The MRI and the French Transatlantic Telegraph Cable of 1898 Honored With IEEE Milestones

The technologies changed medical diagnosis and communications

16 November 2018

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has become a vital tool for diagnosing brain tumors and diseases of the central nervous system. The French Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, a remarkable feat of oceanic engineering, provided communication between Europe and North America without intermediate relaying. Both achievements were recognized in September as IEEE Milestones. Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.


MRI scans can show the difference between healthy and diseased tissue and can provide important information about the health of internal organs, joints, and the spine. The first two-dimensional MRI was obtained in 1973 by IEEE Senior Member Paul C. Lauterbur at Stony Brook University, in New York. Lauterbur was a chemistry professor there.

For decades, magnetic resonance was used mainly for studying the chemical structure of substances through the use of nuclear magnetic resonance, which was developed in 1946. NMR is the process of recording the stimulated absorption and discharge of energy from nuclei placed in a magnetic field.

Lauterbur used French physicist Robert Gabillard’s idea of introducing gradients in the magnetic field. Gradients are loops of wire or thin conductive sheets on a cylindrical shell lying just inside the module of a magnetic resonance scanner. The innovation allowed scientists to determine the origin of radio waves emitted from the nuclei of the object being studied. The spatial information given by the machine after the gradients were introduced allowed pictures of a physical object to be produced.

Stony Brook’s chemistry department housed the best NMR machine on campus. Lauterbur used the machine at night to conduct his experiments.

The first MRI he created was an image of two test tubes filled with heavy water placed in a beaker of ordinary water. No other imaging technique at the time could distinguish between the two types of water. He also made images of a clam and green peppers.

In the late 1970s, Peter Mansfield, a physics professor at the University of Nottingham, England, improved on Lauterbur’s work by introducing mathematical techniques that made the image processing faster and easier.

Lauterbur and Mansfield shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine “for their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging.”

Lauterbur’s two-dimensional nuclear MRI was honored on 5 September at the Medical Research and Translation building at Stony Brook University. A plaque mounted inside the building reads:

Researchers at Stony Brook University produced the first two-dimensional image using nuclear magnetic resonance in 1973. The proton distribution of the object, a test tube of water, was distinctly encoded using magnetic field gradients. This achievement was a major advance for MRI and paved the way for its worldwide usage as a noninvasive method to examine body tissue for disease detection.


In the early 1890s there were 11 submarine cable systems operating between Europe and the United States. The main systems were owned or controlled by the American Telegraph & Cable Co., whose cables were controlled and operated by the Western Union Telegraph Co.; the Anglo-American Cable Co.; the Commercial Cable Co., whose cables were controlled by Mackay; and the Direct United States Cable Co. There were also smaller companies including the Compagnie Française du Télégraphe de Paris à New York and Compagnie Française des Câbles Télégraphiques.

In 1895 the two French companies merged to form PQ, which became a major force in the industry.

At a convention held on 2 July 1895 in Paris about the protection of industrial property, PQ representatives and French politicians met to create an engineering development program that was signed into law. It called for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of submarine telegraphic communications between the Antilles Caribbean islands, France, and North America. The project began in 1895 and was completed in 1898.

In the beginning, PQ chose to connect its U.S. cables at Eastham, Mass., on Cape Cod. It constructed the Nauset cable hut, a building where messages were received in international Morse code. The cables were laid across Nauset Marsh to the foot of Town Cove at nearby Orleans, and then to another cable, where the messages were transmitted to New York City.

PQ laid the French Transatlantic Telegraph Cable in 1898 between the United States and Europe. It ran 3,173 nautical miles from Brest, France, to Cape Cod. It bypassed Nauset and went directly to the Orleans station.

 Prior to the installation of that cable, intermediate relaying was used to power cables because of the long distance between Europe and America. A relay network was employed in such situations, whereby the source and destination were interconnected by nodes, or processing locations. In such a cable network, the source and destination could not communicate directly with each other because the distance between them was too great.

The French Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, however, provided communication between Europe and North America without intermediate relaying. It was the longest and heaviest cable in service at the time.

The cable was honored on 6 September at the French Cable Station Museum, in Orleans, Mass. A plaque mounted outside the building reads:

The submarine telegraph cable known as Le Direct provided communication between Europe and North America without intermediate relaying. In a remarkable feat of oceanic engineering, the cable was laid in the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean between Brest, France, and Orleans, Massachusetts. When completed in 1898 by La Compagnie Française des Câbles Télégraphiques, it spanned 3174 nautical miles (5878 kilometers), making it the longest and heaviest cable in service.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation

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