1980 >> December >> Threadless Corner  

"Threadless Corner"
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:

  1. A junction of the Telegraphic Cable in mid-ocean. 
  2. The provision of a greater length of Cable.
  3. The selection of an earlier season of the year. 
  4. 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.

1858 CABLE 



  1. Exterior covering of wires, eighteen in number, of seven strands each. 

  2. Covering of tarred rope-yarn. 

  3. Three coatings of gutta-percha. 

  4. Copper conducting wires, seven in number. 

The 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 for Queenstown.

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 day.) 

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 reply.

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 cable
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 pickup
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. 

A third 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 Newfoundland.

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 his 
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 The 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.

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