IEEE Milestones Honor Two Historical Breakthroughs at AT&T Laboratories

ASCII and the TAT-8 fiber-optic cable were recognized

31 May 2016

A wall in the lobby of AT&T Laboratories in Middletown, N.J., now displays two IEEE Milestone plaques, which were unveiled at a dedication ceremony on 19 May.

The plaques honor two historical breakthroughs conceived by AT&T researchers. One is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which was invented in 1967 and became the most common character-encoding scheme for the World Wide Web, used until December 2007. The other is TAT-8, the eighth transatlantic telecommunications cable. Completed in 1988, TAT-8 was the first fiber-optic cable to be laid across an ocean.

“Both of these monumental achievements made a lasting impact on electronic communication and are worthy of our recognition and perpetuation,” IEEE President Barry L. Shoop said in his opening remarks.

AT&T Vice President Irene Shannon praised the company’s current endeavors as well as its commitment to honoring past giants. “We still have plenty of room on that wall for more Milestones,” she noted.

About 100 people attended the ceremony, including IEEE-USA President Peter Eckstein, Region 1 Director Ronald Tabroff, and Newman Wilson, chair of the IEEE New Jersey Coast Section. Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center, spoke about the Milestone program and praised the team of IEEE volunteers that proposed the two Milestones.

Administered by the IEEE History Center and funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments from around the world.

  • From Telegraphs To The World Wide Web

    ASCII is a character-encoding scheme, originally based on the Latin alphabet, that encodes 128 characters: the numbers 0 through 9, the lowercase and uppercase versions of the letters a through z, basic punctuation symbols, control codes that originated with Teletype machines, and a blank space. ASCII codes represent text used in computers, communications equipment, and other devices. Most modern character-encoding systems are based on ASCII, though they support many additional characters.

    ASCII was developed from telegraphic codes. Its first commercial use was as a 7-bit teleprinter code developed by Bell Data Systems. Compared with earlier telegraph codes, the proposed Bell code and ASCII were both ordered for more convenient alphabetizing of lists and added features for devices other than teleprinters.

    Work on standardizing ASCII as a standard language began in October 1960, with the first meeting of the American Standards Association (now the American National Standards Institute) X3.2 subcommittee. Members of the subcommittee included representatives from AT&T, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Business Equipment Manufacturers Association, Honeywell, and IBM. The standard, first published in 1963, was revised in 1967 and again in 1986.

    The Milestone plaque reads:

    ASCII, a character-encoding scheme originally based on the Latin alphabet, became the most common character encoding on the World Wide Web through 2007. ASCII is the basis of most modern character-encoding schemes. The American Standards Association X3.2 subcommittee published the first edition of the ASCII standard in 1963. Its first widespread commercial implementation was in the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) Teletypewriter eXchange network and Teletype Model 33 teleprinters.

  • A Vital Communications Link

    The TAT-8 was the first transatlantic cable to use optical fibers, a revolution in telecommunications. (The first transatlantic cable, a telegraph wire, was completed in 1866.) TAT-8’s capacity was equivalent to 40,000 telephone circuits—10 times the capacity of the previous copper transatlantic cable.

    TAT-8 was constructed in 1988 by a consortium of companies led by AT&T, France Télécom, and British Telecom. The cable, which cost US $335 million to make, served the three countries thanks in part to the use of an innovative branching unit located on the continental shelf off the coast of England. A branching unit is used in submarine telecommunications systems to allow a cable to serve more than one station.

     The cable lands in Tuckerton, N.J.; Widemouth Bay, England; and Penmarch, France.

    The team working on the cable needed to develop optical fiber strong enough to withstand harsh submarine conditions. Undersea cable required 10 times the strength of optical fibers at that time. The TAT-8 consisted of 1.3-micrometer-wide single-mode fibers as well as silicon for repeaters running at 280 megabits per second—with low failure rates. The technologies resulted in fewer repeaters and thinner cable compared with earlier efforts.

    TAT-8 was carried across the ocean by CS Long Lines, a ship that held more than 4,000 kilometers of cable. Built in 1963 by AT&T, the ship was responsible for laying more than 64,000 km of cable over the course of 23 missions before the company sold it in 1997.

    The Milestone plaque reads:

    TAT-8, the first fiber-optic cable to cross an ocean, entered service 14 December 1988. AT&T, British Telecom, and France Télécom led the consortium that built TAT-8, which spanned a seabed distance of 5,846 km between North America and Europe. AT&T Bell Laboratories developed the foundational technologies: 1.3-micron fiber, cable, splicing, laser detector, and 280 Mbps repeater for 40,000-telephone-call capacity. Bell Labs led the integration at Freehold, N.J.

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