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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

Creating a Scientific Vocabulary

Benjamin Franklin, Library of Congress

Until the Industrial Revolution created a new class of wealthy factory owners, there was no impetus to coin the term "millionaire," as novelist and future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli did in 1827. On the scientific front as well, the 18th and 19th centuries witnessed progress that occasionally outstripped the ability of language to capture it. Before new technologies could be fully utilized, a new vocabulary would have to be created to describe them.

Far Writer
When inventor Claude Chappe built a series of semaphore stations across France in 1794, he considered what to call his novel means of communication. Chappe's original thought was to dub it the "tachygraphe," from the Greek words meaning "fast writer." But government official and friend Miot de Melito preferred the name "telegraphe," from the Greek for "far writer," and Chappe agreed. Although mid-19th century telegraph offices and the transatlantic cable bore little resemblance to Chappe's signaling stations, in both cases the ability to send messages quickly across heretofore impossible distances made the "far writer" name stick.

Describing Electricity
By the 1840s, inventors like Samuel Morse were making the modern telegraph -- one that used wires to convey an electric current — a reality. While Morse's code became the standard means of sending messages across the wire, there was less agreement on how to categorize the properties of the electricity that was being harnessed. Certain terms connected to electricity, like "positive," "negative," "battery," and "conductor," had been coined by Benjamin Franklin in the course of his famous experiments of the 1750s. But a century later, there was still no agreement on what to term measurements of electric current and resistance, a key point when one considers that the weakness of current flowing through the submarine cable was one of the main technological problems that Cyrus Field's scientific associates had to overcome.

A Unified Vocabulary
Using vague words such as "intensity" and "tension" didn't help matters much, and after the first cable failed, one of the key contributions made by the committee of inquiry into the failure was to point out the need for some sort of unified vocabulary. Shortly after the committee's report was published, Sir Charles Bright and Latimer Clark proposed just such a system in a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Honoring the Inventors
Within a few years after Bright and Clark's suggestions, a new scientific vocabulary began to develop. But unlike Chappe, who drew his name from Greek words, the coiners of this electric vocabulary used words to honor pioneers in the field, individuals such as James Watt, Alessandro Volta, Georg Ohm, and Andre-Marie Ampere. Their last names are now the units of measurement by which electricity is calibrated. And the scientific community did not neglect the contributions of the those associated with the cable project: Lord Kelvin's name became the unit scientists use to measure temperature.

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