The first transatlantic cable
The first transatlantic cable
This piece of cable from the Powerhouse Museum Collection may not be a rare item but it is part of an incredible story. It is a story of grand plans, human folly and triumph, advances in technology and communication. There are strong parallels between these cables, which connected for the first time Europe and America in 1858, and what is happening in the world today with instantaneous global communication and the world wide web.
The transatlantic telegraph cable was connected in 1858 to establish the first instantaneous communication system between Europe and America.
By the 1850s telegraphy on land had become well established enabling instant and accurate communication. Experiments had shown that cables could be successfully laid underwater on short distances. In fact Dover was linked to Calais in 1851, a distance of about 20 miles across the English Channel. But at that time Britain and the United States were still only communicating by mail with steamships. The idea of running a cable over a distance of over 2,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean seemed quite fanciful.
Cyrus Field, an American who by the age of 33 had made a fortune in the wholesale paper business, decided to take up this new and bigger challenge. In August 1857, the large ship Niagara started laying cable from Ireland. After many unsuccessful attempts over the following months, the Niagara and the Agamemnon set out again but this time they joined two sections of the cable together in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and each ship proceeded in opposite directions. Finally in August 1858 a connection was established between Ireland and Newfoundland, and hence between London and New York.
There was much rejoicing. Parades, speeches, fireworks and dinners were organised across many cities to celebrate the event. People were almost hysterical at the idea that the two continents were now joined. Some said it was the greatest achievement of that century. Souvenirs from the expedition found a keen and enthusiastic market. Pieces of cable were turned into umbrella handles, canes, charms or watch keys. Tiffany, the jewellery company, bought up the remainder of the cable from the Niagara and made it into little four-inch souvenir pieces. The Powerhouse Museum has one of these pieces in the most splendid condition. It is still in its original wooden box and it has a little collar in its middle explaining what it is. This portion comes with a letter signed by Cyrus Field authenticating that it is part of the original cable.
As soon as the connection was established, Queen Victoria and the American President James Buchanan exchanged messages and a few other messages were sent and received. But regrettably a few weeks later, the cable deteriorated and fell silent. It was too narrow across its diameter and ran under high voltage which was a terrible mistake.
Cyrus Field fortunately was able to raise enough money to start again. He chose William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, as an adviser to the Atlantic Cable project and to design a new cable. Thomson specified the right sort of galvanometer to detect the signals at the other end. The SS Great Eastern, the largest ship afloat, was converted from a passenger liner into a cable ship and the full length of the coiled cable was uploaded into her hold. On 27 July 1866 Thomson's cable was eventually connected from Valentia Bay in Ireland to Heart's Content, Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. From that day forth there was instantaneous communication between the two continents, with profound consequences for politics and commerce. Whereas news of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln had taken 12 days to reach the British press in April 1865, thanks to the Atlantic cable the news of the assassination of American President James Garfield in 1881 only took a few hours to reach the world.
We marvel today at our ability to communicate with words, pictures and videos across continents instantaneously. But when the telegraph was introduced it was an even more spectacular and magical thing for people who had been used to messages travelling no faster that the person who was carrying them. It elicited a lot of rhetoric about its possibilities. It is the same thing we hear today about our technology, its capacity for developing communities, for improving the chances for peace. There are certainly strong parallels between the cables which connected for the first time Europe and America in 1858 and today's instantaneous global communication and the world wide web.
An understanding of the way in which the telegraph developed gives us an incredible insight into what is happening today.
Submarine Telegraphy - The Grand Victorian Technology by Bernard S Flinn - Thanet Press, 1973
The Wonderful Story Of The Sea - Oldham Press, 1937
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage - Phoenix, 2000
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