Book Review: Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day (A Graphic Novel), by Dan Nott  Recommended for Grade 6 and up  Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and requires a student request for purchase.

In 1844, Samuel Morse tapped out his first telegram using a code that would later bear his name. With a cable between the cities, his message traveled almost instantaneously from D.C. to Baltimore, and with that, the rush to lay cables began. Perhaps less publicized than the Gold Rush occurring at the same time, the telegraph was far more important and would become a system of the world. Many of us are aware that a telegram from the Titanic failed to save the ship in 1912 because the nearest ship was 4 hours away. What made the telegram possible, however, is indeed a “hidden system.”  After 1844, British engineers rushed to design a cable that could lay at the bottom of the ocean.  British ships were outfitted to lay thousands of miles of electric cable, and through that cable Britain was able to communicate with all its many colonies around the world. For the U.S., too, cables were key to its imperial conquests; the U.S. attacked Cuba in 1898, cutting cables in an attempt to prevent Cuba from communicating with Spain.  In 1903, the U.S. laid the first trans-Pacific cable, to communicate with its recently acquired colony, the Philippines.  As author Nott wrote, “The telegraph network, through a combination of imperialism and a commercial undersea cable boom, became the first globalized system in human history.”

What most of us don’t realize as we Google, stream, and post to social media, is that the internet is in fact a physical construct comprised of these same cables, which are about the thickness of garden hoses on the sea floor. What we think of as the web or just “online” is everything that flows through those cables, which amounts to 99% of global communication. The physical system is a veritable hodgepodge--some of which, as we’ve just read, dates back over 150 years! And because it was first designed to connect white, Anglo-European empires and colonies, there are still places in the world where there is no internet at all.  These are the poorest places, forgotten islands—places apparently left behind; the internet is not one size fits all. Then, too, these cables are vulnerable: in June last year a land break in Egypt cut communication in various countries in East Africa, Middle East and South Asia, including Pakistan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia.  Also in June, residents of several Alaska communities experienced internet and cell service interruptions after a subsea fiber-optic network cable was cut by a fishing trawler’s anchor. Cables have been cut by earthquakes, currents—even shark bites. Our internet is fragile.

Our electrical grid is even more of a farrago.  In 1882, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, opened the first electrical power plant at the Pearl Street Power Station in New York City. It sent electricity to 85 customers and made enough power to light 5,000 lamps.  To achieve that, however, he needed giant generators--and to spin those, he needed “boilers and steam engines powered around the clock by burning thousands of pounds of coal.” Later, dams were built as a source of electricity, but hydropower isn’t renewable, either, because it drastically disrupts the environment, local communities, and wildlife. With climate change, we’re also losing water needed for the giant dams that create hydropower: nature’s systems are becoming unreliable, especially due to drought. Demand may soon outstrip availability, too, as air conditioning becomes necessary. Our electrical grid is at least as fragile as our internet.

The final system explored in Hidden Systems is water.  Billions of people have no access to water coming from taps; they must have it delivered in trucks or haul water on their own, often walking long distances. Drinking water actually accounts for very little of our water uses, but it is being contaminated by toxic waste and forever chemicals, so called because there seems no way yet to eliminate them. Millions more are in jeopardy of losing their water sources as glaciers, providing water to land systems for millennia, are now melting. We’ve learned how water is used as hydropower for electricity. It’s also important for crops, for getting rid of sewage waste, for steam power, for cooling industrial systems, and for so much more. Our water systems need constant maintenance and improvement.  

As of January 1, 2024, we are now 8 billion people on Earth. Next generations will need to know these systems in order to improve them for everybody.  So here’s to the early Lego brick builders, the middle school fashion designers, the lovers of model planes, bridges, and all sorts of erector sets!  Our future engineers are now in grades 6 through high school, and this book will open a whole world for them. The New York Public Library has listed Hidden Systems as one of 50 books all teens should read. As an adult long past schooling, I found it fascinating.  (And I don’t think I could have absorbed it half so well without all of Nott’s explanatory little doodles.)