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Atlantic Cable

the first telegraph link between North America and Europe

The idea of a transatlantic cable was first proposed in 1845, only a year after Samuel F.B. Morse successfully demonstrated his telegraph. By 1850 a cable had been laid across the English Channel, and in 1851 Frederick Newton Gisborne, a telegraph engineer in Nova Scotia, Canada, began construction of a landline between St. John's and Cape Ray, Newfoundland. From Cape Ray, Gisborne intended to lay a cable across the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia, but financial difficulties forced him to abandon the project in 1853. The project was rescued by wealthy merchant Cyrus West Field, who decided to not only finish the line to Nova Scotia but to extend it across the Atlantic.

After completing the line to Cape Ray, Field raised funds for the transatlantic expedition by selling shares in London and in New York in a parent company called the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The British government helped Field out with a subsidy of 1,400 (about $2,000) a year, and the U.S. Congress also agreed to provide funds (how much is unknown). With Field himself supplying a fourth of the funding, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had about $1,400,000 in working capital by 1856.

The men behind the Atlantic Cable meet at Field's Gramercy Park, New York City, home. Standing behind the table are David Field (holding a law book), Chandler White (leaning forward with an expense account), Morse, and Daniel Hunginton (artist of this painting). Seated at the table are Peter Cooper (president of the company), Marshall O. Roberts, and Moses Taylor. Cyrus Field is pointing out on a chart of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, Canada, the spot at which the cable should be landed. Wilson G. Hunt stands behind Field.
Atlantic Telegraph Company

By July 1857, all 2,500 nautical miles of the first transatlantic cable had been manufactured (by a pair of English companies, Glass Elliot & Co of Greenwich, and R.S.Newall & Co of Liverpool), and it was time to load it on board the ships. At the time, no single ship could shoulder the entire load, so both the British and American navies provided one ship to carry half the cable. The Niagara had been built in 1845 and was the largest ship in the U.S. Navy, with a wooden hull and iron ribs. Weighing 5,200 tons and with both steam and sail capacity, she could speed along at 12 knots. By contrast, the wooden battleship H.M.S. Agamemnon reflected earlier eras of naval design, and although she did have a steam engine, the Agamemnon couldn't keep pace with the Niagara at sea.

The Niagara and Agamemnon set off from Valenita Bay, Ireland, on August 5, 1857. Everything went well until 3:45 a.m. on August 11, when the Niagara was pummeled by a wave and the cable snapped, sinking to the ocean floor. The ships didn't have enough cable left to continue, so the expedition was abandoned for the year. Just 380 miles had been laid.

An extra 700 miles of cable was made for the second attempt, which began on June 25, 1858. This time the same two ships met each other in the mid-Atlantic, where they joined their respective ends and then set off in opposite directions. The Agamemnon had payed out 146 miles when her cable snapped and the mission had to be abandoned once again.

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. The Niagara and the Agamemnon, were joined by the U.S.S. Gorgon and H.M.S. Valorous in mid-ocean, and on July 29, 1858, the Niagara and the Gorgon, with their load of cable, departed for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, while the Agamemnon and the Valorous embarked for Valentia, Ireland. The ships veered off-course wildly, due to the ships' compasses being affected by the magnetic field generated by the electrically-charged coiled cable, but that problem was solved by pilot boats used for navigation. Crucially, there were no cable breaks, and the Niagara made it to Trinity Bay August 4th, and the Agamemnon arrived at Valentia Island on the 5th. Over the following days, the shore ends were landed on both sides using a team of horses, and tests were conducted.

Paying out the land end of the cable.
paying out the land end of the cable

On August 16, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged formal introductory and complimentary messages. The reception across the cable was terrible, and it took an average of two minutes and five seconds to transmit a single character. The first message took 17 hours and 40 minutes to transmit. In an attempt to increase the speed of transmission, the voltage on the line was boosted from 600 to 2,000V. Unfortunately the insulation on the cable couldn't cope with the higher voltage, and by September 3rd the cable had been damaged beyond repair.

It took several years before Field would make another attempt. 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. Still undeterred, Field raised more funds and, on July 27, 1866 the Great Eastern succeeded in laying the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Field was the object of much praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his persistence in accomplishing what many thought to be an impossible undertaking. He later promoted other oceanic cables, including telegraph lines that stretched from Hawaii to Asia and Australia.

The Great Eastern was already famous for being the largest steamer ever built in her day when she also earned distinction for laying the first permanent Atlantic Cable.
the GreatEastern

Map of the Atlantic Cable.
map of the Atlantic Cable

American Experience: The Great Transatlantic Cable
History Magazine
History of the Atlantic Cable and Undersea Communications

Samuel F.B. Morse
Peter Cooper
President James Buchanan
Queen Victoria

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This page was last updated on March 13, 2017.