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TO MARCH 22, 2002
As a topic for a museum exhibit, undersea cabling seems boring almost to the point of parody. The curators of a new show at the National Museum of American History, perhaps realizing this, have lent their effort a patina of Internet cool by calling it “The Underwater Web: Cabling the Seas.” Though the exhibit glides too quickly over the basic technologies that undergird telegraphy, other facets of the history of long-distance communications are well-covered. Who knew that the earliest long-distance communications tool (not counting, say, smoke signals) was a French network of windmill-style semaphore towers and telescope-equipped relay men thatcirca 1792could carry short messages in good weather more than 200 miles in 10 minutes? Undersea cable technology made its debut in the mid-1800s, but it took multiple attempts (the crew of the Great Eastern is pictured), often in dangerous seas, before cabling companies successfully laid the first functional links. Eventually, newer technologies challenged and sometimes superseded traditional copper wires: shortwave radio in the ’20s, satellites in the ’60s, and, finally, fiber optics in the ’80s. Visitors should take the exhibition’s sometimes pointed comments about this business arc with a grain of salt; TyCom, a global cabling firm, was a major financial sponsor of the show. Still, despite some faults, this small (and, alas, too dimly lit) exhibition chronicles one of those seemingly mundane advances that made our comfortable, high-tech society possible. It’s on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to March 22, 2002, at the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Louis Jacobson)