Transatlantic Telegraph Cable – 1858

The main figure behind the first transatlantic telegraph knew very little about the science or engineering behind it, but was convinced that with it a fortune could be made.

CableIn the mid 1850s, telegraph cables stretched across much of the United States and England, allowing people within those countries to quickly communicate with one another. If someone wanted to send a message from one of these countries to the other, however, they had to do so the old-fashioned way — by boat, a process that usually took about two weeks. Clearly a telegraph line connecting the US and England would benefit both nations, but the ocean dividing them seemed too difficult to overcome. That is, to everyone but a young, enthusiastic New Yorker named Cyrus Field, who had made his fortune in paper manufacturing.

Field knew little about the telegraph. But after meeting with owners of the Newfoundland Telegraph Company in 1854, he determined there was a lot of money to be made from a transatlantic cable. He realized the project would be difficult and expensive, but optimistically believed it could be done. The trials and tribulations he experienced over the next 12 years would be enough to shake most anyone’s faith, but Field persevered.

Field consulted experts about precisely where to build the line. To minimize the distance, he and his team of investors, collectively known as the “Cable Cabinet,” decided the cable should stretch from Ireland to Newfoundland. They would then connect those telegraph stations to London and New York by a series of shorter cables that crossed smaller sections of water and countryside.

Before trying to lay the transatlantic cable, the Cable Cabinet undertook the laying of a cable across the Cabot Strait. They needed this cable to connect Newfoundland to Cape Breton and then to link that location to the rest of Canada and the United States. Although the cabinet expected this step to be much easier than extending a line across the Atlantic, it proved extremely difficult. By the time they had installed a working cable across the strait, the cabinet had spent almost all the money raised for the entire endeavor. They had to find more funding.

Following an intense fundraising campaign, the project began to move forward again. Engineers began building the first transatlantic cable in 1857. Later that year, it was loaded onto two boats, one loaned by the British government and the other by the American government. The vessels set sail from Ireland. For several days, the enterprise seemed to go as planned. But in less than a week, after about 380 miles of line had been laid, the cable broke. The ships returned to port and did not venture a second attempt until June of 1858.

The second time, they began laying the line from a midpoint in the Atlantic. After splicing the ends of their cables together, they took off in opposite directions. The line snapped right away, but workers were able to reconnect the ends and keep going for a short period. After another break, another splice, and yet another break, the ships returned to Ireland in defeat. Because the line broke so quickly, however, the team found they had enough cable to try again.

On the third attempt, they achieved their goal; both boats making port at their final destinations on August 5, 1858. Cyrus Field’s dream was finally realized and the news of the transatlantic line was greeted enthusiastically on both sides of the ocean. Queen Victoria sent the first public message across the cable to President Buchanan. Because of design problems, the process was quite slow (more than 16 hours to send and receive less than 100 words), though considerably faster than sending a message by sea.

Just weeks after its completion, the transatlantic cable stopped functioning. The world was appalled and a scandal erupted. A Committee of Inquiry launched an investigation in England, and Edward Whitehouse, the project’s chief electrician, received the brunt of the blame. Whitehouse’s cable design was faulty. The copper wire core of the line was too thin and he used massive induction coils to send extremely powerful electric currents in hopes that it would speed message transmission. Other experts had questioned his approach, but Whitehouse ignored them. The strength of the currents Whitehouse used was ultimately blamed for overburdening the cable and causing a breakdown of its insulation (primarily consisting of layers of gutta-percha).

Many years passed by before another cable stretched across the Atlantic. When it was finally in place in 1866, it formed a permanent link between America and England. Over the line, politicians, businessmen and others who could afford the initially expensive service could send short messages in a matter of seconds. Much of the credit for the eventual success of the great project was owed to design improvements made by William Thomson, who subsequently became better known as Lord Kelvin. The British government gave Thomson his title in honor of his contributions to the transatlantic telegraph cable.

Last modified on 10 December 2014