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The saga of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable

On 05 August 1858, two ships completed the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. It worked for about a month.

Sometimes it takes more than three tries for the charm to happen!

Ten years after Samuel Morse uttered “what hath God wrought?”, the United States boasted more than 20,000 miles of telegraph cable. But communication with Europe remained slow, taking as much as two weeks by ship.

In 1854, Cyrus West Field “secured a charter” to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. The New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company held “a 99-year right to land cables on the eponymous island and on its coast dependent, Labrador – the closest parts of the American continent to Europe.” His first project: a cable line from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to New York City.

His British partners: Charles Bright and John Brett.

They raised £350,000 in private capital, mostly from the business communities in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. They secured a £14,000 per year subsidy from the British government plus the loan of ships and a similar amount from the US government.

In 1857, they used Naval ships from the US and Britain to try to lay the cable. First attempt (05 August 1857). Second (11 August 1857). Third, fourth (starting 27 June 1858).

Somehow, Field persuaded the board to let them try again.

On 29 July 1858, the two ships made their fourth or fifth attempt (depending upon how you’re counting). They started from the mid-point in the ocean, one ship headed east and one headed west.

On 05 August 1858, the ships reached their destinations and a cable stretched almost 2,000 miles across the Atlantic, from Trinity Bay, Newfoundland to Valentia, Ireland. Cable depth: often of more than two miles.

On 16 August, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria  celebrated the joining of the two continents. Her telegram, which included the phrase “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men,” took 1.5 hours to transmit.

Alas. Although engineering tests used “very weak current,” Wildman Whitehouse, the man in charge of transmissions, experimented with “very high voltage.” He basically fried the wires in less than a month. The cable transmitted 700+ messages before failure and saved Britain £50,000 – £60,000, “[recouping] about one-seventh of their investment in the cable with a single military order.”

Even that fifth try wasn’t charmed.

chart Atlantic cable, 1858
Chart of the submarine Atlantic Telegraph, 1858. Library of Congress.

It would take another eight years, 27 July 1866, before the British ship Great Eastern completed laying the first permanent telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The distance, 1686 nautical miles.

The first message sent on this, finally successful, cable was: “A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and Prussia”. Queen Victoria, then at Osborne, in the Isle of Wight, sent a message to the President of the United States. “The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of Union between the United States and England.”

It took almost 16 hours for a 98-word telegram from Britain to cross the ocean.

From a week or more to hours: the trans-Atlantic cable provided governments (and the wealthy) the 19th century equivalent of today’s instant messaging.

Time and space collapsed, again.

Christopher Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin, provided sobering context last year about ‘The Wire that Changed the World’ (emphasis added):

“When the cable made instantaneous communication between Europe and America possible for the first time there was a wildly euphoric sense that time and space had been done away with and the world celebrated. However, both Valentia and Newfoundland were at the same time places that were experiencing the horrors of famine. While technology can be a marvel we should never lose sight of the gap between progress and the sufferings of those who lived through such major scientific developments.”

Learn more: 

#scitech, #society (197/365)
📷 Smithsonian Institute
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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