How did engineers lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable and When?

For thousands of years, communication moved only as fast as a horse could run or a ship could muster subject to the vagaries of the wind. But in the 19th century, an invention popularly attributed to Samuel F. B. Morse suddenly transcended the miles, within countries and beyond.

Miraculous wires began to creep over Europe and the more settled regions of North America. By mid-century the telegraph system was proliferating rapidly, defying distance and shrinking the vast earth, which would diminish further with the telephone, automobile, and airplane.

In 1850 a telegraph cable was laid across the English Channel and was promptly followed by a link between Dover, England, and Ostend, Belgium; four between England and Holland; and a spanning of the Black Sea in 1855 to enhance British communications in the Crimean War.

Morse had predicted that one day the Atlantic would be tackled, but this momentous feat awaited a champion, one who would doggedly raise funds, convert the skeptics, and maintain faith throughout years of defeat.

This was Cyrus W. Field, son of a New England Congregational minister. Field left home at the age of 15 with $8 in his pocket and went to New York to seek his fortune, which within a relatively short time he found. He might have ended his days quietly touring Europe with his family had he not met F. N. Gisborne, an English engineer of the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company, then immersed in plans to lay a line across Newfoundland. Although the scheme flopped and the company went bankrupt in 1853, a seed was firmly planted in Field’s mind, a dream to join two continents, to communicate through a wire sunk two miles beneath the black and silent sea.

Over the next five years Field, bailed out the Newfoundland Company, obtaining the support of Chandler White, Moses Taylor, Peter Cooper, and other optimistic capitalists. In England he met English engineer John Brett, responsible for the cable across the Channel, and a brilliant young engineer, Charles Tilston Bright, who at 24 became chief engineer of Field’s operation. Edward Whitehouse was enlisted as the company electrician.

Field then turned to the British government, which, encouraged by Morse’s recent announcement that a signal could indeed be transmitted over 2,000 miles, agreed to supply £14,000 per year. More capital was provided by Lady Byron and William Makepeace Thackeray, and in 1856 the Atlantic Telegraph Company was born with £350,000 to its name. The American government, however, was hardly enthusiastic, objecting to the cost, the close contact with England, and the interference of the state in private business. Finally, out of the tangled controversy a bill emerged providing income and ships, and it squeaked through the House on March 3, 1856, by a single vote.

Production of the cable was already under way in England, as Field had assured his backers the job would be done by 1857. In a mere six months 335,000 miles of iron and copper wire was drawn and spun, then covered with 300,000 miles of tarred hemp; this was shielded by strands of twisted iron wire. The result: 2,500 miles of cable, 500 miles longer than the distance from Ireland to Newfoundland. (The extra length provided slack in laying the line and a supply in case of damage.) The total weighed 2,500 tons, a formidable amount for any ship to bear.

It was therefore divided between two warships, the United States’ Niagara and Britain’s Agamemnon. Space was carved out in the hulls to accommodate the cable, but the Agamemnon still had to store large quantities on deck. On August 5, 1857, the two ships arrived at Valentia Bay, County Kerry, Ireland, and one end of the cable was landed. The following day they turned their sights westward, the Niagara to lay her share and then, in midocean, splice it onto the cable aboard the Agamemnon. The Niagara edged away at two miles an hour, with the cable paid out slightly faster to compensate for the uneven ocean floor. Communication with the shore was kept up at all times except on the fifth day, when the line mysteriously went dead for a few hours. The following day, the men had to tighten the brake on the paying-out mechanism, and in the process the cable was strained and snapped. The downcast crew returned to England with an unused 2,200 miles of cable.

On board this expedition and subsequent ones was a distinguished gentleman who played an essential role in the planning and laying of the cable: Professor William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of his century. He immediately began studying the shortcomings of the cable, which were many, partly due to the hastiness of the venture. Among other improvements, he proposed a sensitive detector at the receiving end that would allow a higher rate of signaling. The markedly less brilliant Whitehouse disagreed and argued for sheer volume and power in the transmission of the cable.

In the spring of 1858 the two ships set out again, loaded with new cable. This time they would meet in the mid-Atlantic, splice the cable, and head for their respective shores. But two days out at sea, the Agamemnon was hit by a ferocious gale. “The massive beams under her upper deck coil,” wrote Nicholas Woods of the London Times, who was on board, “cracked and snapped with a noise resembling that of small artillery, almost drowning the hideous roar of the wind as it moaned and howled through the rigging. Four gigantic waves were seen approaching the ship, coming slowly on through the mist nearer and nearer, rolling on like hills of green water, with a crown of foam that seemed to double their height. The Agamemnon rose heavily to the first, and then went lower quickly into the deep trough of the sea, falling over as she did so, so as almost to capsize completely.

There was a fearful crashing as she lay over this way, for everything broke adrift. (A) confused mass of sailors, boys, marines, with deck-buckets, ropes, ladders and everything that could get loose, were being hurled in a mass across the ship. The lurch of the ship was calculated at forty-five degrees each way for five times in rapid succession. The coil in the main hold had begun to get adrift, and the top kept working and shifting as the ship lurched, until some forty or fifty miles were in a hopeless state of tangle, resembling nothing so much as a cargo of live eels.

Miraculously, the ship and crew survived and the rendezvous with the Niagara went according to plan. But three times the ships tried to part and three times the cable failed, breaking when they were 3, 80, and then 200 miles apart.

Disheartened and low on provisions, the men returned to Ireland. Holding fast to the feasibility of his dream, Field had the ships out again in midsea that same summer, splicing the cable for the fourth time. The Niagara enjoyed an uneventful few weeks calmly churning toward Newfoundland. The battered Agamemnon sighted a whale agonizingly near the cable, suffered an inexplicable failure of the conducting core (and then resumption of power), and another relentless gale. With coal supplies nearly depleted and a crew at once exhausted and excited, the hardy ship approached Valentia on August 5. Communication still crackled through the wires embedded in the mud and rocks of the sea, and celebrations began. On August 16 Queen Victoria sent a message by cable to President Buchanan. Fireworks exploded, and Charles Bright was knighted.

The Queen’s greeting had, however, taken 16 1/2 hours to transmit. As Arthur C. Clarke explains in Voice Across the Sea, Thomson and Whitehouse were disagreeing over the voltage of batteries used in sending signals and the type of equipment employed in receiving them.

Whitehouse’s insensitive automatic recorder failed to detect messages at one end. Thomson, on the other hand, had solved the problem with his mirror galvanometer, conceived one day as he noticed the play of sunlight from his monocle; this gave him the idea of a weightless pointer. On the galvanometer, the extremely tiny deflection of a coil carrying an electric current was magnified by a point of light reflected from a small mirror attached to the coil. The debate raged but meanwhile, as a result of poor insulation, the costly cable died. The public was outraged, calling the whole thing a hoax and a fraud. Poor Cyrus Field was out of pocket the entire £350,000 and it would take seven taxing years of hard talking before he got the backing to do it again.

Although the delay may have been frustrating, it did allow for long-overdue research into the cable’s design. The result was a vastly improved, more substantial cable, with a conducting core three times as large as that of 1858, and a breaking strain of eight tons as compared with three tons for the earlier one.

With the improvements came still greater weight: 2,600 miles of cable completed in 1865 weighed a staggering 7,000 tons. But now Field found a ship, the only one in the world, that could hold the entire length. This was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent Great Eastern, 700 feet long, with six masts, a displacement of 32,000 tons, and surprisingly supple maneuverability. A smaller ship landed the cable via a bridge of boats, at Foilhommerum Bay, five miles from Valentia Bay, while festive crowds looked on from the surrounding hills. The cable was spliced on board the Great Eastern, waiting out at sea with her 500-man crew, Field and Thomson, and three giant tanks for the cable. On July 23, 1865, she headed west. At a distance of 84 miles the crew detected an electrical fault and began hauling in the cable with wire tackle. Ten miles back, they found a most alarming problem: a two-inch piece of wire had been driven right through the cable. It certainly looked like sabotage, and the problem recurred five days later. Thereafter, a guard was stationed in the tank room to oversee the workers.

With three fourths of her journey behind her and 1,300 miles of cable safely laid, the Great Eastern suddenly disappeared. The sharp, clear signals it had issued steadily to England stopped short. Days turned into weeks. All imagined the worst.

Confusion and disillusion prevailed, but in the midst of it all the Atlantic Telegraph Company brazenly began seeking money for a second cable, while uttering assurances that the first was proceeding as planned. As it turned out, the Great Eastern was still afloat, but the cable was not—severed and lost 2,000 fathoms deep. A fault had again been sighted and the cable was, as before, cut and hauled on board. But the machinery failed, and the wind shoved the ship around so that the cable scraped against her side. The strain of heaving it up was so great that the cable suddenly snapped and crashed back down into the water, sinking calmly from sight.

The determination of those men on board to complete their task is clearly seen in their long and tantalizing search to salvage the cable. For 11 days they scraped the bottom with a five-pronged grapnel attached to five’ miles of wire rope, frequently catching but never landing their elusive game. Each time shackles split, for the strain was too great, and the cable slipped back. In a heavy fog the ship drifted 46 miles from the cable and had to reposition in bad weather and unfavorable winds. In the final attempt, the hawsers snapped and two miles of iron coils and wire went down with the cable to the slimy bed of the mid-Atlantic.

Once again Field turned to fund raising. This time the public displayed some confidence that the thing could be done, and Field managed to float a new company, the Anglo-America Telegraph Company, and raise £600,000. He ordered 1,990 ‘miles of new cable and replaced the brittle iron covering with a more ductile type of galvanized iron. At last the Great Eastern was supplied with machinery that could haul in the cable as well as pay it out, and electrical testing was implemented that could detect faults as the cable went out.

In a year the Great Eastern was ready to sail, slipping gracefully out of Valentia Bay on July 13, 1866. Fourteen days later the crew sighted land and anchored, aptly enough, in the serene waters of Heart’s Content, an inlet of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. The long-awaited cable was in place and in superb working order. The first day of operation brought in $5,000.

One would think Cyrus Field had seen enough cable to last a lifetime, but even now with success in hand, he would not go home. He had to go back and get the broken cable, which lay dormant, like some age-old serpent on the bottom of the sea.

In August of the same year, the Great Eastern was back at the site of the previous year’s defeat, which had been marked by a buoy. A grapnel attached to a two-inch-thick wire rope combed the ocean floor, back and forth, groping blindly through rocks and mud. It took a week to hook the cable, and the strain of lifting caused it to snap and fall back. This happened repeatedly. At the end of three weeks, the men again hooked the cable and managed to buoy it at one point while grappling it at a second, thereby dividing the strain.

At last they had their enormous catch, but there remained the awful possibility that it had died over the previous year. For the electrician in England who had stood by the cable for a year, the first message must have seemed a miraculous resurrection of the dead. The cable, alive and healthy, was spliced onto additional cable on board. Messages darted to England and from there via the completed cable back to America, so that all could follow the Great Eastern’s finale.

By the end of August two cables spanned the Atlantic. Thomson received his knighthood and Field a gold medal, overdue thanks from Congress, and cheers from the public, welcoming a new age.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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