by Ray Klingensmith
Reprinted from "INSULATORS - Crown Jewels of the Wire", December 1980, page 11
The Atlantic Cable
In all the history of early telegraphic
ventures, there are none which show more dedication to complete a project than
the attempt to connect North America and Europe with a telegraph cable. For many
years various telegraph companies and inventors experimented with submarine
cables -- some with very little, and some with a good deal of success. By the
middle 1850's many advances in the field had been made, and there was an
interest in connecting Europe and North America with the "magic wire".
In March, 1854, the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company was
organized, and grants were received from the countries involved in the project.
It wasn't until three years later that an actual attempt was made to lay a
cable. In August, 1857, a fleet of ships consisting of four from England and
four from the U.S. left England for Valencia Bay, Ireland. They arrived the next
day, being accepted by the Irish with a great deal of enthusiasm. Many
gatherings took place, and all awaited the laying of the cable. On the evening
of Friday, August 7, 1857, the Telegraphic Squadron departed, a U.S. ship, the
Niagara, lowering the cable into the dark waters.
It was planned that the
Niagara would lay cable to mid ocean, where the English ship, the steamer
Agamemnon, would then take over the duties and complete the operation to
Newfoundland. The fleet hadn't gone very far when difficulties arose. When only
four miles of cable had been put down, it became entangled in the machinery and
broke. The following day the cable was recovered, spliced, and the venture went
on. The ship kept telegraphic communication through the cable to the shore, and
by noon, August 9, ninety-five miles of cable had been submerged. Perfect
signals continued from ship to shore. However, the next evening, signals became
interrupted for a couple of hours, and then in the early morning hours of August
11, the machinery stopped, a strain was put on the cable, and it parted into the
sea. This resulted in its settling to the ocean floor two miles below. So was
the end of the first attempt of an Atlantic Cable, 344 miles from shore.
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Title Page of the Popular Sheet Music, "Atlantic Telegraph Polka"
Dedicated to Cyrus W. Field in Honor of the Laying of the Atlantic Cable, 1858.
With the failure of the project, which many felt was impossible before
the cable laying attempt, public support dropped dramatically. However, there
were those who would not give up, and plans were made for an expedition the
following year. It was decided four changes should be made on the next attempt:
- A junction of the Telegraphic Cable in mid-ocean.
- The provision of a
greater length of Cable.
- The selection of an earlier season of the year.
- An improvement in the paying-out machinery.
It was felt the cable would be less
apt to break if paid out from mid-ocean, rather than starting at the shore and
continually entering deeper water which put extra strain on the cable. The
greater length of cable was ordered to overcome any mishaps which might occur.
The month of June was regarded as a more favorable season of the year than
August. The machinery having proved clumsy and inefficient upon the first
attempt, underwent several changes to make it as near perfect as mechanical
ingenuity could make it.
PROFILE VIEW OF THE ATLANTIC CABLE -- EXACT
VIEW OF THE ATLANTIC CABLE IN SECTIONS.
Exterior covering of wires,
eighteen in number, of seven strands each.
Covering of tarred rope-yarn.
Three coatings of gutta-percha.
Copper conducting wires, seven in number.
following year, on June 10, 1858, another fleet steamed away from England. After
days of stormy weather, they met at mid-ocean, and on June 26 they spliced the
cable together. The Niagara headed one direction, and the Agamemnon the other.
Only six miles apart, an accident on board the Niagara resulted in the parting
of the cable. The ships met again, respliced their cable and once again each
headed for the distant shores. After each had paid out only 40 miles, the
current between the two ships ceased, and it was decided there was a break in
the cable under water, so the two ships once again returned to mid-ocean. On the
28th, they respliced the cable and each ventured its own direction. After the
Niagara had once again paid out over 100 miles of cable, those on board felt it
would be a success for sure, but their hopes ended abruptly as the current
ceased to flow. At that point, the attempt was abandoned, and the ships steamed
Once again when the Telegraph Fleet reached Queenstown,
and the citizens learned of another failure, serious doubts concerning the
project arose. The value of the stock in the company plunged greatly, but the
directors would not give up, and decided to give it another try. It wasn't until
July 12 that all the ships made their return. On July 17 they were headed back
to mid-ocean for another attempt. On Thursday, July 29th, the splice at
mid-ocean was made, and the Niagara and the Agamemnon each headed toward their
shores. By Friday the Niagara, which was headed for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland,
had paid out 131 miles of cable. Word from the Agamemnon, made through the
cable, indicated it had laid 150 miles in its venture toward Valentia Harbor.
NIAGARA -- Account of Events:
Saturday July 31
Total cable paid out was 291 miles,
656 miles from telegraph house at Trinity Bay. At 2:45 P.M. word received from
Agamemnon. They had laid 300 miles of cable.
Sunday August 1
Total amount of
cable laid--456 miles. 511 miles from telegraph house. Finished coil on lower
deck and changed to the coil in the hold.
Monday August 2
Niagara getting light,
and rolling very much. Cable laid 633 miles. Faulty cable detected on board
ship, of which 60 miles was cut out.
Tuesday August 3
Cable laid--796 miles; 200
miles from telegraph house. Word from Agamemnon indicated they had laid 780
miles of cable. At 9:10 P.M. the Agamemnon re ported it was in 200 fathoms of
water, and the Niagara reported at 10:20 P.M. it also was in only 200 fathoms
water. (This was rather interesting, that both had been in water over 2000
fathoms deep, and they would at nearly the same time both reach water 200
fathoms deep, and also have laid nearly the same number of miles of cable each
Wednesday August 4
Cable laid--949 miles, 64 miles to telegraph house
Signals received from Agamemnon at noon--940 miles laid. Niagara entered Trinity
Bay at 12:30 P.M.
Thursday August 5
1:45 A.M., Niagara anchored. Cable laid was
1,016 miles. Received word from Agamemnon they had laid 1,101 miles of cable.
Went ashore in small boat and announced arrival of Telegraph Fleet. At 5:15 A.M.
telegraph cable landed. At 6:00 A.M. the shore end was carried into the
telegraph house, and received a very strong current of electricity from the other
side of the Atlantic.
So, the third cable was a success. However, it took twelve
days to set up the proper equipment to send and receive messages. At that time
the Queen of England sent a message to President Buchanan, and he in turn sent a
It is rather interesting that up to this point of the article, I have
been using one book for reference, The Story of The Telegraph written in August,
1858. This book must be exceptionally rare, and the part that makes it so
interesting is the fact that it was printed when the cable was still in working
order. After a period of a few short weeks, the 3rd cable became less and less
reliable, until it would no longer work at all. Once again, it was a failure.
At this time I feel it would only be proper to give a short history of
Cyrus W. Field, due to his involvement with the project of laying a successful
cable. Cyrus West Field was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1819, the son
of Rev. D. D. Field. Early in his life he went to work in New York as a clerk
for Mr. A. T. Stewart. He later returned to Massachusetts and was employed in
the paper manufactory of his brother Matthew in the town of Lee. Later he
entered into the same business, on his own, in Westfield, Massachusetts. Still
later he returned to New York and established a large paper commission
warehouse, where he made a large fortune. In 1854 he became directly involved
with the Atlantic Cable. He was commissioned to Newfoundland to obtain from the
Government of the Province an act of incorporation.
After success there, he also
aided in getting co-operation from the Governments of Prince Edward Island, Nova
Scotia, Canada, State of Maine, and afterwards from the Governments of Great
Britain and the United States. He became a director of the New York,
Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company. (In March 1857 the above mentioned
company became The Atlantic Telegraph Company.) Field later traveled a great
deal, including to England to seek funds for the projects, and was the real
driving force behind it. When others gave up, he continued on, and if not for
his determination, decades would have passed before a successful cable would
have been laid.
After the third unsuccessful attempt of the Atlantic Cable,
several years passed before another attempt was made. This was largely due to
other important matters taking place, including the Civil War in the U.S. By
1864 Field was getting very much interested in another attempt. The "Great
Eastern", a famous ship from the 19th century, was offered by its owner to
lay the cable. If it was a failure, there would be no charge to the telegraph
company, and if successful, the owner, Daniel Gooch, wanted $250,000 in cable
stock. Field could not pass up such an offer, and in May, 1865, the Great
Eastern took on cable for the venture. The ship had been "remodeled"
to make room for the large amount of cable to be stored. Cable tanks replaced
saloons, cabins, holds, the fourth funnel and two of the ten boilers. In July,
the "Great Iron Ship" left the west coast of Ireland, spinning its
black "cobweb". As the cable went into the dark sea, messages were
sent to shore, and replies returned. On board the ship was a key test
instrument, Professor William Thomson's astatic mirror galvanometer. It read the
ohm resistance of the cable in little flickers. If the dot bounced off the
index, it meant a fault in the cable was allowing the current to escape to the
sea, or a cable break. If this happened, the ships electricians would calculate
where the underwater fault was with their formulas.
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One of the five Currier & Ives lithographs of the great ship. She
was one of the biggest popular print subjects of the century.
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In the spring of '65 the Great Eastern takes a length of the Atlantic
aboard from a Royal Navy hulk at Sheerness.
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Lowering the mark buoy after the cable was lost in mid-Atlantic. At the bow
wheel the grapnel has been rigged for an attempt to recover the cable.
During the first night, 84
miles out, the light leaped off into the dark, and the ship was stopped, turned
around, and headed toward Ireland, taking in one mile of cable per hour. After
ten miles had been recovered, the fault was discovered. A two inch sliver of
copper wire was driven through the tarred manila wrapping, which allowed the
electric current to escape into the water. This was the first sign of sabotage!
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Landing the Atlantic Cable in Heart's Content Bay,
Newfoundland, July 1866.
From there, for days the ship continued on its
journey, without any great difficulty. At noon on the seventh day, the light
jumped off the index once again, which indicated another problem under water.
Once again they recovered the cable. After a section had been taken back up, it
was cut, and the cable spliced into that in the tank. It worked well once again,
and the next day the recovered section was inspected. They found a piece of iron
wire driven through the center of the coil, bright as if cut with nippers on one
end, and broken off short at the other. It was curious that the former fault
occurred when the same gang of men were at work in the tank. From that time on,
men were posted to keep watch over the tank men.
The Great Eastern crossed the
halfway point. At dawn on August 2, Field himself was on watch in the cable
tank. He heard a grating noise, and the tank man yelled: "There goes a
piece of wire." An alarm was sent out, but the cable was not stopped until
after the faulty place had already gone under water. At that point the ship was
trailing 1,186 miles of cable. It was cut, and dropped, and carried back to the
pickup gear in the bow. Suddenly there was a jerk, the cable parted, and dropped
into the sea. It sank to the bottom of the ocean, to an unknown depth. The crew
decided to try to "hook into" it with a small five-hook grapnel on
five miles of wire rope. When it hit bottom, they estimated it was three miles
down. After hours of drifting they "hooked" what they thought was the
cable and started to haul it in. The grapnel wire broke once, but the brakeman
caught it before it flickered into the sea. When they had brought in 40% of the
line, a swivel pin gave way, and the grapnel and cable fell to the sea floor.
They marked the spot with a large red buoy. After the fourth day of unremitting weather conditions, the sun peered through the clouds on the fifth day, and a
second grapnel was lowered. After very tediously and slowly hauling in the iron
rope for several hours after hooking the cable, they had recovered one mile of
the grapnel line when it broke again and settled on the ocean floor.
attempt was made, after the buoy, which had been lost at sea, had been re-sighted,
and this attempt also failed, due to the grapnel getting tangled in its own
chain. All night the twisted line was repaired with whatever could be found on
the ship -- wire rope, manila and hemp. On the ninth morning it was lowered into
the sea, and they once again hooked the cable. That evening, however, the final
line parted into the sea. The Great Eastern headed homeward.
This failure once
again brought forth a lot of doubt in the minds of many, but one man pressed on
-- Cyrus Field. By the Spring of 1866, Field, along with two other men,
reorganized the company with a capital of three million dollars and loaded a new
cable on the Great Eastern. On Friday, July 13 (Note Friday -- the
"unlucky" 13th), 1866, once again they left the shore of Ireland with
the destination of Newfoundland. On July 22 the word was received in London that
the Great Eastern had passed the point where the cable was lost the previous
year and all was going well. On Friday, July 27, 1866, the cable was carried
ashore to Heart's Content relay station. The next day the final splice was made,
and the Queen of England sent a message to the President of the United States.
In the days following, messages streamed across the truly first successful
Atlantic Cable. The Great Eastern then returned to the red buoy at mid-ocean,
which marked the 1865 cable, and after grappling 30 times, the old cable was
brought up. Field stated: "One of the most interesting scenes I have ever
witnessed was the moment when, after the cable had been recovered, it was
brought to the electrician's room to see whether it was alive or dead. Never
shall I forget that eventful moment when, in answer to our question to Valentia,
in an instant came back those memorable letters, 'O.K.' I left the room, went to
my cabin and locked the door. I could no longer retain my tears." They
buoyed off the 1865 cable and ran for Britain for cable to string on to
So the 1866 cable was a success, and so was the 1865 cable
after lying patiently on the ocean floor for a year. It is interesting to note
there has been much written on the construction of all the cables and on the
success of the 1866 project, but I can't recall anywhere reading how long the
1866 cable was used. All the information takes us up to 1866 and not any
further. It makes me wonder if perhaps all those cables are still down there at
the bottom of the ocean!
"Large medal made in honor of Cyrus W. Field for
dedication in the Atlantic Cable projects."
(65% of actual size)
At this time I'd like to thank Hans Kettenburg for material supplied in helping
with this article and the gift of the large medal shown above, and also George
Lahm who gave me an original Wiring a Continent and the 1858 book entitled
Story of The Telegraph that helped so much with this article, and several other
reference books and material which will greatly aid me in future research and
the writing of these articles.