Electrifying America

How much did the transatlantic telegraph revolutionize 19th century communication?

October 27, 2001

How much did the transatlantic telegraph revolutionize 19th century communication?

In London, the Times compared the laying of the cable with the discovery of the New World: “Since the discovery of Columbus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has thus been given to the sphere of human activity.”

Another widely expressed sentiment, also articulated by the Times, was that the cable had reunited the British and American peoples: “The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country. The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1776 and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.”

Indeed, the construction of a global telegraph network was widely expected to result in world peace: “It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.”

However, the transatlantic cable was regarded as nothing short of miraculous; indeed, it was a miracle that it worked at all. The cable was so unreliable that it was more than a week before the first message was sent successfully. The official opening of the cable to public traffic was delayed again and again, and commercial messages started to pile up at both ends, while the true state of affairs was kept under wraps.

The reliability of the cable steadily deteriorated, and it eventually stopped working altogether on September 1, 1858, less than a month after its completion.

The news that the Atlantic cable had failed caused an outcry, not to mention a great deal of embarrassment. Some even claimed the whole thing had been a hoax — that there had never been a working cable, and it was all an elaborate trick organized by Cyrus Field to make a fortune on the stock market. “Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?” asked the Boston Courier.

After various investigations — and an experiment where in 1864 a cable was successfully laid linking India with Europe via the Persian Gulf, messages were sent using low voltages and a mirror galvanometer as a detector. This time, it really looked as though the problems of submarine telegraphy had been solved, and Field was soon able to raise the money for a new Atlantic cable. The new cable was built with a lot more care than its predecessor. It was also more buoyant, so it would be less likely to snap under its own weight.

Still, it was so heavy that there was only one ship in the world that would be able to carry it: the Great Eastern, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and easily the largest ship afloat.

The Great Eastern had proved something of a white elephant; its large size should have resulted in huge economies of scale, but mismanagement and bad luck meant it had never made anyone any money. The ship was, however, ideally suited for cable laying, and on June 24, 1865, with the new cable loaded onto three vast drums, it set out for Valentia.

A month later, having laid the Irish end of the cable, the Great Eastern headed west across the Atlantic, paying out the cable as it went. The cable was tested regularly, and whenever a fault was found, the cable was cut, the ship turned around, and the cable was hauled back in until the faulty part revealed itself.

However, on August 2, 1865, two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic, the cable broke during one of these splicing operations and disappeared under the waves, into water two miles deep. Several at tempts to recover the cable were made with grapnels and improvised steel wires, but every time it was lifted to the surface, the steel wires broke. Eventually the Great Eastern turned around and headed back toward Europe.

Despite this failure, raising the money for a third cable did not prove too difficult; the Atlantic Telegraph Company now had so much experience in cable laying that it seemed certain to succeed. What’s more, armed with the right equipment, Field was confident of being able to recover the second cable. The following year, on the apparently inauspicious date of Friday, July 13, 1866, the Great Eastern set out from Valentia again trailing a new cable from an improved paying-out mechanism.

Two weeks later, after an uneventful voyage, it reached Newfoundland, and the cable was secured. Once again, Europe and North America had been linked. Demand for the new cable was so great that on its first day of operation it earned a staggering £1,000. And within a month the Great Eastern had successfully recovered the lost cable of the previous year from two miles down on the seabed.

More cable was spliced on, and there were soon two working telegraph links across the Atlantic. The electric telegraph had finally conquered the Atlantic. This time, there was no question of the cable being a hoax.

Adapted from “The Victorian Internet” by Tom Standage.
Copyright © 1998 by Tom Standage.
Used by permission of Berkley Books