algunas ciertamente épicas), que repasa desde sus inicios la historia de las telecomunicaciones, desde el telégrafo y los primeros cables submarinos, pasando por los satélites de comunicaciones y otros inventos. Se ha quedado un poco desfasado por el año (1992) en que fue publicado. Aun así, absolutamente recomendable.
Profile Image for Caolan McMahon.
113 reviews2 followers
September 25, 2017
Hard to rate this one. The first parts about laying the transatlantic telegraph cables are really great and worth the price alone, after that I quickly got bored and stopped reading. Looking at the other reviews on here I'm justified in not suffering to the end.
23 reviews1 follower
December 16, 2021
Interesting first half about undersea cables, which I found out about from reading Neal Stephenson's excellent Wired article "Mother Earth, Mother Board". The second half was interesting but less engaging.
Profile Image for Duffy.
97 reviews
May 18, 2017
Echoing what a lot of people have already said, the first two parts are really good, the last part is quite a slog by comparison. 4 starts for parts 1 and 2, 2 stars for the 3rd part.
Profile Image for Will.
35 reviews
January 9, 2019
Interesantisimo libro de A. C. Clarke en el que repasa los grandes hitos que marcaron el inicio de la comunicación global.
Profile Image for Eric Migicovsky.
22 reviews7 followers
October 9, 2021
enjoyed the first few times they strung cable across the ocean but then got bored. there's only so much discussion of gutta pecha that I can take
Profile Image for Tom Lee.
186 reviews25 followers
November 30, 2015
An interesting and pleasantly conversational nonfiction account of how global networks were first achieved. The book has two parts, and their quality differs.

First is the story of undersea cables and the incredible feats of Victorian era engineering that made them possible. As Clarke observes, this was the last era of intelligent amateurs making okay guesses about scientific problems, then achieving success through trial and error. That this approach could deliver achievements as awe-inspiring as instantaneous transatlantic communication is amazing. Clarke tells the story succinctly and in surprisingly entertaining fashion, particularly when one considers that the story boils down to a series of mostly-indistinguishable business ventures (some of which eventually worked).

There were interesting problems related to making the cable strong, conductive, properly insulated, and deploying it efficiently. When they began, the engineers didn't even realize that signals propagate through a submerged cable differently than they do when it's suspended in air! A number of scientific luminaries like Lord Kelvin drop in to play major parts in achieving eventual success.

The second part of the story involves communication satellites -- comsats -- and Clarke is very close to these events. Arguably too close.

The problem is this: the earth is curved. A radio signal won't naturally bend around that curve, putting a limit on how far it can reach. Shortwave signals can bounce off the ionosphere, ping-ponging their way around the world. But the ionosphere is an unreliable partner, and shortwave signals can't easily cover a large area. Different radio frequencies can pass through the ionosphere and into space, but from there they normally keep on going.

Clarke himself authored the canonical four-page paper proposing the use of satellites in geosynchronous orbit for radio relaying: parking a satellite along the equator at just the right orbital height and speed such that it remains stationary relative to a spot on the ground. His paper (included in the appendix) doesn't seem hugely rigorous, but he does run the numbers to show that the transmission power levels and necessary rocket specifications are plausible.

The paper became the original reference for an extremely important idea, even as huge amounts of work remained to be done in implementing it. Clarke had worked as a radar operator during WWII, but it seems to have been his position in the science fiction firmament that let his ideas freely diffuse into engineering circles. That paper was the end of his engineering contributions to comsats, but he spent many years giving honorary speeches about satellite communication and sitting on the corporate boards of various satellite industry players. And though he evinces a consistent humility in his writing, much of the content of the comsat portion of the book consists of reproductions of those speeches. These are not perfectly suited to book form, and sometimes they even include repeated anecdotes. A fresh approach to the material would have worked better. But one can forgive an old man for not mustering the will to tell these stories -- which he had been telling for decades -- yet again.

There is one interesting aspect to this, though, which is the degree to which Clarke and other comsat originators anticipated the media trends they would jump-start: specifically, the coarsening of media that its democratization would produce (he reprints an amusingly dour short story about the Soviets winning the propaganda war with satellite-broadcast pornography); and the trade-offs between alleviating human suffering and global cultural homogenization.

Incidentally, John Pierce of Bell Labs makes frequent appearances in the book -- both as one of the driving forces behind the earliest comsats and as a friend and amateur science fiction author -- and his Signals (cowritten with A. Michael Noll) is an excellent companion book, diving into many of the relevant technical questions while remaining accessible and basically coffee-table compatible.
Profile Image for Jim.
21 reviews1 follower
February 7, 2013
I read the book based on references in Cryptonomicon (Cryptonomicon). The sections about the history of the undersea cables was very interesting and informative. I may have learned a little more that I wanted to know but Clarke does his usual great job of holding the reader's interest. The rest of the book was (to me a least) not very compelling. COMSAT history is fascinating but the the book basically (if pretend modestly) gives most of the credit to Clarke. Still, if there is interest in the history of long distance communication this is a good primer.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
9 reviews
June 8, 2009
This book is a fascinating look into the physical realities of communication: from the first undersea cables for telegraphs to geosynchronous satellites (which Mr. Clarke posited in a SF story many years before they became reality). I found this book through a fabulous article by Neal Stephenson on the difficulties of laying new fiber-optic cable through the world that appeared in Wired in the late 90s.
Profile Image for Ron.
55 reviews
December 24, 2016
This would have easily been a five star book, but the historical adventure of the first 2/3 leads into a lot of speculation that seems dated in 2011 (the book was written in 1991). Fortunately, he reprints some of his excellent speeches from the era that contain a few charming motes of wisdom that definitely apply to today's culture of hyper-information.
15 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2012
The first part of this book, which documents the laying of submarine cable, is very suspenseful and interesting. The section on satellites, markedly less so. But all in all a good history of the communications industry.
Profile Image for Luke.
847 reviews14 followers
December 7, 2014
A curious history of transatlantic communications, from telegraph to satellite, by the sci-fi author who is given some credit for the idea of communication by satellite. A little disjointed and dated.
Profile Image for Ignacio.
61 reviews5 followers
July 19, 2015
Un libro que deberían hacernos leer nada más poner un pie en la escuela de teleco. Fascinante y evocador.
Profile Image for Daniel Aguilar.
120 reviews31 followers
March 26, 2017
As stated by fellow reviewers, the first half is a great and exciting account on the recent history of communication technologies (telegraph, telephone, radio, satellites...), specially on the challenge of building the trans-oceanic cable network. The second half of the book, however, is a compilation of articles and speeches that, even containing some interesting or amusing anecdotes, feel random and rather boring. Worth reading because of the first part, which narrates how the communications network we now take for granted came to be. As the title says, how the world became "one".
Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews

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