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A Victory for Technology

24 Apr 11
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Some know it as the sound heard round the world. Author Simon Winchester calls it “The Day the World Exploded.”

On August 27th, 1883, the island Americans call Krakatoa (but which Indonesians call Krakatau) disappeared in a massive explosion. The eruption produced the largest natural concussion ever recorded.

Krakatau though was not the largest eruption in recorded history. That honor goes to Tambora. Using the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or VEI (a Richter scale for volcanoes) Tambora rated a 7, compared to Krakatau’s 6. The scale goes up to 8 – long before recorded history, the volcano at Yellowstone exploded, recording an 8 on the VEI.

So why is Krakatau better known?

Tambora is also in Indonesia (click here for map). It’s located on the island of Sumbawa, two islands east of Bali. Its eruption on April 10th, 1815, ejected some 160 cubic kilometers of material. That’s enough rocks and debris to fill a cube 100 miles long on each side.

As many as 12,000 people were killed immediately by the explosion, but by some accounts they were the lucky ones. More than 70,000 people were killed in total, with most of those deaths coming much more slowly from starvation and disease that occurred when crops failed after the blast.

The effect of the eruption on agriculture around the world cannot be over-stated. 1816 is called the “Year Without Summer” because of the volcanic cloud from Tambora’s ash that blocked the sun. Because of Tambora’s eruption, crops failed and animals died, causing the worst world-wide famine of the 19th century.

So why then is Krakatau the better-known of the eruptions? One word – technology.

American Samuel Morse is credited with inventing the telegraph in 1836 and he tested it successfully in 1838 in New Jersey. By the mid-1840s the U.S. government was paying for a telegraph line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore and over the next two decades telegraph lines spread across the country, and around the world.

Island nations such as Indonesia, however, still remained isolated because telegraph lines initially only worked on land. In 1842 Morse successfully experimented with a cable covered by Indian rubber and tarred hemp that was laid across New York harbor, but the materials used to shield the cable from water damage simply weren’t robust enough to protect a cable of greater length. A major problem was caused by marine plants and animals which attacked the rubber and hemp, eventually destroying the outer protective covering and exposing the cable itself to the water.

But that same year scientists discovered the properties of Gutta-percha latex – the milky fluid of the getah perca tree from Malaysia and Indonesia. This latex produced an adhesive sealant perfect for protecting telegraph lines, because it was not attacked by plants and animals living in the sea. In 1850 this material was successfully used to shield a cable laid between Dover and Calais. Soon after, underwater cables covered with Gutta-percha began linking many other parts of the world, including Indonesia.

So by the time of the Krakatau eruption, telegraph lines connected Indonesia’s western coast with the capital of Batavia (now Jakarta), and an under-water cable connected Batavia with Singapore. When Krakatau erupted, news quickly spread around the world, all thanks to Samuel Morse and the sap of a tree found here in Indonesia.

And that’s why today we know of Krakatau, but not Tambora. When Tambora erupted, news of the blast could not be sent around the world. So Krakatau’s popularity is simply a victory of timing and technology.

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