The 19th Century Internet

What did the world do before there was the Internet? Use the telegraph, of course.

October 6, 2001

What did the world do before there was the Internet? Use the telegraph, of course.

The idea of a transatlantic telegraph had been mooted since the 1840s. But, much as we regard time machines or interstellar travel today, in the 1850s it was generally regarded as something that was very unlikely ever to come to pass — though it would certainly have its uses if it did.

The difficulties facing a transatlantic telegraph were obvious. “Fancy a shark or a swordfish transfixing his fins upon the insulated wires, in the middle, perhaps, of the Atlantic, interrupting the magic communication for months,” wrote one skeptic. “What is to be done against the tides, when they deposit their floating debris of wrecks and human bodies? Even supposing you could place your wires at the lowest depth ever reached by plumb line, would your wires, even then, be secure?”

Nobody who knew anything about telegraphy would be foolish enough to risk building a transatlantic telegraph; besides, it would cost a fortune. So it’s hardly surprising that Cyrus W. Field, the man who eventually tried to do it, was both ignorant of telegraphy and extremely wealthy. He was a self-made man from New England who amassed his fortune in the paper trade and retired at the age of 33.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company was duly set up, and Field persuaded the British and United States governments to back his project; in return for an annual subsidy and the provision of ships to help lay the cable, official messages would be carried free of charge.

Construction of the 2,500-mile cable began, following the precise specifications of the company’s newly appointed official electrician, Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. There was only one fly in the ointment: Whitehouse was totally incompetent.

His experiments led him to conclude that messages should be sent over the cable using high voltages generated by huge induction coils and that the conducting wire should have a small rather than a large diameter. Whitehouse claimed that, “no adequate advantage would be gained by any considerable increase in the size of the wire.”

Unfortunately for the cable’s backers, he was mistaken on both counts. To make matters worse, Field had promised that the Atlantic telegraph would start operating by the end of 1857, and he was in such a desperate hurry that the manufacture of the cable was rushed. As a result, parts of it didn’t even come up to the inadequate standards Whitehouse had laid down.

Even so, the cable was taken to sea in July 1857. It was half an inch thick and weighed a ton per mile. Since no ship afloat could carry 2,500 tons of cable, half of it went aboard the steam frigate USS Niagara, the finest ship in the U.S. Navy; the other half was loaded onto the British vessel HMS Agarnemnon.

The ships, accompanied by two escorts, headed for Valentia Bay in the southwest of Ireland, which had been chosen as the best place for the cable to come ashore.

The plan was for the Niagara to spool out its half of the cable as the fleet headed west; in the mid-Atlantic the Agamemnon’s half would then be joined on for the remaining half of the journey. However, after a few days, when about 350 miles of the cable had been laid, it snapped and fell into the sea.

It took Field several months to raise the money for an additional length of replacement cable and a second expedition. But in June of the following year, the ships set out again, this time with a new plan:

They would sail to the middle of the Atlantic, join the two halves of the cable, and set out in opposite directions. This would, in theory, halve the time it would take to lay the cable.

After weathering a particularly unpleasant storm, the fleet assembled at the halfway point, spliced the two halves of the cable, and set out in opposite directions. Twice the cable snapped, and twice they sailed back to the rendezvous and started again. The Agamemnon also had a close encounter with a whale. When the cable broke for the third time, the ships went back to Ireland to take on new provisions, before setting out once again.

Eventually, on the fourth attempt, and having laid 2,050 miles of cable between them, the Agamemnon reached Newfoundland and the Niagara reached Valentia Bay. The cable was landed on August 5, 1958. For the first time, the telegraph networks of Europe and North America had been connected.

The celebrations that followed bordered on hysteria. There were hundred-gun salutes in Boston and New York: flags flew from public buildings; church bells rang. There were fireworks, parades and special church services. Torch-bearing revelers in New York got so carried away that City Hall was accidentally set on fire and narrowly escaped destruction.

“Our whole country,” declared Scientific American, “has been electrified by the successful laying of the Atlantic Telegraph.”