Transatlantic telegraph cable

Transatlantic telegraph cable

The first transatlantic telegraph cable crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Foilhommerum, Valentia Island, in western Ireland to Heart's Content, in eastern Newfoundland. The transatlantic cable bridged North America and Europe, and expedited communication between the two. Whereas it would normally take at least ten days to deliver a message by ship, it now took a matter of minutes by telegraph. Five attempts were made over a nine year period—in 1857, two in 1858, 1865, and 1866—before lasting connections were finally achieved by the SS "Great Eastern" with the 1866 cable and the repaired 1865 cable. Additional cables were laid between Foilhommerum and Heart's Content in 1873, 1874, 1880 and 1894. By the end of the 19th century, British-, French-, German- and American-owned cables linked Europe and North America in a sophisticated web of telegraphic communications.

Cyrus West Field was the force behind the first transatlantic telegraph cable, attempted unsuccessfully in 1857 and completed on August 5, 1858. Although not considered particularly successful or long-lasting, it was the first transatlantic cable project to yield practical results. The first official telegram to pass between two continents was a letter of congratulation from Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom to the President of the United States James Buchanan on August 16. The cable was destroyed the following month when Wildman Whitehouse applied excessive voltage to it while trying to achieve faster telegraph operation. The shortness of the period of use undermined public and investor confidence in the project, and delayed efforts to restore a connection.

A next attempt was undertaken in 1865 with much-improved material and, following some setbacks, a connection was completed and put into service on July 28, 1866. This time the connection was more durable, and increased public confidence resulted when the 1865 cable was repaired and put into service shortly afterwards.

Origins of the idea

After William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone introduced their working telegraph in 1839, the idea of a submarine line across the Atlantic Ocean began to be thought of as a possible triumph of the future. Samuel F. B. Morse proclaimed his faith in it as early as the year 1840 and the following decade saw a period of experimentation and growth of knowledge in underwater telegraph cables culminating in the 1850 link between England and France. That same year, Bishop John T. Mullock, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland, proposed a line of telegraph through the forest from St. John's to Cape Ray, and cables across the mouth of the St. Lawrence River from Cape Ray to Nova Scotia across the Cabot Strait.

At about the same time, a similar plan occurred to Frederick Newton Gisborne, a telegraph engineer in Nova Scotia. In the spring of 1851, Gisborne procured a grant from the legislature of Newfoundland, and having formed a company, began the construction of the landline. However, in 1853 his company collapsed. He was arrested for debt and lost everything. The following year, he was introduced to Cyrus West Field. Field invited Gisborne to his house to discuss the project. From his visitor, Field extended the idea that the telegraph to Newfoundland might be extended across the Atlantic Ocean.

Field was ignorant of submarine cables and the deep sea. He consulted Morse as well as Lieutenant Matthew Maury, an authority on oceanography. Field adopted Gisborne's scheme as a preliminary step to the bigger undertaking, and promoted the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company to establish a telegraph line between America and Europe.

t. John's to Nova Scotia

The first step was to finish the line between St. John's and Nova Scotia, and in 1855 an attempt was made to lay a cable across the Cabot Strait in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It was laid out from a barque in tow of a steamer. When half was laid a gale rose and, to keep the barque from sinking, the line was cut away. Next summer a steamboat was fitted out for the purpose and the link from Cape Ray, Newfoundland to Aspy Bay, Nova Scotia was successfully laid.


Field then directed the efforts to the transoceanic section with Charles Tilston Bright as chief engineer. A special survey was made along the proposed route of the cable and revealed that the proposed route was possible. Funds were raised from both American and British sources by selling shares in the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Field himself supplied a quarter of the needed capital.

The cable consisted of seven copper wires, each weighing 26 kg/km (107 pounds per nautical mile), covered with three coats of gutta-percha, weighing 64 kg/km (261 pounds/nautical mile) and wound with tarred hemp, over which a sheath of eighteen strands, each of seven iron wires, was laid in a close spiral. It weighed nearly 550 kg/km (1.1 tons per nautical mile), was relatively flexible and able to withstand a pull of several tens of kilonewtons (several tons). It was made jointly by two English firms — Glass, Elliot & Co., of Greenwich, and R. S. Newall & Co., of Liverpool.

The British Government gave Field a subsidy of £1,400 a year and loaned the ships to lay the cable. Field solicited aid from the United States Congress; the vote was very close with a number of anglophobe senators opposing any grant. The Bill was passed by a single vote. In the House of Representatives it encountered a similar hostility, but was ultimately signed by President Franklin Pierce.

The first attempt, in 1857, was a failure. The cable-laying vessels were the converted warships HMS "Agamemnon" and USS "Niagara". The cable was started at the white strand near Ballycarbery Castle County Kerry, the southwest coast of Ireland, on August 5, 1857. [cite web|url = |title = History of the Atlantic Cable - Submarine Telegraphy - 1857 - Laying the Atlantic Telegraph From Ship To Shore |accessdate = 2008-08-05] The cable broke on the first day, but was grappled and repaired; it broke again over the 'telegraph plateau,' nearly 3,200 m (2 statute miles) deep, and the operation was abandoned for the year.

The following summer the "Agamemnon" and "Niagara", after experiments in the Bay of Biscay, tried again. The vessels were to meet in the middle of the Atlantic, where the two halves of the cable were to be spliced together, and while the "Agamemnon" paid out eastwards to Valentia Island the "Niagara" was to pay out westward to Newfoundland. On June 26, the middle splice was made and the cable was dropped. Again the cable broke, the first time after less than 5.5 km (three nautical miles), again after some 100 km (54 nautical miles) and for a third time when about 370 km (200 nautical miles) of cable had run out of each vessel.

The expedition returned to Queenstown and set out again on July 17 with little enthusiasm amongst the crews. The middle splice was finished on July 29, 1858. The cable ran easily this time. The "Niagara" arrived in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland on August 4 and the next morning the shore end was landed. The "Agamemnon" made an equally successful run. On August 5, the "Agamemnon" arrived at Valentia Island, and the shore end was landed at Knightstown and then laid to the nearby cable house. [cite web|url = |title = History of the Atlantic Cable - Submarine Telegraphy - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper 1858 Cable News |accessdate = 2008-08-05]

First contact

On August 16, Queen Victoria sent a telegram of congratulation to President James Buchanan through the line, and expressed a hope that it would prove "an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem." The President responded that, "it is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle. May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world."

These messages were the signal for an outburst of enthusiasm. Next morning a grand salute of 100 guns resounded in New York City, the streets were decorated with flags, the bells of the churches rung, and at night the city was illuminated [cite web|url = |title = History of the Atlantic Cable - Submarine Telegraphy-1858 NY Celebration |accessdate = 2008-08-05] . The Atlantic cable was a theme for innumerable sermons and a prodigious quantity of doggerel.

Disappointment in great ideas

However, in September, after several days of progressive deterioration of the insulation, the cable failed. The reaction at this news was tremendous. Some writers even hinted that the line was a mere hoax, and others pronounced it a stock exchange speculation.

Field was undaunted by the failure. He was eager to renew the work, but the public had lost confidence in the scheme, and his efforts to revive the company were futile. It was not until 1864 that with the assistance of Thomas Brassey and John Pender that he succeeded in raising the necessary capital. The Glass, Elliot and Gutta-Percha Companies were united to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon, later part of BICC), which undertook to manufacture and lay the new cable. C.F. Varley replaced Whitehouse as chief electrician.

Much experience had been gained in the meantime. Long cables had been submerged in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. With this experience an improved cable was designed. The core consisted of seven twisted strands of very pure copper weighing 300 lb per nautical mile (73 kg/km), coated with Chatterton's compound, then covered with four layers of gutta-percha, alternating with four thin layers of the compound cementing the whole, and bringing the weight of the insulator to 400 lb/nmi (98 kg/km). This core was covered with hemp saturated in a preservative solution, and on the hemp were spirally wound eighteen single wires of soft steel, each covered with fine strands of manila yarn steeped in the preservative. The weight of the new cable was 35.75 long hundredweight (4000 lb) per nautical mile (980 kg/km), or nearly twice the weight of the old.

The "Great Eastern"

The new cable was laid by the ship "Great Eastern". Her immense hull was fitted with three iron tanks for the reception of 2,300 nautical miles (4260 km) of cable, and her decks furnished with the paying-out gear. At noon on July 15, 1865, the "Great Eastern" left the Nore for Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island, where the shore end was laid by the "Caroline". This attempt failed on July 31 when, after 1,062 miles (1968 km) had been paid out, the cable snapped near the stern of the ship, and the end was lost. [cite web|url = |title = History of the Atlantic Cable - Submarine Telegraphy - Daniel Gooch |accessdate = 2008-08-05]

The "Great Eastern" steamed back to England, where Field issued another prospectus, and formed the [ Anglo-American Telegraph Company] , to lay a new cable and complete the broken one. On July 13, 1866 the "Great Eastern" started paying out once more. Despite problems with the weather on the evening of Friday, July 27, the expedition made the entrance of Trinity Bay in a thick fog. The next morning at 9 a.m. a message from England cited these words from the leader in "The Times": "It is a great work, a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be honoured among the benefactors of their race." "Treaty of peace signed between Prussia and Austria." The shore end was landed during the day by the "Medway". Congratulations poured in, and friendly telegrams were again exchanged between Queen Victoria and the United States.

. There were now two working telegraph lines.

Communication speeds

Initially messages were sent by an operator sending Morse code, a series of dots and dashes. The reception was very bad on the 1858 cable, and it took 2 minutes to transmit just one character (a single letter or a single number), which translates to about 0.1 words per minute. This is despite the use of a highly sensitive mirror galvanometer, a new invention of the time.

The first message on the 1858 cable took over 17 hours to transmit [cite web|url = |title = Welcome to... / Bienvenue à |accessdate = 2008-08-05] . For the 1866 cable, the methods of cable manufacture, as well as sending messages, had been vastly improved. The 1866 cable could transmit eight words a minute [ [] dead link|date=August 2008] —over 50 times faster than the 1858 cable. Heaviside and Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin in later decades understood that the problem was an imbalance between capacitive and inductive reactance, to be solved by iron tape or by load coils. It was not until the 20th century that message transmission speeds over transatlantic cables would reach even 120 words per minute. Despite this, London had become the world centre in telecommunications. Eventually, no fewer than 11 cables radiated from Porthcurno Cable Station near Land's End and formed with their Commonwealth links a "live" girdle around the world.


The original cables were not fitted with relays, which would have amplified the signal along the way. This was because there was no practical way to power the relays. As technology advanced, intermediate relays became possible.

In fiction

* The cable is one of the many underwater landmarks visited by the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
* The lty|2003 novel "Signal & Noise", by John Griesemer, tells a fictionalized story of the project, including many incidents from real life.
* The novel "Thunderstruck" (lty|2006) by Erik Larson discusses the transatlantic cable as part of the story of Marconi and the invention of wireless telegraphy.

ee also

* Robert Halpin—Captain of the "Great Eastern"
* Transatlantic telephone cable
* Western Union Telegraph Expedition overland alternative via Russia
* 1929 Grand Banks earthquake
* Submarine communications cable




*Clarke, Arthur C. "Voice Across the Sea" (1958) and "How the World was One" (1992) The two books include some of the same material.
*Gordon, John Steele "A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable"ref>]

Further reading

* Standage, Tom. "The Victorian Internet" (1998). ISBN 0-75380-703-3 - the story of the men and women who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they created – a network that was, in effect, the Victorian Internet.
* Rozwadowski, Helen. "Fathoming the Ocean" (2005) - devotes a good deal of space to the description of cable-laying.

External links

* [ Biography of Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury] by William "Maury" Morris II Ph.D.
* [ The Atlantic Cable by Bern Dibner (1959)] —Complete free electronic version of "The Atlantic Cable" by Bern Dibner (1959), hosted by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries
* [ Atlantic Cable web site] —Comprehensive history of submarine telegraphy with much original material
* [ PBS, American Experience: The Great Transatlantic Cable]
* [ The History Channel: Modern Marvels: Transatlantic Cable: 2500 Miles of Copper]
* [ A collection of articles on the history of telegraphy]
* [ Cabot Strait Telegraph Cable 1856] between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia
* [ American Heritage: The Cable Under the Sea]

* [ Travelogue around the world's communications cables by Neal Stephenson]
* [ The Old Cable House]
* [ Atlantic telegraph cable 150th anniversary 1858-2008]

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