On August 16 1858, the first telegraphic message crossed the Atlantic ocean. Travelling along a recently laid cable, the message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan took just 16 hours. Prior to this, communication across the pond would have been by ship – and taken around 10 days.
People had been communicating via overland telegraph since the 1840s and the first submarine cable was laid between Britain and France in 1850. But the attempt to span the Atlantic Ocean was the most daring attempt yet – and was the talk of the age, the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo mission. The idea that one could seemingly cheat time and space was to inspire all sorts of people – from businessmen to artists, as is explored in a new exhibition in London.
The driving force behind the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was an American businessman called Cyrus Field. In 1856, 150 years ago, he and Englishmen John Watkins Brett and Charles Tilson Bright formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company. They raised £350,000 in private capital, mostly from the business communities in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. They secured a £14,000 per year subsidy from the British government plus the loan of ships and a similar amount from the US government.
Even getting the cable made had proved difficult. The distance between the west coast of Ireland and Newfoundland is 2,300 miles. No single company was capable of supplying the required cable in the desired time frame so two joined forces to fulfil the order. The cable had a core of seven copper wires down which the electrical signals would pass. These were insulated with several layers of gutta-percha (a natural plastic made from tree sap) and then armoured with iron wire. The resulting cable weighed just over a ton per nautical mile, so heavy that no single ship was capable of carrying it and the laying had to be undertaken by two: HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara.
The first attempt to do so began on August 5 1857 with both ships departing from the white strand near Ballycarbery Castle on the west coast of Ireland. The cable snapped on the first day but was grappled from the bottom and repaired. A few days later, mid-Atlantic, the cable snapped again, this time in water two miles deep. It was lost and the expedition abandoned.
The next summer they tried again. This time the two great ships met mid-Atlantic, each carrying half the cable. They joined the two ends together and sailed away from each other. The cable broke three times and each time they were forced to start again. On July 29, with little hope of success, the cable was spliced for the fourth time and the ships sailed for home. This time they succeeded. The cable was landed in Newfoundland on August 4 and in Ireland the following day. And a week or so later Queen Victoria sent that first transatlantic message to President Buchanan.
The celebrations were tremendous. One newspaper proclaimed:
New York has seldom seen a more complete holiday than that on September 1, 1858, in celebration of the successful laying of the Atlantic cable. The enthusiasm of an entire nation was expressed in this jubilee of its metropolis, and the era of a closer connection with Europe was well ushered in by a day of genuine rejoicing and gaiety.
Celebrations were, however, short-lived: the cable performed badly and failed after just three weeks. The project was put on hold, but the concept had been proved possible. By 1865 there had been a slew of research into the problems which had plagued the earlier cables. Successful cables had been laid in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf which were better engineered, better insulated and had thicker copper cores allowing faster transmission speeds.
With the Civil War over, Field incorporated a second company to raise funds for the 1865 attempt. He chartered the largest ship in the world at the time, the SS Great Eastern, which could carry the entire Atlantic cable. Huge salt-water tanks and other state-of-the-art machinery were fitted to ensure it remained in mint condition during its journey. All went well until, in heavy wind 600 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the cable rubbed on the side of the ship, snapped and plunged to the inaccessibly deep ocean floor.
Not one to quit, Field vowed to return the following year. This final expedition passed without a hitch and the cable was put into commercial service on July 28. One month later, the 1865 cable was successfully brought to the surface and repaired, providing a second Atlantic telegraph link.
The service had obvious and immediate impact. Governments and the military were able to respond more swiftly to evolving situations. News travelled faster, speeding up trade and boosting businesses. It also had an almost inestimable effect on more equivocal things such as family life and cultural ties. Emigration, for example, no longer meant losing touch with family at home.
The roller-coaster of cable-laying highs and lows between 1857 and 1866 caught the imaginations of a generation; the way the space race did in the 20th century. There was huge public interest in the endeavour and in telegraphy more generally. The fortunes of the telegraph companies were followed closely. Telegraphic science was reported widely in the newspapers. Discussions of the pitfalls and solutions to spanning the Atlantic with cable had become everyday conversation fodder. Government enquiries, lectures at the Royal Institution, and endless articles in the popular press kept the cable project in people’s thoughts.
The Atlantic telegraph changed our minds. It changed the way people thought about the world and their place in it; becoming preoccupied with ideas of distance and transmission, the coding of their messages and resistance. And this was as true of artists and writers as it was of scientists and engineers.
While engineers with micrometers pursued precision in order to accomplish large-scale projects (such as the telegraph itself), painters similarly turned to tiny details to give a sense of distance and scale – see, for example, William Ingram’s painting, Evening. And where businessmen turned to code books and ciphers to protect their secrets from prying eyes, writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, became preoccupied with encoding clues for their fictional detectives.
Cassie Newland is an archaeologist and curator of Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy, an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the transatlantic cable, at London’s Guildhall Gallery until January 22 2017.