Transatlantic telegraph cable

Cyrus Field was the instigator of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable between North America and Europe August 5th 1858. It was not particularly successful or long-lasting. A later attempt in 1866 was more successful. Compare to the later transatlantic telephone cables.

The idea had been proposed before. In 1850, Bishop 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. At about the same time a similar plan occurred to F. N. Gisborne, a telegraph engineer in Nova Scotia. In the spring of 1851 he procured a grant from the Legislature of Newfoundland and having formed a company, began the construction of the land line. But in 1853 his company collapsed. He was arrested for debt and lost everything. The following year he was introduced to Cyrus Field of New York, a wealthy merchant. 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 Samuel 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 line of telegraph between America and Europe.

The first thing to be done 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 Gulf of the St. Lawrence, It was paid out from a barque in tow of a steamer; but 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 was successful. St. John's was now connected with New York by a thousand statute miles (1600 km) of land and submarine telegraph.

Field then directed the efforts to the trans-oceanic section. 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 a strand of seven copper wires, each weighing 107 pounds per nautical mile (26 kg/km), covered with three coats of gutta-percha, weighing 261 pounds per nautical mile (64 kg/km), 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 a long ton to the nautical mile (550 kg/km), was relatively flexible and able to withstand a pull of several tons (tens of kilonewtons). 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 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 Agamemnon and the Niagara. The cable was started in the bay of Valentia Island, on the south-west coast of Ireland, on August 5, 1857. The cable broke on the first day but was grappled and repaired, it broke again over the 'telegraph plateau,' nearly two statute miles (3200 m) 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 three nautical miles (6 km), again after some fifty nautical miles (95 km) and for a third time with about two hundred nautical miles (370 km) 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 into the cable-house at Knightstown.

On August 16, Queen Victoria sent a telegram of congratulation to President 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, civilisation, liberty, and law throughout the world."

These messages were the signal for a 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 [1] ( The Atlantic cable was a theme for innumerable sermons and a prodigious quantity of doggerel. However in September the cable failed, its insulation had been failing for some days. 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 at 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 (afterwards Lord) 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, which undertook to manufacture and lay the new cable.

Much experience had been gained in the meanwhile. Long cables had been submerged in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. With this experience an improved type of cable was designed. The core consisted of a strand of seven very pure copper wires 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 Manilla yam 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 new cable was laid by 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, after 1,062 miles (1968 km) had been paid out, the cable snapped near the stern of the ship, and the end was lost. [2] (

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.

On August 9 the Great Eastern put to sea again in order to grapple the lost cable of 1865, and complete it to Newfoundland. [3] ( Arriving in mid-ocean after thirty casts of the grapnel, she hooked and raised it to surface, then spliced it to a fresh cable in her hold, and paid out to Heart's Content, where she arrived on Saturday, September 7. There were now two working telegraph lines.


The 2003 novel Signal & Noise, by John Griesemer, tells a fictionalized story of the project, including many incidents from real life.


  • Voice Across the Sea (1958) and How the World was One (1992) by Arthur C. Clarke. (The two books include some of the same material.)

External links

  • [5] ( Biography of Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury by William "Maury" Morris II Ph.D.

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