The Transatlantic Cable
Until the first transatlantic cable was laid, the fastest communication
between Europe and North America took at least a week. Halvor
Moorshead describes the problems in linking the continents together.
THE ONLY BATTLE OF the War of 1812 in which there were heavy casualties was the Battle of New Orleans, fought on 8 January 1815. It was a decisive victory for the US but there was one major problem: the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed on 24 December 1814 -- about two weeks prior to the battle! Neither side was aware that the war was over.
This was, of course, normal for the times. News could only travel as fast as the swiftest horse or the fastest sailing ship. At the time, news rarely reached North America from Europe in under two weeks.
In the 1830s a number of experiments were being conducted in both the US and Britain on telegraphy, the early uses being confined to railroads. The first practical use however must be credited to Professor Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse code, who sent a message via what was then known as magnetic telegraph from Baltimore to Washington. Thirty years later, history books were saying "no other invention has exercised a more beneficent influence on the welfare and happiness of the human race." After the first successful demonstration, telegraph lines were rapidly built all over Europe and North America, allowing messages to be sent virtually instantaneously.
Crossing the water presented greater problems. The cable needed to be insulated and strong, technologies that were both in their infancy. The first major undersea link, connecting England to France, was not completed until 1851 after several failed attempts.
The idea of a transatlantic cable was first proposed in 1845, only a year after the first practical demonstration, but the far greater distances and greater depths presented formidable problems. In 1856 the Atlantic Telegraph Company was registered with a capital of £350,000 (then about $1,400,000). On the American side Cyrus W. Field was the driving force; on the British side it was Charles Bright and brothers John and Jacob Brett.
The First Cable
|Customers at the New York offices of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1866 (top); making a cable splice aboard the Great Eastern as it lays off Valencia harbor in Ireland (bottom).|
The manufacture of the cable started in early 1857 and was completed in June. Before the end of July it was stowed on the American Niagara and the British Agamemnon -- both naval vessels lent by their respective governments for the task. They started at Valentia Harbor in Ireland (which was by then connected to the rest of the British Isles) on 5 August. For the first few days, everything went well but six days later, due to a mistake made with the brake which limited the rate of descent, the cable snapped. Just 380 miles had been laid.
The ships were forced to return to port. An extra 700 miles of cable was made for the second attempt which began on 25 June 1858. This time the same two ships met each other in mid-Atlantic where they joined their respective ends. The cable broke almost immediately. Again the two ships made another splice: this time they managed 40 miles before it broke again. The fourth time they had laid 146 miles before the cable was lost yet again. It was clear that this was not going to be easy!
The two ships returned to Ireland but it was decided that, despite the loss of a considerable amount of cable, they still had enough for a further attempt. On 29 July they made their fifth attempt, again starting from the mid point. This time it worked! On 5 August 1858 both ships reached their destinations -- Valentia Harbor in Ireland and Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. The two continents were joined.
On 16 August communication was established with the message "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men." Unfortunately the engineer in charge, Wildman Whitehouse, started by applying very high voltages rather than the very weak currents that had been tested during the cable laying. Within three weeks the damage inflicted on the cable by the high voltages was becoming apparent and it ceased to work.
The Second Cable
It took several years before another attempt was made. This time a single ship was chartered, the enormous Great Eastern, by far the largest ship of its day. She started from Valencia at the end of July 1865 and succeeded in laying 1,200 miles before the cable snapped. Several attempts were made to retrieve the broken end but they all failed.
Bringing the cable ashore at Heartís Content. Reaching for the looped end is Samuel
Canning, Chief Engineer. The man with the binoculars is Cyrus W. Field, a leading
investor and motivator of the project. The Great Eastern is shown in the background.
Painting by Rex Woods, reproduced courtesy of Rogers Cantel.
Third Time Lucky
Again more cable was manufactured for the same company which had raised a further $2,500,000. Not only did the Great Eastern carry cable enough for a complete crossing but extra cable to finish the cable that had been lost the previous year -- if the end could be found.
After so many failed attempts, the final, successful, cable was laid with virtually no problems. On 27 July 1866, the cable was pulled ashore at a tiny fishing village in Newfoundland known by the charming name of Heartís Content. The distance was 1686 nautical miles. The Great Eastern had averaged 120 miles a day while paying out the cable.
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."
This was received in Newfoundland almost immediately but there was still a gap in the link to the mainland of North America and messages from London to New York still took 24 hours because of this gap. However, this did not concern people at the time who were amazed at the rapid news that was now possible.
Almost immediately the Great Eastern steamed east to the point that the second cable had reached and after about two weeks of trying, they found and raised the broken end. This was no mean feat as the broken cable was at a depth of 16,000 feet. The broken end was spliced and on 8 September the second completed cable was landed.
Contemporary accounts tell of the fascination of the operators that messages would actually be received hours before they were sent (due to the time zone difference at the two ends of the cable). Due to the time taken for ships to cross the Atlantic, people did not think much about the time difference -- the cable brought it home to them with a start.
Almost immediately, the cable opened for business but only the very wealthy could afford it -- the initial rates were a startling $1 a letter, payable in gold - at a time that a monthly wage for a laborer might be $20.
As with the overland cables, undersea cables were laid rapidly. Within 20 years there were 107,000 miles of undersea cables linking all parts of the world. The original two cables ceased to work in 1872 and 1877 but by this time four other cables were in operation. It is interesting to note that even though later cables could carry large numbers of signals at the same time, it was not until the 1960s that the first communication satellites offered a serious alternative to the cable.