History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Atlantic Telegraph Cable
The Atlantic Telegraph Cable
On the 5th of August, 1858, the first Atlantic telegraph cable was laid. The event was celebrated on the 1st of September following, under the direction of the Common Council of the city of New York. Mr. Field was chosen the orator for the occasion, and delivered the following address before a vast assemblage in the Crystal Palace.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: When Morse discovered the applicability of electricity to the communication of intelligence, it might have been foreseen that the limits of the application were to be measured only by the power of stretching the electric wire, and of transmitting through it the electric current. It occurred, no doubt, to different minds that the telegraph would one day be carried across the ocean and around the globe; and, for aught I know, plans may have been formed for doing the work. I have been requested to give you the history-a condensed epitome it must be-of the first success-the first attempt, and, I might add, the first practicable plan, in the development of this great idea of an ocean telegraph. My connection with the undertaking from its commencement-my position as counsel for those who have done the most to carry it through-have made it appear to others fitting that I should perform this service. In its performance I trust that I shall say nothing unbefitting my personal relations to any of the actors. I am not here to praise, but to relate.
Two years previous to 1854 there had been incorporated by the Legislature of Newfoundland a company by the name of the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company, the purpose of which was to connect by telegraph that island with the main-land of America. A telegraph across the ocean was not a part of the scheme. It contemplated a connection with Europe by means of steamers plying between Newfoundland and Ireland.
This company proceeded a little way and failed, leaving a debt of some fifty thousand dollars, due chiefly to laborers. In this emergency, and some time in February, 1854, Mr. Horace B. Tebbetts and Mr. Frederick N. Gisborne, officers then of that company, applied to Mr. Matthew D. Field to help raise additional funds by a sale of bonds or stock. The gentleman thus applied to came to Mr. Cyrus W. Field and myself. We had several conversations together on the subject. Then it was that the thought of extending the line across the Atlantic suggested itself. Mr. Cyrus W. Field wrote to Lieutenant Maury to inquire about the practicability of submerging a cable, and consulted Professor Morse about the possibility of telegraphing through it. Their answers were favorable.
On receiving them, it was agreed between Mr. Cyrus W. Field and myself that, as nothing could be done under the charter of the Newfoundland Electric Company, we would endeavor to form a new company, to take a surrender of the charter of the former company, purchase its property, pay its debts, d obtain another charter to effect a direct telegraphic communication with Europe. The first step was to procure the cooperation of a few persons whose character and resources would be a guarantee that the work had been undertaken in earnest. Four men were invited, whose names you all know - Peter Cooper, Moses Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts, and Chandler White. They met Mr. Cyrus W. Field and myself at his house, where, around a table covered with maps, plans, and estimates, the subject was discussed for four successive evenings, the practicability of the undertaking examined, its advantages, its cost, and the means of its accomplishment. The result of the conference was the agreement of all the six gentlemen to enter upon the undertaking. Mr. Cyrus W. Field, Mr. White, and myself were to proceed to Newfoundland to procure a charter and such aid in money and privileges as the government of that island could be induced to give. The agreement with the Electric Telegraph Company, and the formal surrender of Its charter, were signed on the 10th of March, and on the 14th we left New York, accompanied by Mr. Gisborne. The next morning we took the steamer at Boston for Halifax, and thence, on the night of the 18th, departed in the little steamer Merlin for St. John's, Newfoundland.
Three more disagreeable days' voyage scarcely ever passed than we spent in that smallest of steamers. It seemed as if all the storms of winter had been reserved for the first month of spring. A frost-bound coast, an icy sea, rain, hail, snow, and tempest, were the greeting of the telegraph adventurers in their first movement toward Europe. In the darkest night, through which no man could see the ship's length, with snow filling the air and flying into the eyes of the sailors, with ice in the water, and a heavy sea rolling and moaning about us, the captain felt his way around Cape Race with his lead, as the blind man feels his way with his staff, but as confidently and as safely as if the sky had been clear and the sea calm; and the light of morning dawned upon deck and mast and spar, coated with glittering ice, but floating securely between the mountain gates of the harbor of St. John's.
In that busy and hospitable town the first person to whom we were introduced was Mr. Edward M. Archibald, then Attorney-General of the colony, and now British Consul in New York. He entered warmly into our views, and from that day to this has been an efficient and consistent supporter of the undertaking. By him we were introduced to the Governor (Kerr Bailey Hamilton), who also took an earnest interest in our plans. He convoked the Council to receive us and hear an explanation of our views and wishes. In a few hours after the conference the answer of the Governor and Council was received, consenting to recommend to the Assembly guarantee of the interest of fifty thousand pounds of bonds, an immediate grant of fifty square miles of land, a further grant to the same extent on the completion of the telegraph across the ocean, and a payment of five thousand pound toward the construction of a bridle-path across the island, along the line of the land telegraph.
Mr. Cyrus W. Field thereupon, on the 25th of March, took the return steamer from St. John's, on his way to New York, in order to fit out a steamer for the service of the company, while his two associates remained in Newfoundland to obtain the charter and carry out the arrangements with the former company They continued there nearly five weeks, during which, after many discussions and negotiations, the charter was at length obtained, and the fifty thousand dollars of debt of the old company were thereupon paid.
The charter was liberal and provident. After declaring that it was "advisable to establish a line of telegraphic communication between America and Europe, by way of Newfoundland," it incorporated the associates for fifty years, established perfect equality in respect to corporators and officers between citizens of the United States and British subjects, allowed the meetings of the stockholders and directors to be held in New York, or in Newfoundland, or in London, conceded the exclusive right to establish a telegraph from the continent of America to Newfoundland, and from Newfoundland across the ocean, granted fifty square miles of land, and further provided that, "so soon as the said company shall have actually established a communication across the Atlantic Ocean, by means of a submarine cable or wire from this island, the said company shall receive from the government of this island a grant of fifty square miles of ungranted and unoccupied wilderness land, to be selected by the said company, in addition to the grants hereinbefore mentioned " - a provision subsequently extended so as to permit the company to establish the communication by an auxiliary or associate company.
It were long to tell how the government and people of Newfoundland nurtured this enterprise in its commencement, how they have stood by it, through its various fortunes, till its triumphant consummation. That vast island, projected into the North Atlantic, lifting above the sea its cliffs of everlasting and immovable rock, beckoning, as it were, to Europe, seems framed by Providence for one of the pillars of that cable which is to bind the continents together. Its broad interior, baffling the explorer, its cold and gloomy morasses, its dark and frowning headlands, its deep and tranquil bays, and harbors innumerable, take not such hold of the imagination as its support of that wondrous line which, lost for ever to human eyes, is to be the highway of thought between the Old World and the New.
Take the map, and see where the civilized portions of the two hemispheres approach nearest to each other: two islands stand there face to face. The highlands of Trinity answer to the highlands of Valentia. Between them rolls the stormiest sea of all the world save one. It is the gateway through which pass the icebergs from the Pole. Once a year, and sometimes for forty days together, a continuous field of ice moves down from the north at the rate of two or three miles an hour. But far beneath there is tranquil water and an even surface. The plummet has sounded all that sea, and found, at an average depth of about two miles, a nearly level bottom covered with the smallest sea-shells, which must have been deposited in the lapse of ages and fallen through the still water as the snow falls through the still air.
In the early part of May the two gentlemen who had remained behind in Newfoundland rejoined their associates in New York, and there the charter was formally accepted and the company organized. As all the associates had not arrived till Saturday evening, the 6th of May, and as one of them was to leave town on the morning of Monday, it was agreed that we should meet for organization at six o'clock of that day. At that hour they came to my house, and, as the first rays of the morning sun streamed into the windows, the formal organization took place. The charter was accepted, the stock subscribed, and the officers chosen. Mr. Cooper, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Field, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. White were the first directors. Mr. Cooper was chosen president, Mr. White vice-president, and Mr. Taylor treasurer. Thus was inaugurated that great enterprise whose completion we celebrate to-day. The plan was formed, the arrangements made, and the work begun. What followed was the execution of the great design.
From the 8th of May, 1854, to the 5th of August, 1858, there passed scarcely four years and three months; but they were as fruitful of anxiety and toil as of successful results. The land line across the island of Newfoundland-upward of four hundred miles-was first to be made. This was a work of incredible labor. The country was for the most part a wilderness of rock and morass; "a good and traversable bridleroad eight feet wide," with bridges of the same width, had to be made the whole distance; materials and provisions had to be transported first from St. John's to the heads of the different bays on the southern coast, and afterward chiefly on men's backs to the line of road. The first year Mr. White, as vicepresident, directed in person the operations; the second and third year superintendents were sent down. In addition to the land line in Newfoundland, another of one hundred and forty miles in Cape Breton was constructed, and contracts made with companies in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, to connect their lines with the Newfoundland line. Then there was the submarine line between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, eighty-five miles in length, and another thirteen miles long, across Northumberland Straits, to Prince Edward Island. To procure these, Mr. Cyrus W. Field visited England twice-once in December, 1854, and again in January, 1856. The first attempt to lay the submarine line across the Gulf of St. Lawrence was made in 1855, and was unsuccessful. A second attempt, made the next year, succeeded. Thus was completed the chain of telegraph from New York to the eastern coast of Newfoundland, and the projectors now stood upon the shore of the Atlantic in their progress eastward.
The whole expense thus far, with very trifling exceptions, had fallen upon them; Mr. Cyrus W. Field having made the largest contributions-amounting to more than two hundred thousand dollars in money-and Mr. Cooper, Mr. Taylor, and Mr. Roberts each a little less. No other contributors beyond the six original subscribers had come in, except Professor Morse, Mr. Robert W. Lowber, Mr. Wilson G. Hunt, and Mr. John W. Brett. The list of directors and officers remains to this day as it was at first, except that Mr. Hunt, as director, has taken the place of Mr. White, who died in 1856, and that Mr. Field is vice-president, and Mr. Lowber secretary. In all the operations of the company, thus far, the various negotiations, the plan of the work, the oversight of its execution, and the correspondence with the officers and others, mainly devolved upon Mr. Cyrus W. Field.
The greatest and most difficult part of the original design still remained to be executed, and that was the submarine cable from Newfoundland to Ireland. The distance was one thousand nine hundred and fifty statute miles; the sea was stormy and uncertain; no submarine line of more than three hundred miles had then been - attempted. In anticipation of the task now to be undertaken, Mr. Field, on his first visit to England, in 1854, had invited manufacturers to furnish him with specimens of cable which they would recommend, and estimates of its cost, and he had entered into correspondence with various persons on the subject. In 1856 he procured an order from our Government, under which Lieutenant Berryman made soundings of the Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland. Lieutenant Berryman sailed on that service on the 18th of July, and the next day Mr. Field sailed for England, having received the formal authority of the company to make arrangements in England for the submarine line, either by a subscription to this company or by organizing a new company as auxiliary or associated with this. In England he had invited the cooperation of Mr. Brett, a gentleman of great experience, who in 1851 formed a company which had laid the first submarine cable from England to France. He afterward brought in Mr. Edward O. W. Whitehouse, electrician, and Mr. Charles T. Bright, engineer - both gentlemen of high scientific attainments. These four gentlemen, on the 29th of September, 1856, entered into a formal agreement to use their exertions for the formation of a new company, to be called the Atlantic Telegraph Company, the object of which should be "to continue the existing line of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company to Ireland, by making, or causing to be made, a submarine telegraph cable for the Atlantic." This done, Mr. Field issued, on the 1st of November, 1856, a circular, signed by him as Vice-President of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, from which I can not forbear making the following extracts:
After detailing the results of the investigations, the circular proceeded
Without waiting for the formation of the new company, Mr. Field, on behalf of the Newfoundland Company, made application to the British government for its aid in ships and money, and received, on the 20th of November, a letter from the Treasury, which I am tempted to read , promising ships to assist in laying the cable, and a fixed yearly sum in payment for government messages. He also personally solicited bankers and merchants in London for subscriptions, and, with Mr. Brett, visited Liverpool and Manchester to address public meetings. He subscribed £100,000 toward the capital of 1350,000, and Mr. Brett followed with a subscription of £25; 000. A day or two after the Treasury letter was received the subscriptions were closed, when it was found that the applications for stock exceeded the capital by about £30,000; so that on the final allotment Mr. Field had eighty-eight shares, of one thousand pounds each, and Mr. Brett twelve. To show the feeling which had been excited in England, it is worth mentioning that many persons subscribed for shares, not for profit, but that they might have a part in the undertaking, and among others Mr. Thackeray and Lady Byron.
Too much praise can not be awarded to the English government and people for the zeal with which they came forward in answer to the call made upon them. Money was obtained from individuals as freely as it was wanted, and the government outran the people.
Returning then to America, Mr. Field, with his American associates, made application to the Government of the United States for aid similar to that given by the English government, and he also applied to individuals for a participation with him in the stock he had taken. Congress voted the aid requested, after a vehement opposition, against which the measure was carried in the Senate by a majority of one. Of the stock, twenty-seven shares were taken in the United States.
All things being now ready, the first attempt to lay the cable was made, as you all know, in August, 1857. There had been assembled in the harbor of Valentia three ships of the English and two of the American navy. There was the Agamemnon, recent from the fires of the Crimean War; she had borne the flag of the English admiral over the waters of the Euxine; she had now laid her armament aside, and taken the burden of half that coil, for the laying of which she will be hereafter more famous than if she had forced the harbor of Sebastopol. There was the Niagara, the largest ship of our navy, made for the heaviest cannon of naval warfare, her armor never yet put on, but laden instead with the American half of the precious burden. There were the two attending ships, the Leopard and the Susquehanna, and the Cyclops, surveying-ship, just returned from the verification of Lieutenant Berryman's soundings. The Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland had come to wish them "God speed" in the name of his sovereign and her people. Everything promised success, and as the great ships moved out of the harbor the highlands of Valentia shone brightly in the morning sun, while behind them the grand old mountains about Killarney, towering above the lakes-those miracles of beauty-appeared to smile and beckon the ships westward; for, to the excited imagination, it seemed as if the inanimate mass were conscious of the great act about to be performed, and looked impatient toward the west, which it had faced in silence since the world began, but to which it was soon to speak in tones inaudible to human ears, yet signifying the thoughts and wishes of men.
The expedition thus prosperously begun was, however, doomed to sudden disappointment; for, on the fourth day out, the cable parted, and the ships made their way to England. The undertaking being thus suspended for the year, Mr. Field returned to America. He was soon, however, recalled to England to assume the management of the enterprise. Arriving in that country on the 16th of January, he was, on the 27th of the same month, appointed the general manager - an appointment which he accepted without compensation; and, by a subsequent resolution, every person in the employment of the company was placed under his control.
The precise share which each person had hitherto borne in the great undertaking is easily measured by the narrative which I have given. The directors of the company, in their report to the stockholders on the 18th of February last, thus state the share of one of them:
Everything being now ready for the second trial, which it was determined to begin - not at the shore, but in mid-ocean - the squadron departed from Plymouth on the 10th of June. It consisted of the Agamemnon and Niagara to lay the cable, and the Valorous and Gorgon (both English) as attendant ships, the Susquehanna being kept away by the yellow fever, which had broken out on board, and the Gorgon taking her place, while the Valorous took the place of the Leopard of the previous year. The officers and crews of these vessels were picked men. Captain Preedy of the Agamemnon, and Captain Hudson of the Niagara, are as accomplished and gallant commanders as ever trod the quarter-deck; and Captain Dayman in the Gorgon, and Captain Aldham in the Valorous, fitly represented the spirit and honor of the English navy. Then, what a company was there of engineers and electricians! I need only name Mr. Everett, to whose genius the paying-out machinery was due, Mr. Bright, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Canning, and Professor W. Thompson, to show that everything was provided which science and experience could suggest. Stately ships, illustrious company, and a richer freight than ever filled the argosies of Spain, when Spain was mistress of the Indies.
On the open sea they found not that calm weather which they had been led to expect, but violent storms. A hurricane saluted them on their approach to mid-ocean. They gained, however, on the 26th of June, the point desired, spliced the cable, and steered in opposite directions. The cable parted after about five miles had been paid out. They returned and made another splice on the same day, and started again. A second time the cable parted, and about seventy miles more were lost. Nothing daunted, they returned and made a third splice. All went well until two hundred and sixty miles more had been laid in the sea, when another break occurred, and the ships, according to the preconcerted arrangement, returned to Queenstown.
Anxiously had they been expected at Valentia, from whose headlands eyes were strained every day to catch the first glimpse of the returning Agamemnon rising out of the western horizon. I have it on good authority that the Queen was waiting for the signal to go herself and receive the cable. Would it not have been an admirable sight to see that illustrious lady, the foremost woman of all the world, sovereign of so many lands, the heir of the kings of our forefathers, receiving from her gallant seamen that line which was to repair with material better than allegiance the broken chain which once bound together the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic races in every quarter of the globe?
The ships being returned, the directors were summoned to meet in London. This was the time to try the fortitude of men. It was the agony of the enterprise. If it had been abandoned then, who can tell when it would have been resumed? The meeting of the directors took place on the 14th of July, and then the fate of the undertaking was decided. There were sixteen acting directors; of these, six were absent; another, the vice-chairman, was so dissatisfied with the proposal to make a third trial that he left the room. The remaining nine, after an earnest debate, resolved, unanimously, to repeat the effort. From that moment the tide turned.
Perhaps some of these courageous nine feared that the third attempt would prove as disastrous as the first and second, but they thought that it ought, nevertheless, to be made; perhaps there were others who expected the success which followed. But could the veil have been lifted from six weeks of the future, how would they have been moved by that which we have witnessed-the swelling emotion, the glad faces, the public rejoicings, which have greeted the victory! They expected, of course, that, when the line was once laid, messages would pass to and fro with instantaneous rapidity; but, however much men may dream of it, the actual occurrence will startle them. Within forty-five days after that meeting of the directors news came to London that the Chinese Empire, reversing its traditionary policy, and breaking through the prejudices of ages, had made peace with England and France, opening its doors to European intercourse, and, of course, to European culture, but, above all, to the Christian religion. The good news was instantly known in the Western hemisphere. The imagination is baffled when it tries to picture the journey which the message made. When it left London, evening had already come; but it overtook and passed the shadow of the earth, as if that were but a creeping snail, though making daily the circuit of the globe; it darted through the green valleys of England, over Scotch mountains, down beneath the channel to the Irish coast, thence through Ulster and Connaught and Munster to the shores of the Atlantic. Here it dived beneath the ocean, deeper than the valley of Chamouni lies below the summit of Mont Blanc, passing under great ships of commerce and of war, and in an instant arose at the cliffs of Newfoundland; then, quicker than thought, it passed over the morasses and mountains to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then on through the gulf, through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Eastern States, to our own doors.
But let us return from this digression to the last expedition. On the 17th of July the squadron departed from Queenstown for the third time. As they passed Cape Clear, into the Western Ocean, they parted company; but such is the accuracy of modern navigation, that, though there was no earthly map or mark to guide them, yet steering by the compass and the celestial signals, one after the other all arrived at the appointed rendezvous in mid-ocean.
On the 29th of July the two great ships took their places a short distance from each other. A strong hawser fastened them together. The end of the cable which the Niagara bore was carried to the Agamemnon and there spliced to the end of hers; it was then lowered into the sea, and the ships moved, each toward its own country, at first creeping slowly till the cable had sunk far down, and then faster, to a speed of five or six miles an hour.
Let us glance for a moment at the Agamemnon on her homeward track. She suffered severe weather, and more than once the cable was in extreme peril. Once, in order to remove a defect in the coil, it was necessary to stop the ship-an operation the most dangerous, for the experience of the two former trials had shown that the insatiable sea will neither give back what it has received nor allow the supply to cease. But a good Providence watched over the ship, and on the 5th of August she came safely to land.
Let us now return to our own Niagara and her faithful attendant. The Gorgon, herself a ship of eleven hundred tons, though but a boat by the side of the Niagara, led the way, because the compasses of the latter were affected by the cable, and the great ship followed close behind. Never was navigator more vigilant and more successful than Captain Dayman. His observations went on by day and by night; as one heavenly body went down and another arose, his instruments were turned to the rising luminary, and he never swerved from the shortest line along the great arc of the circle to the head of Trinity Bay. The Niagara steered by the Gorgon. Her machinery worked with the utmost regularity, never stopping for an instant, and her officers and men were as exact as her machinery. Silence, as far as possible, was enforced, and such light was kept that at night she appeared to the Gorgon to be illuminated. Who can tell what anxious suspense there was in that ship as each hour, each day, passed on, increasing the chances of success, strengthening the hopeful, restoring the despondent - what sleepless eyes, what beating hearts were there! As the great ships went forward, from the moment when they disappeared from each other below the horizon, messages were constantly interchanged - ship answered to ship as the hours bore them farther apart and nearer their destination. I scarcely know a dialogue more affecting than that which was held between the Niagara and Agamemnon on this last voyage. At length, on the morning of the 4th of August, under as bright a sky as ever smiled on a great achievement, the headlands of Trinity Bay rose above the sea directly before them.
Then there came out to meet them, and be their pilot into their desired haven, another English ship - the Porcupine - whose captain, Otter, had so carefully surveyed and so closely watched, that he had not only found all the channels, but had stationed boats to mark the narrowest, and that the ships might be seen far off, had sent sailors into an island of the bay on which was a high and wooded hill, ordering them to watch day and night, and as soon as the fleet hove in sight to set the wood on fire. The fire was kindled, and the burning hill was at once bonfire and signal for the victorious ships. The bay was so deep that the head of it was not reached till after midnight. There, at five o'clock of the morning of the 5th of August, the end of that mysterious wire was taken ashore; and as soon as it was secured in its appointed station, the brave sailor and humble Christian who commanded the Niagara, in the open air, in the early daylight, while all the gentlemen and seamen bowed their heads reverently, gave thanks to the Almighty for the good voyage ended. And thus was the Atlantic cable laid.
Return to the Atlantic Cables index page
Copyright © 2008 FTL Design
Last revised: 15 November, 2009
Return to Atlantic Cable main page
Research Material Needed
The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.
You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.
If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: Atlantic-Cable.com