Introduction: At age 21, James Burn Russell (1837-1904), one of William Thomson’s research students at Glasgow University, was invited by Thomson to accompany him as an unpaid assistant on HMS Agamemnon during the laying of the 1858 Atlantic cable. Between May 6th and October 6th that year, Russell kept an extraordinarily detailed journal of his experiences while working on the cable project, and this document is now held at Glasgow City Archives, Mitchell Library (TD1434/1).
James Burn Russell
in later life
The manuscript journal was written by James for his sister Agnes (Aggy) as a record of this time, and it contains much interesting information about the 1858 cable expeditions and the subsequent work in Ireland. It is one of the few hitherto unearthed primary sources and is all the more valuable for having been written by a student of Thomson who had a very good understanding of what went on technically. Some sections of the journal have now been transcribed and may be read on this page.
Towards the end of 1858, after the failure of the cable and his return to Scotland, Russell wrote up the story in a more reader-friendly style, and it appeared in The West of Scotland Magazine and Review, where in 1859 it was published in three parts totalling 42 pages. While this magazine version is by no means a direct transcript of the manuscript and leaves out many technical and other details, it provides an interesting view of the 1858 expeditions, and includes information not found in other accounts. The story as published in the magazine is reproduced on this page.
Thanks are due to Allan Green for discovering these interesting documents in the course of his research.
Russell also wrote another version of some of the events of the second cable-laying voyage of 1858, which he sent to his father David in Australia. David Russell had moved to Sydney when James and Agnes were still quite young children, leaving them with their grandparents, and had taken a position as literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. The newspaper published James's story in its issue of February 8th 1859. The article was uncredited, but is described in the introduction as “Leaves from the Journal of a Telegrapher;” almost exactly the same title as the Scottish magazine story.
Some of the text from the newspaper was later copied verbatim by Silvanus P. Thompson for his 1910 two-volume biography “Life of Lord Kelvin,” where it is described as “a contemporary account in the Sydney Morning Herald, in a letter written by a junior member of the electrical staff.” However, the full text as published in the newspaper has never been reprinted. While its description of events is largely similar to that of the same period in the first article, for reference it is reproduced in full at the end of this page.
The West of Scotland Magazine and Review, New Series.
Glasgow: James Frazer, 1, Royal Exchange Place.
Published in three parts, in the issues of January, February, and July 1859.
LEAVES FROM THE JOURNAL
OF AN AMATEUR TELEGRAPHER
Plymouth, June 10th.—After four this morning, my rest was rather disturbed by the racket and row which attend preparations for sea. The heavy tramp of the men at the capstan, timed by the lively notes of a fiddle, penetrated even to the subaqueous depths of the cockpit. By the time breakfast was half over, two sturdy little tugs had taken hold of the Agamemnon on each side, and were lugging him along as the Satyrs are fabled to have helped home jolly Bacchus. To cheer us up a little, we had in the mess a Plymouth paper, containing a letter from Lieutenant Higginson, R.N., in which was the consoling assertion that we should never return. Although his remarks about our over-load were more sensible than usual, we had too much faith in our good ship to do anything but laugh. Certainly we could not have a more auspicious start—the morning was such as to make one “babble of green fields,” and sigh to brush the dew from the meadow, rather than pace the hard matter-of-fact blanks of a man-of-war’s quarter deck. A slight mist, broken into fragments by the spreading sun-light, floated here and there over the country. A snatch of the coast of Cornwall and leafy Mount Edgecumbe lay fronting the sun. The village of Corson, on the outskirts of this old British refuge, straggled up the wooded slopes. Above stood a very unpretending fort; one; however, which has the heaviest metal round Plymouth. When the tugs threw us off, there being no wind, we had to get up steam and go in search of it. After playing a game at hide-and-seek with the coy breeze until evening, we got it at last; and the bo’son piped “All hands on deck to lift screw.” There is something very mysterious about the aspect of a ship’s canvas as seen in a dark night from the deck. The great sails look like the wings of some huge phantom floating overhead. The ghostliness of the scene was enhanced by the phosphorescence of the sea. Nothing could be more grand or overawing—the ship gliding on steadily, slowly, without a tremor, —the night mirky,—the sea black, but starred with the momentary gleam of breaking wave-tops,—the position of the other vessels marked by their lights and the fiery splash as their hulls rose and fell,—the ripple from our bow every second or so spreading into a sheet of light which was reflected on the cutwater and catheads,—our wake seething and flashing like a pot of molten iron,—and the water line marked with a streak of fire.
OUR FIRST SUNDAY AT SEA.
June 13th.—Sunday on board a man-of-war is a day which is ushered in by scrubbing, rubbing, brushing, sweeping, washing, dressing, and other forms of purification. The first sounds one hears on awakening are the grinding of the “holy-stone” along the decks, the monotonous noise from the pumps supplying the scrubbers with water, and the thump of the ship’s buckets as they are hurled from one to another along the deck. The result of this hydropathic mania is, that early rising is no benefit unless you doff shoes and stockings as the First Lieutenant does; and, if your cabin is not quite water tight, there will soon be some inches of water inside, soaking into trunks and playing all manner of pranks with your habiliments. After narrowly avoiding a saline bath from a hose, and being all but squashed by a bucket, with shoes not improved by a side-stroke from a swab, I gained the quarter-deck. All the boys were ranged in a row for inspection. Fine, hardy, open-faced little fellows they mostly were—all clean and fresh from the general washing. After breakfast, there was nothing but preparation for “divisions,” or muster. The operation of shaving is most interesting. The marines have a barber; Jack sits down at the capstan, lathers his muzzle as if he were paying a seam, holds up with one hand a looking-glass, seamed and scarred so as to make it a puzzle to get an entire physiognomy, and with the other reaps his chin, rolling the while in common with the restless ship. Often a brother salt assumes the razor, spreading out his legs that he may not be overbalanced. After all this preparation, at the sound of the drum, every man falls into position—the marines on the poop, where they are scrutinised, back and front, from their bayonets to their buttons; the blue jackets in lines on either side of the upper and main-decks. Well they looked with their clean worsted jackets and the great collars of their blue-striped shirts hanging down their backs. After a thorough inspection of both men and vessel by the Captain, the solemn toll of the ship’s bell summoned all to prayers. They were read by the First Lieutenant, on the main deck, at a temporary desk near the mainmast, draped with signal flags, one with a black cross in the middle, forming the centre piece. The Fourth Lieutenant brought out his harmonium, and a choir was extemporised from amongst the electricians and ship’s company. During the progress of the service, it became gusty, and rain began to fall. The wind went on freshening, and the rain pouring nearly all afternoon. About three it blew very hard. All hands were piped up to shorten sail. The wind howled through the rigging—the sails rattled and cracked as they struggled to shake off the hold of the reefers. But the shouting of the Captain and Lieutenants, and the whistling of the bo’son’s pipes, were heard above all other sounds, and we were soon going easily along under double-reefed topsails and foresail. The sun shone out, lighting up the snowy whiteness of the “white horse’s” mains, and the Niagara nobly riding the storm close by. The sea gradually rose. Some windows on the main deck, left exposed by inexperienced landsmen, were smashed. At tea, we could just manage to keep the tea-things on the table. About eight, the spray was breaking over our bulwarks, and it seemed as if “Agamemnon, king of men,” had become thoroughly “drunk and incapable.” One jolt, as the men were getting their hammocks, sent them all topsy-turvy, and upset part of the paying-out erections. At supper, it was impossible to keep in position, except by twining our legs round the fixed iron supports of the table. Only a few being able to do this, the favoured individual possibly had to stand the strain of some half-dozen who had converted him into their sheet-anchor. In spite of these ingenious devices, there was a deal of involuntary locomotion. The vessel would give an extra lurch—a number of unfortunates would go whirling, chairs and all, followed by the bread-basket, and roars of laughter from their messmates. Once, lurch followed lurch so quickly that one of the engineers traversed the space between the table and the bulkheads three times, accompanied by his chair, and holding his grog above the surrounding wreck, before he regained his moorings. Fears are entertained as to the safety of the upper-deck coil.
June 14th.—My cabin is in the cockpit. Sleeping is an impossibility in this rollicking, restless ship. In the first place, keeping in bed is by no means easy, considering that, with each lurch, you roll over and feel a violent inclination to fly out. In the next place, supposing you do maintain your post—not bed-post, for there are none—the timbers of the ship absolutely roar at every joint as if she were being put to the rack; and the furnace irons in the stoke-hole clang dolorously. There is one beam in particular close to the main-mast, whose stentorian voice can be heard above all the rest. Dressing is no easy matter. The water in the wash-hand basin, put in ever so little, will jolt out. The looking-glass, hung against the wall, swings so much that you have to follow its vagaries in order to obtain a sight of your face; and if care is not taken to plant your legs wide, and hold on in extremes, you may get your side stove in against the chest of drawers, or your head cracked through violent contact with the bulk heads. Such roars of laughter found their way to my ears from the lower deck. The men were at their cocoa; and, from the clatter of broken earthenware and the rattle of mess tins, one fearful lurch seemed to have upset them all. Opposite the cabin door a number of buckets were playing at follow-my-leader over the deck, to the great perplexity of some sailors who wished to use them in swabbing up water. Such were the incidents of my toilette. Our first breakfast was pitched off the galley fire. Before a second was prepared, there being no proper “fiddles” provided to hold the dishes on the table—so certain had we been made of calm weather in June—they must needs be extemporised from spun yarn. After fixing these, and lashing our chairs together, drinking our coffee scalding hot lest it might find its way into the scuppers to cool, and once and again hunting our errant knives and forks over the deck, we did get breakfast. The “daffin and glee,” occasioned by the various little accidents which befel one and another, were the best part of the entertainment.
The electrical room was in a rare mess this morning, considering that absolute dryness is requisite in that department. A regular surge, black as Styx, was washing across the floor, and the seams of the deck above were leaking over the instruments. This arises from the straining which the upper deck coil gives the vessel as she rolls and pitches. These motions increased in violence and frequency as the day wore on, for the wind gradually freshened to a gale with now and then a squall. After dinner, at which few appeared, I took a peep on deck. The wind was blowing fiercely, while the sun shone beautifully over the “yeasty” deep. A French barque was just disappearing in the blackness and drifting rain of a squall, which enveloped us also in a few minutes. The ship rolled her main deck ports under—an advance upon her former accomplishments. A great uproar arose below. A boy had tumbled a summersault down the hatchway with a mess-can full of hot tea, which was, of course, prematurely poured out. The sheep pen had broken loose, and was knocking about over the deck with the terrified animals inside. In the evening the gale seemed to be approaching a climax. All hands were called still further to shorten sail. Owing to some bad management on board the Niagara, who was to windward, she was allowed to drift down on us in spite of our efforts to keep off. This prevented us from shortening sail immediately. After causing Captain Preedy considerable anxiety, she stood away, pitching a great deal and shipping some water over her bows. During supper the “reeving tackle” was made ready in the mess room where the tiller works, to keep the rudder under command, should the tiller rope unfortunately break. Those who did not moor themselves at table, soon became waifs and strays over the deck. A chair was smashed; a wrist strained; an eye all but blackened; and sundry glasses of grog upset over our books and persons. We hit upon the excellent plan of making rubbers of our caps and setting our tumblers inside. No sleep to-night yet. The timbers still kept up their diabolical concert. I sat on the edge of the bed, which rose first on one end then on the other like a plank in the game of see-saw, with difficulty holding on sometimes, and read the “Heart of Mid-Lothian,” until the power of sleep became too strong even for the shrieking, groaning, thumping, rasping, roaring timbers to overcome.
Monday is a fair sample of the first half of the week. The upper deck coil, which had been shored up against the bulwarks, strained them so that the oakum wrought out, and they opened from the deck as the vessel rolled from one side to another. A clear passage was thus given for water from the water-ways on the upper deck down to the cabins in the cockpit, the beds in which were mostly drenched. The shores were afterwards shifted to the deck. On Tuesday, one of the large beams which support the main deck broke. On Wednesday, another succumbed to the weight, close beside the former. With each lurch the posts below the coil, between upper and main deck, Snapped and jerked as if they would resolve into splinters or bend like a hew. The sailors say—“all this is ’cause they played that bloody hurdy-gurdy last Sunday!” Owing to the constant wetness of the ship and hard work, a great number of the crew were invalided.
During the latter days of the week the weather decidedly moderated.
THE GREAT GALE OF 20TH AND 21ST JUNE.
“Sweet day, so calm, so cool, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky.”
These lines are brought forcibly to my remembrance through the power of contrast; for certainly this was a day of elemental rage. Last night we all remarked, in going to bed, how smoothly the vessel sailed. This morning we found her rolling and pitching in the agonies of another storm. The wind had been unsteady during the night, and freshened about four into a gale. After a difficult and tedious toilette, I repaired to the mess room. Only one of the chief assistant engineers was there, and only his own breakfast utensils on the table, to look after which and himself seemed to be task sufficient. Nothing would remain in statu quo either here or elsewhere. The capstan bars were shaken from their place in the beams in the morning, and severely injured two boys. After taking a look at the electrical room, wet and miserable, and while indulging in seriocomic feelings over the effects of a sudden roll—a boy, carrying a jug of hot water, upset and scalded, and a marine wallowing in the water of the scuppers—the Agamemnon gave a series of lurches which literally clipped her upper deck into the water. The crashing and rumbling which we did not at once know arose from the breaking away of the coals, mingled with the surge of water, led us to think that the coil had given way. No pen can describe the scene. All the windows on the weather side, including those of the electrical room, were smashed. The sea came gushing in a torrent through each door, bearing out to the deck slop-pails, water-cans, music-sheets, and other miscellaneous articles, and reaching to the knees of those standing near. In the electrical room a small cask of sulphate of copper was upset. This gradually melted away, and, washing over the deck, coated with copper all the gratings with which it came in contact. The inmate of one of the cabins being sick, occupied the uppermost of two bunks. The sea cleared both away, and landed the astonished occupant amidst the wreck of the wood work and the soaked bed-clothes. Unhurt, but pale as a ghost, he rushed out on the deck. All this passed in a moment. Above the crash and uproar, the bo’son’s pipe was heard, and the hoarse cry—“Wear ship.” After a sad struggle this was done, but gave no relief. It seemed as if her masts must go. We began now to discover the real cause of the horrid rending and crashing noise. Our coal, which is stowed in sacks on each side of the two decks, had broken away its stanchions, and been hurled towards the centre of the vessel with ruinous energy. The loose coal which had burst from the sacks went down in a shower, mingled with the sea, through the after-hatch, clearing away skylights and ladders right down to the orlop deck. The bustling about of the surgeon and his assistants told too plainly that some injury had been done to human limbs. On the lower deck, Mr. Harvey, engineer, one of the most lively of our messmates, was caught coming out of the mess room and jammed against a bulkhead. He cried to the sentry, who pulled him out, when the reverse lurch eased the load from his body a little. He was severely injured internally. On the main deck, the drummer was caught in passing, and covered completely over. On being excavated, his arm was found to be fractured in several places. Another man had his fingers smashed. During the day several other accidents happened—men’s hands fouling in the ropes—shoulders dislocated by falls, &c. It gave a slight notion of an engagement, seeing one and another led past injured, some pale as death and tottering with faintness. Meanwhile the Company’s staff was distributed here and there wherever a secure hold could be had. Having doffed shoes and stockings, which were worse than useless, seeing that the decks were some inches deep in water, I lent a hand in closing the ports and securing the instruments in the electrical room. These latter were in a sad state. The Agamemnon rolled dreadfully still, dashing us about from one side of the room to the other in a most violent fashion. The iron pins in the beams by which the guns are swung, were the best things to hold by. Some ponderous lead weights, belonging to our electric clockwork, got adrift inside the room, swept the door from its hinges, knocked me over, and went rolling over the deck, but were secured without doing further damage.
Immediately after the coals gave way, working parties were told off to get them again secured as far as possible. The task was one both of difficulty and danger, seeing that the ship was still rocking like one of those rotund little toy-figures which may be seen in our nurseries. They had fallen right across our mess-room door, and on the arm-rack, destroying several muskets. One of our number was barricaded inside with the steward. Watching a favourable lull in the motion of the ship, I crawled between the coal sacks and the beams, and wriggled in at the door. What a scene! The floor swimming with water and strewed with fragments of earthenware:—the chairs, entire and broken, tied together in bundles, lashed to the table legs, and dashing from side to side to the extent of their spare ropes as the vessel rolled:—the steward squatting on the floor, holding on to a post at one corner of the table; at the other, my friend perched on a chair tied to another post, one arm round it, the other holding to the lashings of the chair. He described the rumbling of things adrift above, the crashing of the coals beneath, and the rattling of the chairs before they were secured, rushing about over the flooded deck around him, as something quite frightful. After piloting him out over our black barricade, hunger began to crave my attention. There seemed little chance of dinner, seeing that nothing would stay on the galley fire. It was rumoured, however, that, by some mysterious means, an Irish stew had been prepared, and still more mysteriously conveyed into the mess room. This was attraction sufficient to draw several over the coals on a voyage of exploration. How sweet did that homely dish seem, though gobbled up while standing with legs astride, holding the plate in one hand and waiting for a lull in which to employ the other in conveying supplies to the mouth. Another similar journey, and we had tea in a similar manner.
All this time the same conflict betwixt the gale and British seamanship was progressing on deck. The sun shone out with a most mocking cheerfulness most part of the day. Walking about was impossible, seeing that the deck continued assuming angles of 45 deg. to 50 deg. The only mode of locomotion was to stagger at intervals from rope to rope. But, indeed, there was little to interest on deck but watching the seas rolling, and amusing one’s-self with calculating beforehand when the vessel would give an extra lurch. As she ducked towards a coming wave, it would tower like a hill of water above the bulwarks, as if it must go right over us. But it would catch the ship in the waist, jerking her violently over into the trough, where there was scarcely any water to resist a complete immersion. Then the masts would bend, the yards fall over, and the shrouds flap as if the whole rigging were coming away. About mid-day, the huge and cumbrous iron guard at our stern was snapped, and great fears were entertained lest it might damage the rudder. Several heavy seas broke over our bows. In the evening we wore ship again, and orders were given to commence steaming. After some delay, owing to the working and straining of the ship having snapped the waste-steam pipe, the screw began to revolve. But no nautical manoeuvre could shake off the power of the waves. The upper deck coil still held on well. The cone round which it is built did not give the slightest. The main-coil started, and tumbled flake over flake with every roll. As the sky began to darken with coming night, things seemed to grow more and more miserable. The dull thump, thump, of the pumps did not make things look more hopeful, though they were only set agoing to keep the water which got to the hold from above from accumulating and flooding the stoke-hole. Such a Sunday! No one there will ever forget it. Every part of the ship was drenched. Following each lurch came the rush of water, streaming in through the crevices in the port-holes. The further one descended in the ship the deeper was the flood. On the lower deck many tons of water were dashing about. Standing on the orlop, one could hear it above surging from side to side as the Agamemnon heeled over, with a dull rumbling noise, arising from the small pieces of coal which were borne along with it. Then down it would pour through the hatchway, forming an intermittent cataract, which fell with a dreary splash, reflecting for a moment the dull light of the sentries’ lanthorns. It then found its way into our cabins, and from thence into the bilge. My own cabin was a fair specimen of the others. The little chest of drawers was upset and resolved into halves, against which and the trunks and portmanteaus a sable flood was beating, soaking through, and leaving over the contents a deposit of coal-dust. Everything of glass or earthenware was smashed. My companion’s bed was odoriferous with the contents of a bottle of hair-oil. Over mine, the water, for which the upper coil made free passage down the ship’s side, was trickling. After fishing my trunk out of the slush, and fastening the prostrate drawers, that they might not bump themselves to pieces, I left in disgust. On the main deck, the state of the cabins, and no less that of their inmates, was even more deplorable. Bed clothes hanging in bundles from the beams dripping. Here, a lot of fashionable apparel trussed up in a similar fashion; and there, a string of boots and shoes—all soaked in salt water. In one bunk, about two feet broad, were three of the Company’s clerks lying a-top of each other, “like herrings in a barrel,”—not sleeping, but in a half stupified state. The others lay on the top of some large trunks down beside the engine. But few, save those who had the only proper sea-bed—a hammock—did get much sleep that night. The Times’ correspondent sat upon a stool on deck, in a corner near the wheel, where he had been all afternoon, huddled up over head and ears in a rug, afraid to look the storm in the face. About eleven (P.M.), I went into the Captain’s sitting-room—the only place in the ship which could be called comfortable. It is so elevated in position that, when we lay in harbour, it reminded me of some Venetian mansion, with the waters of the Lagoon rippling against its walls. But now, no such delusion could cheat the fancy.
“This was in the night Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber.”
The windows looked out upon a dark sky and a raging sea, over which the gale chased us, howling in the rigging and whistling through door and casement. Around the stern and against the ship’s sides the waves leaped and foamed like dogs about a hard-run deer. To lie upon the sofa was impossible. There was an easy chair screwed down, like all the other articles of furniture, in the opposite corner of the apartment. I was projected right out of it against the sofa. The only place from which it was impossible to pitch me was the floor; so, securing the sofa-pillow in a corner of my plaid, and wrapping myself up in the remainder, I lay down with my arms twined round the sofa-leg, to avoid being rolled about like a bale of cloth. But was any one ever known to sleep while undergoing the old military joke of being tossed in a blanket? Now jerking to this side—now swaying to that—now up, now down, went the ship; the screw palpitating now quickly, when lifted almost out of the water—now slowly and laboriously, like the heart of a giant in his last agonies, when forced into the depths. Towards morning, it became bitterly cold. Rising from my comfortless bed, and going out to the quarter-deck, I could see in the grey light the watch engaged in bracing the shrouds together by a system of pulleys—a perilous task. The great strain of the masts, jerking from side to side, had stretched the wire rope, so that there was nothing to prevent them rolling out; and the men could scarcely hold on to the ratlines, they swung so much.
21st.—About ten, we attempted to put the ship on another tack; but she got into the trough of the sea, and wallowed, if possible, more than she had yet done. Up one side of the wave she went, like a were log to its strength; down the other, on her beam ends; and, before getting righted, another wave would leap upon her as if to hold her down. Several seas broke over us. One stove in the bow hammock-nettings, and carried away part of the woodwork connected with the under-running arrangements. The coals again broke loose. The main-coil became quite unmanageable, surging over so rapidly that several of the men engaged in securing it, slipping into the space left as the cable rolled over, were caught by its return. Our dernier resort now was to run before the wind. This we did about eleven, under close-reefed foresail and foretopsail—steaming also. Although we were going at eleven knots, the waves were going faster. They chased and overtook us, lifting up our stern with a blow which made the frame of the vessel vibrate, and passing out at our bows, boiling and seething. Just as they came up, their tops broke into a little creamy foam, and, immediately beneath, the dull sunlight showed a. rich bluish green. One of these gigantic waves struck us on the port-quarter, and sent a flood of water right through the ward-room, washing about the chairs, and smashing everything that would smash. We, who inhabited the lower regions, viewed this invasion with a sort of grim delight; for hitherto the hardship had been all our own. Only a flood in the Captain’s quarters could have given more satisfaction; although, poor man, the anxiety was enough for him.
After tea, we passed an American merchant ship lying-to. The evening looked especially wild. Far astern, in the wind’s eye, the sea was black as ink, with the shadow of a coming squall. As it advanced; we could see it sweeping the foam from the waves in spray. Then it hissed past, whistling through our rigging, and hurrying us on so fast that we seemed to skim over the water. In the west the sun was about disappearing. The sky was streaked with those long dark lines which constitute the phenomenon known as “the sun drinking up the rain.” We watched the American rolling and pitching, her wet sides glistening in the faint light. At last she retired into the darkness, which was fast settling down upon the sea, and we were left once more companionless.
22d.—During the day the wind had been gradually subsiding, and by night there was a calm, so that we had to get up steam. What a contrast the sunset of to-night was to that of last! The sea smooth as a mill-pond,—the line between sea and sky well defined, not serrated with the outline of waves. The clouds were stretched like an eyelid over the golden sun,—from beneath, a flood of yellow light came streaming over the waters. Other clouds stretched like bars across the entire eastern quarter of the horizon, flecked with patches of many colours. As the sun disappeared, the sea assumed an intensely dark blue colour, almost black.
June 25th.-A fine bright morning, and a smart breeze bowling us on merrily. A ship in full sail was seen about eight, but not of our squadron. We had got fifteen miles past the rendezvous in the night. About half-past ten, the man at the mast-head sung out “ship ahoy.” It proved to be the Valorous. About noon, a very cock-boat of a steamer passed under our bows under sail. On her paddle-box the name Blue-Jacket could be distinctly read. Everybody was on the qui vive, anxiously scanning the horizon for signs of our companions. At 12.30 the Gorgon hove in sight on our port-bow; and, about two hours after, the topgallantmasts of the Niagara began to appear like sticks above the horizon to leeward. We lay-to. At five (P.M.) the Niagara came alongside, and moved slowly across our bows. Captain Hudson addressed Captain Preedy—“How are you all?” “Very well, thank you.” “When shall you be ready?” “To-morrow at noon.” She seemed to have made even worse weather of it than we had. Her jib-boom was knocked away; the spread eagle had cast a wing; and one of the enormous iron buoys, to which it was thought the cable might be moored, was carried off. The only hindrance to immediate splicing is the state of the main-coil. About seventy miles have been unravelled and re-coiled above. About twenty miles more must be taken up. At night there was a nasty drizzle soaking over everything. Calmness was upon air and sea. Astern lay the Yankee, visible only by the triangular disposition of her lights. To port the Valorous displayed one light. The Gorgon had not yet come into position. The call of the “boobies,” as they skimmed about the stern, picking up refuse, sounded startlingly like that of a partridge.
WAITING FOR THE NIAGARA.
(After the Failures.)
July 1st (evening).—We are lying-to at the rendezvous, looking in a fog for the Niagara, who is, doubtless, snug in Queenstown harbour. The wind is in the S.W., and blows the perpetual fog of the Gulf Stream from the Bank down upon us. The Agamemnon is wallowing at her ease in the long, strong, perpetual swell of the Atlantic, like a hippopotamus in an African river; the drizzling mist closing us in on every side with a blank, impenetrable curtain, and the clewed-up sails flapping as the vessel swings, and scattering big drops of moisture over the decks. Every rope acts as a feeder to the numberless little rills which meander in all directions. The galley bell is rung every now and then, having been shifted to the foremast for the purpose of being better heard. A gun is fired at intervals. The watch is collected on the forecastle, listening to the singing of one of the number, and joining in the gruff chorus. The gunners pace backwards and forwards beside their gun; and the look-out, stationed at each cat-head, stands well-defined against the white mist. There is something about such a scene which strikes me as analogous to the mystery of life—mystery before, mystery behind—all we certainly have within our mental grasp is the infinitesimal “now,” and even this is often clothed in doubt.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF MAN-OF-WAR LIFE.
July 2d.—Betwixt supper and piping the men up for hammocks, unlimited licence is allowed the sailors for larking and amusement. There are two fiddlers amongst them who play nightly opposite the electrical room. One of them it is quite a treat to hear. His execution has attracted the attention of the Captain and many other gentlemen on board. Professor Thomson generally manages to drop into the room about six, that he may hear him. While they play, the sailors gather round in a group,—sometimes sing accompaniment, sometimes dance a hornpipe, or in couples with many of the formalities of the ball room, barring the pipes, which lady and gentleman generally have stuck betwixt their teeth. This was an extra night. Several of the officers, Dr. Thomson, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Canning were present. There was, as usual, a goodly company of blue-jackets and marines, some round the two fiddlers, some dancing, some on all fours over the duck or blue worsted cloth which had that afternoon been served out; for Jack in this, as in everything else, is independent. He merely gets the cloth, and has, himself, to shape and sew his trousers, shirts, &c., &c. He spreads the stuff out on the deck, and goes at it with his shears, sans ceremonie. Then he seats himself on a “cooming,” or squats on the deck with his back against a stanchion, and pushes his needle through with finger and thumb, or with a shoemaker’s thimble. The performance began with two polkas and a schotische, which was danced by two couples, i.e., two tars, and a marine and tar. The two tars hugged each other like dancing bears, holding on by the loose backs of one another’s blue jackets with anything but a delicate grasp. Then the fiddlers played some airs. It gratified my national feeling to find them all Scotch; and strengthened previous opinion that our melodies are more pathetic and suited for the popular heart generally than those of any other people. After a round of Scotch tunes, there was a general “call upon Mr. Chapel for a song,” accompanied with encouraging applause. Mr. Chapel accordingly came forward—a marine dressed in his “jumper” (slop jacket), and working suit. He gave “The Standard Bearer” with great effect, the tars all joining in the chorus—“Then I will fight for liberty and fame,” &c. The singer retired amid strongly-expressed sentiments of approbation; and a jack-tar began to sing “The red, white, and blue;” but the concert was abruptly broken up by the bo’son’s whistle, and the gruff cry—“Stand by Hammocks.”
July 6th.—The Valorous enquired how many live stock we have on board. The answer was—“A sheep and four fowls.” These belong to the Captain. Our steward took out supplies for a fortnight, and now we have nearly completed a month. The consequence is, that for more than a week past we have been almost entirely on ship’s provisions. It is the same in the ward-room. “Salt junk” has insinuated itself now into the place of every other dish. Its advances are most insidious. You find it minced up with potatoes. It plunges beneath the sauce of every hash; lies ensconced behind ramparts of rice in dishes of curry; rolls itself into balls of sweet-looking forcemeat; lurks under pie-crusts of crispness so promising that you would not be more surprised if you found Tom Thumb inside. Still it can never make itself out anything but salt junk. Indeed, our dinners strongly remind me of the poor boy who was asked what he had for dinner yesterday. “Kail and flesh, ’tautties, and pepper and saut,” said he. “And what to-day?” “Broth and beef, potatoes, and salt and pepper!” The most original production of Black Santo’s attempts to make something out of nothing is a dish known in the mess as “hard-nail.” However high its pretensions, it is impossible to conceal the fact that it is the skin peeled from the salt pork after being boiled, and served up with mustard sauce! Mark the pungency of the seasoning. It might render an ipecacuanha stew palatable. The mustard, however, can’t conceal the jolly big bristles, which are not by any means like “angels’ visits.”
RETURNED TO QUEENSTOWN—DOINGS ON SHORE.
On the 11th, we got into a dense fog, through which we kept feeling our way towards land all night, going very slowly and heaving the lead every half hour. Shortly after nine, on the morning of the 12th, the fog rose up like a curtain, displaying a calm sea and the lower part of a precipitous coast, on which patches of green alternated with rugged water-seams. It was some time before landmarks were sufficiently distinguishable to enable Mr. Moriarty, our master, to discover that we were nearly abreast of Kinsale—a capital land-fall to be made in a fog by a vessel whose compasses were 17 deg. wrong through the influence of the iron of the cable. Steaming full speed, we soon came in sight of the narrow inlet to the Cove; and about, mid-day, July 12th, came to moorings betwixt the island of Hawlbowline and Queenstown.
The first to leave the ship was the ward-room steward on a foraging expedition. When he returned, his appearance strongly reminded one of those giants of the nursery, who are said to traverse a countryside tucking sheep and pigs under their waist-belt, and dangling oxen over their shoulders. There being no naval rules to restrain us we did not wait the advent of Mr. Dawe on board, but got on shore as soon as possible. Boiled pig’s skin is a capital thing to bring down one’s tastes. Oh! what a luxury those mealy potatoes, laughing in their ragged coats like genuine Irishmen!—that never-to-be-forgotten duck and green peas—how delightful How sweet, too, the “dull unchanging shore,” the greenness of old Ireland. We were quite astounded to learn the vile and abominable falsehoods which had found their way from our Yankee friends to the local and thence to the general prints. I suppose the inhabitants expected to see us all brought ashore in strait jackets, having lost our wits on the Atlantic. But a British man-of-war and British seamen will fight out a storm alongside an American any day.
We landsmen made the most of the five days during which the expedition lay in the Cove, exploring the surrounding country. Queenstown has a very beautiful appearance from the sea. It is quite such a town as one would expect to come upon on the sea-board of north-western Italy. First, on the beach are the massive sea-walls, then rows of lime and poplar trees, “lush and lusty,” as beseemeth dwellers in the Emerald Isle; next the chief street, winding gracefully along past the splendid range of granite buildings which contains the Royal Hotel, into the older portion of the town. Above, in straggling positions, are the principal houses, and an old weather-beaten church. Queenstown, like many places of greater bulk, has its West-end, with its bran new houses invading the furze-covered slope, and its little church jauntily raising its nicely tapered spire from a nest of trees. Then there is the Lee—soft Spencerian Lee—over whose verdant banks a haze of enchantment seems ever to be floating. Monkstown is a fairy spot on the left. One might guess from its name that it would be a near approximation to Paradise, for the monks somehow always managed to pounce upon the titbits of nature. It stretches along the shore in a bay of green leaves—a row of pretty cottages with fancifully cultured garden-plots in front, and so beset with shrubs as to appear garlanded from door-step to roof-tree with foliage. Modestly withdrawn, above the tree-tops, peeped a spire. A succession of just such nooks reveal themselves as the steamer bustles up to Cork; and on the promontories stand fortlets and towers in all the romantic stages of decay, ivy-clad, or gaunt and bare. This panorama terminates with Cork—a very fine city, with fine streets, fine shops, obliging people; and car-drivers, who will stick to a “fare” like mosquitoes.
A jollier set never visited Killarney than the four Agamemnonites, naval and electric, who, on that pleasant 14th of July, took return tickets at Cork for the Lakes. Away we whirled, joking so incontinently and laughing so heartily that the old maiden lady in the corner mentally set us down as “vulgar young men.” Old abbeys—old castles—little, old, squat, flat bridges covered with ivy—then Mallow, on the banks of the Blackwater, shoving out its spire and neat house-tops above an ocean of foliage. Here we struck off westwards through a country which, for many miles, recalled Wordsworth’s line as to Avondale—“green with woods and fresh with waters.” The soft and soothing hue of evening added to the richness of the green woods. Soon we entered upon the sterility of mountain scenery, and a heathery edge shut out our view to the left, dotted towards the base by rude hovels, undistinguishable from the grey tint of the hill-side but by the smoke curling seemingly from the heath. Gradually even these hovels ceased, and we were careering over barren bogs white with the tasselled cotton-flower. Now the west broke out in the full glory of a golden sunset, and gladdened us with the prospect of a good to-morrow. The Kerry Paps, Torc Mountains, and the Reeks had been gradually growing into distinctness for the last half hour; and, after passing more wild heaths; mountain streams with solitary herons musing by their banks; and dark, baronial castles grimly frowning in the gloamin, we entered Killarney.
“How fair thou art let others tell,
While but to feel how fair be mine.”
Killarney has been done into prose often enough already, without making any additional perpetration in the way of description. My recollections of these pleasant days are like one of those glimmerings of the happiness of our childhood, which often flash on memory’s backward eye—a happiness so pure, that we can scarce believe it ever to have been ours. As I turn the leaves of my journal, I again form one of that merry little brotherhood. The rifted mountain walls of the Gap frown down upon us; the bugle sounds beside the tarn, deep engulfed in the rugged gorge; celestial symphonies swell through the rough ravine, softly floating down the hill-side, hovering soothingly over the stilly waters, enchaining the spirit as with magician’s spell. Suddenly the cannons are fired; echo makes the wild rocks throb with the redoubled harshness. We pass the Purple Mountain and descend across the mouth of the Black Valley, whose recesses lead the vision into dreariness and gloom. Those girls will follow us, lightly tripping over the heather, with their whisky and goat’s milk, their Irish “blarney,” and their Irish eyes. We row together down the Lakes; we look into their clear waters and see the inverted foliage of the mountain sides gorgeously draping and festooning imaginary halls and bowers. We land on a fairy isle, and spread our repast in the shadow of the arbutus. Again onward, shouting and singing to raise the distant mountain echoes; past the Eagle’s Nest, with its spirit-tongues that mock the player with the unearthly beauty of his oft-repeated notes, and we dash down the rapids into the “Meeting of the Waters.” Bursting from this enchanted circle, a short pull, and we are on the Lower Lake, whose waters at certain seasons O’Donoghue’s white charger still paws. Peaceful the repose of Glena-Bay, where the waters lip the foliage that sweeps upward without a break to the mountain-crest. A stroll on “Sweet Innisfallen,” a ramble over Ross Castle;—turn over to a new day, and we are pattering on the jaunting car through woods all fresh and dripping with the morning shower, towards Muckross Abbey. There we see the tombs of the old Irish chieftains, the O’Donoghues and M’Carthys; the abbey library, with its small stone shelves, once but scantily filled, with all the learning of the country; the cloisters, where the cowled inmates, shaded by that primeval yew, walked and mused or talked over the latest news from England, perhaps months old; the cellar and store room; the larder and kitchen; the refectory, with its jolly fire-place, from which the light used to stream over jolly faces drawn together by the prospect of a jolly meal; the dormitory, too, with its back stair from the refectory, by which brothers erring through the weakness of the flesh and the strength of the wine might steal to bed; and last of all, the crypt whither, one by one, they retired to sleep the last sleep. Once more we are on the car, and pass up the hill road to the Mulgrave Police Station. All the Lakes lie beneath our eye, glistering in the sunlight. We rehearse the various items of the scene, and, turning away, reluctantly close our visit to Killarney. I turn over to fresh leaves, but the mental photograph of the landscape still floats before me with a kind of visionary beauty.
A WORD ON OUR MACHINERY AND INSTRUMENTS.
Never did vessel sail the sea with so rich a freight as the Agamemnon. No carrack that ever made the coast of Spain, laden with ingots from the El Dorado of the West, was half so valuable. Wherever one casts an eye, it alights on something worthy of notice and tempting to study. The object of the whole—to bring Europe and America within whispering distance—is startling; and by no frequency of recurrence can the idea be divested of its novelty and audacity even in conception. The cable itself, the nucleus round which everything centres, is an embodied chapter in electric history—the fruition of many years spent in patient investigation and profound thought by the master-minds of science. Next to the cable comes Amos’s paying-out machine, on the efficiency of which depends our success. The most important parts of this machine are Appold’s brake and the dynamometer. In paying-out last year, the ordinary means of producing frictional resistance by screwing up blocks of wood upon the periphery of a wheel, after the fashion of a carriage-drag, were employed. There are many objections to such a form of brake, the chief being the unlimited power which is put into the hands of the person in charge. He may, in a moment, render the whole apparatus rigid and immovable; which, in fact, was injudiciously done last year when the stern of the vessel was in the trough of the sea, and the consequence was the loss of the cable. It is impossible, without diagrams, to explain the paying-out machinery fully; but we can, at any rate, give a notion of the principle. Round the entire circumference of the broad iron brake-wheels there is applied a fillet of wood, like the felloes of a cart-wheel, held in position by an iron strap which represents the tire. This fillet is not flush round and round, but the ends overlap, and, by leverage, the degree to which they overlap, and therefore the amount of friction, is regulated. This is done by hanging iron weights to the end of the system of levers. The amount of these weights may be varied according to the desire of the Company’s Engineer; but any alteration the person at the wheel can produce in the strain must be by diminishing it, not by increasing. This wheel is placed opposite the dynamometer or strain-indicator. Suppose an iron block, moving vertically in a frame, and having an index affixed, which points to a graduated scale on the side of this frame. Attached to the block is a grooved wheel, beneath which suppose a rope to be placed, whose ends are held by two persons, each above the level of this wheel. When they pull the rope it straightens, the block rises, and the index shows the strain. The rope represents the cable which runs under the dynamometer wheel before it crosses the poop to the stern. The brake wheel, which is the same as that used in steering vessels, is attached to a chain which runs to the weights spoken of above, and, by turning it when the index rises, the person in charge can release the brake; or when it falls, set it on, and thus keep the strain from any sudden increase or diminution. All this is done so easily and speedily that, in a few seconds, the full power of the weights on the levers may be taken off and re-applied. It is a curious circumstance that this form of brake was first used as a means of graduating the labour of the tread-mill. Close by the paying-out machine, on the quarter-deck, is a beautiful little engine, wrought from the ship’s boilers, ready to throw into gear, to reverse the drums of the paying-out machine, and hawl in the cable. Experiment has shown, however, that cable once over the stern in deep water is useless, even if recovered. Still, were this engine constructed so as to be thrown in a moment in or out of gear, it would be an invaluable auxiliary in the actual laying of the cable, by overcoming the inertia of the huge drums when the vessel’s stern sinks in the trough of the sea. Attached to the axle of the foremost drum round which the cable runs, is a rotometer to register the number of revolutions it makes, with a clock, by which to find the number per minute. By a similar arrangement the amount payed out in hundreds of miles—miles and fathoms—is shown by three separate index hands. At the stern is a huge wheel, from which the cable takes its departure on its deep-sea journey. To the axle of this wheel another instrument for registering the paying-out is fixed. Close by, there are two indices moveable over a graduated scale, by which to find the horizontal and vertical angles of the cable in entering the water. The greater the vertical angle the less the strain on the cable, other things being equal, since there is a greater surface of water buoying it up. Were we to stop and allow the cable to hang perpendicular to the bottom, its own weight would snap it through. The horizontal angle shows our lee-way, or the drifting of the ship sideways, from strong currents or a beam-wind. Observations on each of these instruments are taken and entered in a log every fifteen minutes; with the speed of the ship; revolutions of the screw; weights on the brakes; maximum and minimum strain on the cable; distance gone every twelve hours, by Massey’s log, &c.
So much for the engineering department. The electrical cabin is on the starboard side of the main-deck, forward. The arrangements here have been altered several times, in order to avoid the water which showered down from the upper deck. Even as things now are, one of those on duty frequently requires to wear a water-proof to shed the drops dawn his back. At one end of the little place the batteries are ranged on shelves, and nailed in their places. At the other stands a table with an old tarpaulin overhead. On this table the various instruments are arranged in electric series. Under it is Professor Thomson’s standard testing battery. On one side stand the “Detectors” of the old system, a species of galvanometer, so called from being chiefly used in the detection of faults in telegraph wires. Next is Mr. Whitehouse’s beautiful “Magnetometer,” which measures by dynamic effect on a magnet the strength of the current entering and leaving the cable. Thus, somewhat as one could form some notion of the degree of soundness of a tube by comparing the amount of water poured in before it is filled with what ought to fill it, and with what is taken out, so the cable can be tested with considerable accuracy by this instrument.*
*In trying to make electric phenomena plain, one is very apt, indeed almost certain, not to speak with scientific accuracy. In such passages the scientific reader will at once recognise the object, and excuse any slight laxity of expression, if haply there is accuracy in the main.
These are under the eye of one of the clerks on duty. On the opposite side of the table is Professor Thomson’s Marine Galvanometer, so called because, while sufficiently delicate, no amount of pitching or rolling can affect its indications. It is closed up in a plain deal box, which is placed on a frame, equally primitive, attached to springs. Yet this little “Jack-in-the-Box,” as we often call it, does the work of every instrument on the table, in its own peculiar way, and a deal more accurately. Two little magnets about so large (===), and placed in this position, are affixed to the back of a circular mirror, small enough for the toilette of Queen Mab. The whole is attached to a very fine platinum wire, which is stretched, so that the mirror appears exactly in the centre of the coil through which the current circulates.*
*The Marine Galvanometer has been greatly improved since this period. It is now a perfect and indeed unique instrument for use in submerging cables. Messrs. White & Barr have just finished one for the Red Sea Cable.
Opposite, a paraffine lamp is placed so as to shine through the lens directly on the mirror, which reflects the light back through the lens on a graduated scale, stretched a little below the lamp. When the current causes the magnets to move, of course the mirror moves, and the reflected light takes a different position on the scale. The amount of the change is called the measure of the deflection. There is something very beautiful about the substitution for a comparatively coarse material index of the immaterial bar of light. The idea is originally German; but it has never in that country assumed a very practical shape. Poggendorff seems first to have used a mirror; but he fixed it to a bar-magnet. Helmholtz made the steel itself the reflecting surface, and took his observations with a telescope! Du Bois Reymond, in his delicate researches in animal electricity, employed a more perfect reflecting system; but still very clumsy, with a great deal of unnecessary mechanism. Professor Thomson, seconded by the mechanical skill of Messrs. White & Barr, of this city [Glasgow], first applied the idea to telegraphic purposes, and has produced a class of instruments which are beautifully simple, and delicate in action, capable of being adapted to almost any strength of current—a characteristic which would alone give them a superiority to all known galvanometers.
We are to send and receive signals during alternate ten minutes. The current is sent through Dr. Thomson’s galvanometer to the lower end of the orlop coil, which will be that we shall bring ashore—through all the cable on board, over the stern, under the sea, to the Niagara, where it traverses all her cable before reaching instruments exactly similar. The most valuable observation is taken, in sending, on the Marine Galvanometer. Three seconds before it is taken, the clerk on the opposite side of the table, who times all the observations by a watch, regulated by a chronometer too valuable to bring into a place so wet, says “Look out.” The other clerk at once fixes his eye on the spot of light, and immediately the word is given, “Now,” records the indication. When the clerk said “Look out,” he had finished charging the cable and commenced the discharge, which is technically called “putting the cable to earth.” The observation made at the word “Now,” is called “taking the discharge,” and gives a test on much the same principle as Whitehouse’s Magnetometer, only much more delicate, without any of the chances of error which accrue to the mechanical and electrical arrangements of that instrument. A very useful agreement has been made with the Niagara since last expedition, according to which each vessel is to signal the amount of cable paid out by tens of miles. This is to be done not by words, but by an arbitrary variation of the time and nature of our currents. Besides, there are certain “Extraordinary Signals,” five in number, for which the clerks are instructed to look out. They indicate severally (1) “That the Niagara is going to cut and buoy,” i.e., cut the cable and tie the end to a huge iron buoy—a forlorn hope in case of storm during the operation; (2) “That she is going to give a stoppage of signals of not more than two hours duration,” i.e., after paying-out one coil, in shifting to the next; (3) “That our signals are weak;” (4) “That we are to expect weak signals from them;” (5) “That she is in 200 fathoms water.” Thus every contingency is provided for.
LAYING THE CABLE.*
*The subsequent part of these papers will be more of a compilation than extracts, as the previous part has been.
During our voyage out to mid-ocean, we had weather as remarkable for its fineness as during the last trip it was for its coarseness. Peaceful skies, dappled and chequered with snow-white clouds; revealings of quiet depths of blue; sun-light, not traceable to one burning centre but permeating the whole atmosphere with a drowsy radiance; seas sparkling as if powdered with stars, the glassy surface broken by shoals of porpoises, gamboling and splashing round our bows and far out to the horizon. Lazily jogged the ship; idly flapped the sails; anxiously would our good Captain scan the sky until, seeing no chance of a breeze, he gave the word to let down the screw; and the startled Agamemnon resounded with the bo’son’s pipes and the stentorian voice of the First-Lieutenant—“Hands, shorten sail;” and again, “Boys and idlers, up screw-gear.” Then came the evening, and the sun would go down behind a fog-bank, which looked like a range of mountains, some snow-peaked, others tipped with fire, others gaunt and bare. At another part of the horizon rose low snow-sprinkled land, with a crimson sea breaking on its shores.
On the 29th July we reached the rendezvous (lat. 52 deg. 8 min. N., long. 32 deg. 27 min. W.) The morning was still, somewhat sad; the sky of a sombre leaden hue; and the sea so smooth that the dark hulls of the squadron as they converged upon the Niagara stood out vividly prominent in the unbroken reflected light. About 3 P.M. (Greenwich time), the splice was safely closed up in its box and lowered, with the halves of a halfpenny nailed for luck in the eyes of the bights by one of the workmen. The Valorous and Gorgon took up their positions, and we sailed apart, all wishing, but scarcely expecting, success. There was one fact, however, the knowledge of which made every one more sanguine. This was that the weights put upon the brake were to be very much diminished—a measure which would have ensured our success in former attempts, had it been sooner adopted; and our failure in this had it been rejected. Mr. Field and Professor Thomson proposed and carried this rational procedure against considerable opposition. The great centre of interest was now the electrical room; where the seemingly meaningless motions of the indicators from side to side, were to the initiate eye instinct with intelligence. Anxiously were those tell-tale signals watched; and even the most phlegmatic held his breath for a time, when their story was of ominous import. We were regarded by the engineers about the paying-out machine as birds of evil omen. So often had we been bearers of doleful tidings, that if one of our number rushed up on deck, or approached with a hurried step, they looked as a Roman husbandman might have done at a crow perched on a blasted tree. We bad been paying out but a few hours when these little galvanometers began their old tale of mishap. We had signalled to the Niagara that we had payed out forty miles, and she was just beginning her acknowledgment on receipt of the signal, when suddenly, at 10 P.M., the current from her ceased. According to orders, those on duty sent immediately for Dr. Thomson, who found from his galvanometer that the insulation of the conductor was still perfect, but that it was broken. Mr. Bright (now Sir Charles,) noticed the Professor hurrying to the electrical room and followed close on his heels. He supposed the fault might be in a suspected portion down in the main coil, and which would in a few minutes pass out. The cable was tested on both sides of this place, but it was all right there. The fault was not on board, but between the ships. There did not seem to be any room to hope; bat still it was determined to keep the cable slowly going out that all opportunity might be given for a resuscitation. The scene in and about the electrical room was one that once seen would never be forgotten. At their instruments were the two clerks on duty, watching with the common anxiety depicted on their faces for a propitious signal. Dr. Thomson, seemingly almost overpowered by the thought of disaster, kept testing, and waited with half-despairing look for the result. Mr. Bright stood biting his nails, as if bewildered. Mr. Canning was grave, but cool and self-possessed. The Captain anxiously watched the testing. Behind, in the darker part of the little room, stood various officers of the ship. Round the door crowded the sailors of the watch, peeping over each other’s shoulders at the mysteries within; and shouting out “Gangway,” when any one of importance wished to enter. The eyes of all were directed to the instruments, watching for the slightest quiver which should indicate life. Such a scene was never witnessed, save by the bedside of the dying. Thus things continued for a dreary hour and half. Mr. Bright and the others left the room, convinced that they were doomed to disappointment. The clerks still kept up the regular currents. All at once an indication appeared on the galvanometer, which seemed to intimate a complete breakage in the water. Each looked at the other in silence. Suddenly one sung out—“Holloa! the spot has gone up to 40 deg.” The clerk at the ordinary instrument bolted right out of the room, scarcely knowing whither he went for joy; ran to the poop where a melancholy conclave was assembled, and called out—“Mr. Thomson! the cable’s all right! We got a signal from the Niagara." He came down, tested, and got a bad result; but a minute after came a current undoubtedly from the Niagara. Our joy was so deep and earnest that it did not suffer us to speak for some seconds; but when the first stun of surprise and pleasure passed, each expressed his feelings in some way more or less energetic. The strain upon the system proved in one case so great as to produce faintness when the excitement had ceased. That hour and half was probably the shortest any of us had ever spent. The electrical features of this suspension of signals are rather puzzling. It would seem that a weak place in the copper conductor hall given way under the great strain to which it would be subjected between the ship’s stern and the bottom of the sea. The gutta percha, from its elasticity, and the wire sheathing, from its spiral twist, yielded, but did not part; so that the conductor was broken inside and the current stopped, but not allowed to get into the water, which it does in a thorough rupture. The result was that the cable contained less electricity than it did when its whole extent was accessible; and we received back again more than usual. If the wire had been broken, then, of course, the cable would have taken in any amount at our end, seeing that it was getting freely into the Atlantic at the other; and we would have received from the same cause nothing, or nearly nothing, back. It is by such reasoning that electricians can arrive, under ordinary circumstances, at certainty as to the state of cables. The anomalies in the present instance—as, for example, when we thought the cable broken—are probably to be attributed to the influence of currents, of the same electricity as our testing current, sent in from the Niagara. How the separated ends of the conductor came together and re-established continuity is easily explained. This would take place as soon as the injured part came to rest at the bottom, where a slight contraction of the entire cable follows upon the release from strain. On this supposition, therefore, we have in the duration of the fault a record of the time taken by it to pass from the stern through the profound depth of the Atlantic; and, remembering that we slowed down immediately on discovering the injury, an hour and a half is not too long.
Rid of one source of anxiety, we soon got another. The dawn of the 30th was propitious, and nothing could exceed the beauty of the spreading light sparkling over the ripples of the clear water; but towards the afternoon a nasty east wind got up dead in our teeth; the sky became dark and foreboding, and the glass began to fall. As the gloom spread round the horizon, it seemed to gather over the spirits of all on board. In the evening we struck our topgallantmasts, that our resistance to the wind might be less. During the night it became very squally and wild, and a drizzling, greasy fog set in. Next morning it blew so hard that, with all four boilers in action and steaming full speed, we made only about four knots. With every pitch of the vessel, as the stern rose, the cable went out with a run, making the heavy drums whirl round; but when the stern sunk into the trough, the strain, of course, fell off, and the drums stood still. To have left the cable to start them would undoubtedly have broken it, so relays of marines and blue jackets were kept standing by, who never allowed the drums entirely to cease revolving. Nobly these fellows wrought; and with right good will, though their task was laborious. Perhaps there never was an undertaking which embraced so many classes of people, each with peculiar tastes, yet striving as one for the attainment of their object. It is impossible for one not actually present to realise the heart-interest manifested by everybody down to the youngest “sea-boy.” No one seemed to breathe freely. Few but the crew even slept soundly. Professor Thomson scarcely ever put off his clothes. During the gale, and especially in the dead of night, there was something peculiarly striking in all the circumstances of a watch in the electrical cabin. Alone, our tell-tale instruments before us, anxiously noting their minutest indication; the needles quivering with every thump of the sea on the Agamemnon’s bow; and the Marine Galvanometer jolting backwards and forwards on its springs with the panting of the screw. Drearily whistled the gale through the gutta percha speaking-tube which led from the poop to the room; and monotonous was the hum of the paying-out drums—now rising, now falling, and leaving us “all ear” for its recurrence, lest it should have ceased entirely. Many an anxious look was taken over the stern of the Agamemnon at the slender-looking wire, buffeted about by the waves, lifted up and let fall flop against the water. Under the influence of the gale, the ship drifted so much to port as to give the cable a lateral angle of from 8 deg. to 13 deg. Notwithstanding, our hopes of success were much higher with the cable running out in a gale, with no strain indicated, than in a calm, tense and stiff as a bar of iron, under a strain of 25 cwt.
On the evening of the 31st we passed over the deepest part of our course, where the soundings are 2,400 fathoms, or more than two miles; so that there must have been at least a length of four miles of cable floating in our wake from the stern down through those tremendous depths to the ocean-bed. Such thoughts as these give one an inkling of the grandeur of the enterprise. We had now ran 211 miles, and payed-out 280 miles of cable. The glass fell still lower, and the sea rose still higher. On the 1st August, the sky was clear enough to allow the Master to take the sun, and the Valorous signalled to us—“Cheer up The weather is going to moderate.” But we were destined never to be entirely free from anxiety. In the afternoon some very ominous indications were observed on our instruments. These continued during the night, and throughout the next day we were all in a perfect fever of solicitude, wavering between hope and fear. There were decided indications of serious leakage. Once signals failed altogether; and, in fact, these harassing variations were but a foretaste of the sad experience of Valencia. The only instrument that kept us from despair was Dr. Thomson’s. Watching the slight quivering indication of the current, now almost exhausted by the drain upon its strength in passing the cable, he could be compared only to one holding a mirror to the lips of a relative to see whether so much of breath remains as to dim its surface. At noon we were 380 miles from Valencia, and we had payed-out 605 miles. In the afternoon we were all startled by the firing of a gun. Probably a cannon never had such an effect upon so many people without being pointed at them. It sounded like the death-knell of our hopes, for it was the pre-arranged intimation to the Valorous of a broken cable. Everybody rushed pell-mell on deck. We had narrowly missed a collision with a luckless, little, anomalous-looking American schooner. The Valorous stood round and steamed down upon her full speed, blazing away with blank cartridge. But, as we were on a tack which, according to the laws of navigation, made it proper for us to yield, and as the Yankee did not see any particular reason for all this fuss, he jostled us off our course, to the great danger of our precious train. But the crew made all possible amends, as soon as they saw the cable at our stern, by dipping their ensign some half dozen times and cheering most lustily. We had a similar occurrence next day.
The 3d brought us abatement of the storm; and restoration of good signals. In the afternoon the water began to shoal, as was apparent from the decrease in the speed of paying-out. Although the ship’s speed and the friction of the brake had not been altered, the number of revolutions of the drums per minute fell gradually from 48 to 35. About ten P.M., Dr Thomson came into the electrical room, evidently in that state of quiet soul-absorbing satisfaction and enjoyment which constitutes the “pleasure after pain.” He did not speak for a little, but employed himself stretching pieces of gutta percha over the hot globe of our lamp, watching it with an absent eye as it curled and shrunk. At last he said—“At half-past eleven you may send the 200 fathoms soundings signal.” It was impossible to restrain an incredulous look. Yet it was true that, at last, success was within our grasp. Shortly after, we received the same signal from our Niagara friends. The great source of anxiety now was the shift from the main to the upper coil. This was done, without accident, early on the morning of the 4th. There was, however, all but a disaster from the jamming of a small wheel in the hinder part of the brake. By the vigilance of the Captain in backing the ship it was averted. In the afternoon, the Niagara ceased sending for an hour to make a splice. It seemed now as if the elements participated in the general satisfaction—the calm benign sunshine making one feel listlessly happy and inclined to bask under its influence. Our progress became quite triumphal. All our ports were raised. The Valorous sailed so close that she seemed— seen through the open port—like a framed picture of a ship on a sunny sea. To be on watch in the electrical room was pleasureable. The fiddlers played with more than ordinary beauty of execution. The fineness of the evening, the majestic smoothness of the Agamemnon’s march, the sweetness of the music, and, above all, the idea of triumph over difficulty—always so dear to human nature—produced a perfect ecstasy of feeling. Our thoughts were no longer of storm and defeat; but the Agamemnon dwindled into a gondola, the fiddles became guitars, and the twilight sea moonlit Venetian waters; or again,
“The barge we sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick; with them the oars were silver;
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water, which they beat, to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.”
Betwixt nine and ten, the last difficulty—the shift from the upper to the orlop coil—was successfully passed amid the jubilant plaudits of all present. The Valorous steamed ahead to look out for land, and we went slowly, that we might not make it before daylight. About four on the morning of the 5th, we were off the wild entrance to Valencia Bay. From the electrical room, where duty had become almost a farce, thanks to the sight of land, and the electric influence of success, we could see the Blasquets—rocky islets off the mouth of Dingle Bay, whose barren sides looked grey and grizzly as a witch’s locks. The light of morning was just sweeping aside the early mist which hung like a muslin symar about the mountains, disclosing knolls and hollows clothed in richest green. By and by, the wreaths, which still lingered here and there, flushed into a glow of purple, until these mountain sides looked like the ramparts of another Eden. Meanwhile the Valorous had disappeared in a bend of the bay; but we could hear her guns rattling to rouse up the inhabitants to a knowledge of the greatest fact of the age. A woman on the hills was, I understand, the first to see us. We proceeded slowly inside Dowlas Head, which, as seen from the sea, resembles remarkably in outline that old Christmas dish—the head of a “tusked boar.” About five, we dropped anchor within the Bay, between Lamb Island and the precipitous cliffs of the mainland. The dark, gloomy glen of Cahirciveen lay before us, with the river meandering in the middle; and, a long way to the right, the masts of the vessels at the quay marked the position of Knightstown. All was confusion amongst us—distracted between keeping a look-out for a resumption of signals by the Niagara; taking peeps at the queer, wild-looking place in which we found ourselves; packing up personal effects and preparing for a transference of electric operations ashore. The two paddle-box boats of the Valorous were used, one to take the cable to land, the other to carry the luggage, &c. Coiling the cable into the boat was a work which was not completed until past noon. Meanwhile a heavy squall, bearing with it a fearful shower of rain, swept in upon us from the Atlantic. About one o’clock all were ready to bid good-bye to the worthy ship. The arrangement was, that the cable-boat should convey also the engineers, and be towed ashore by one of the Valorous’s gigs, in which were the electricians, with a portable battery and their instruments. The marines were all mustered on the poop in full accoutrements. The Captain and officers were on the quarter-deck to take farewell of us. The vessel, now disburthened, had risen so much, and the heavy swell dashed about the boat at such a rate, that it was a matter of some difficulty getting in safely the electric valuables and ourselves. At last we shoved off. The marines fired a feu-de-joie, the sailors, ran up the mizen-rigging and cheered, while we responded lustily. When we had dropped astern, and fairly taken the cable boat in tow, the First-Lieutenant stood up beside the spanker-boom, took off his cap, and led the assembled officers in giving such a three-times-three as only a British sailor can give. We answered, if not as loudly, at least as warmly. How noble was the good Agamemnon, rising and falling like “a castle on the brine!” A memorable vessel will she be while one plank adheres to another. After a terrible tossing about on the swell, we got opposite the Valorous. She was dressed from stem to stern. All hands were on deck—many in the rigging. We received and returned the same hearty cheers. In 1857, the end was landed at an exposed uninhabited part of the mainland coast, called the White Strand, where the corrugated iron house which formed the office is still standing. This year we took it to Knightstown, on the island of Valencia. Just as we were nearing the shore, we saw a beautiful screw gun-boat, bearing H.M. flag, stealing round full speed by a nearer way. The Knight of Kerry, who owns the island, was on board. When we got close in-shore, we threw off the cable-boat. She managed to land her precious freight before our prow grated the strand. The Valorous, in the distance, fired her guns; the end was seized by the jolly tars, between whom and the gentlemen of the island a good-humoured scuffle ensued for the honour of pulling the cable ashore. The Knight was upset in the water. As soon as it got fairly on terra firma, a bevy of ladies gave it a make-believe haul, just so much as to tar their gloves and white hands, and give occasion for a nice business-like little fuss in getting butter or other oleaginous matter to remove the stain! Meanwhile, Dr. Thomson, his assistants, and a clerk, jumped out of the boat and waded ashore, but in time only to tar their hands ineffectually like the ladies. The end was at once trailed up to the Slate-works, where the Company’s offices are temporarily placed. About five minutes to four, Dr. Thomson sent the first current from shore to shore. At four, we, in Ireland, received the first current from America.
Thus was the grandest undertaking of the century crowned with success; and though unfortunately the high hopes of those who landed triumphant at Valencia and Bull’s Arm Bay, on that August afternoon, have been blasted, no future expedition nor no future cable can possess the same interest; inasmuch, as there is now no doubt, no great question to solve, but merely the repetition of what has been already done. It might be supposed that those who have seen every stage of the enterprise must have become too familiar with the idea of electric communication between the two worlds to wonder at its accomplishment. Not so. They had seen too many failures; encountered too many difficulties; and, above all, watched the attenuated thread pass over the stern and disappear in the billowy waters, buffeted about like a plaything by their rude strength. When the first flush of excitement had subsided, and we began to think, the whole affair seemed like a curious and unlikely dream. We were surprised to find ourselves successful.
From the commencement of operations the cable ran out from the Agamemnon at the average rate of from six to seven miles per hour. The Niagara, from her signals, seemed to pay out rather quicker. The indicated strain varied on an average from 1000 lbs. to 2000 lbs. There was great coincidence between the two vessels in the entire amount payed out; and the time of the landing of the two ends agreed to a few hours. We received the Niagara’s 1010 miles’ signal a short time before casting anchor in Valencia Bay; and when we reached shore we had payed out 1012 miles and run 815.*
*All these distances are given in nautical miles.
This gives a very small per centage of loss in slack. On getting into shallow water, with all the weights off the brake and the ship at full speed, the cable went out almost mile for mile of distance run. This is one of the greatest lessons which experience has taught our submarine telegraphic engineers—to have, compared with the strength and weight of the cable, a small amount of resistance on the brakes, and keep the vessel at speed or nearly so, and the cable cannot snap under ordinary circumstances. Above all things, the vessel ought never to be stopped or even slowed down to any great degree; for then the surface exposed to fluid resistance is diminished. As the cable approaches the perpendicular, the weight, of some miles perhaps, comes upon a point at the stern, and immediate rupture is the result. Had these lessons been learned sooner, the many hundreds of miles lost, mainly through loading the brakes with weights, would have afforded margin for an enormous per centage of slack over the whole length, with no chance of failure. But it is only by trial that any important discovery is made. When the next expedition sails, the first attempt will be successful; and after that, laying cables will become quite a common and ordinary undertaking.
“This is a great day for Valencia,” said an old fisherman to me, shortly after landing; certainly it was, and for a larger section of the world than Valencia. While the event was being talked of on ’Change, the simple-minded inhabitants had taken their own steps for its humble celebration. In the evening, two huge bonfires of peat were lit, one on the island, another on the mainland. The night brought a calm, intensely blue sky, and stars like brilliants set in the crystalline sphere, so lustrous, as for the first time to justify to my mind Tennyson’s phrase, “burnished stars.” The coast-guardsmen fired repeated feux-de-joie. The inevitable fiddle struck up those quaint, wild tunes to which the light-hearted Irish have recourse in their joy. A ring was soon formed round the musician. Dancing commenced, and featly did they trip it; the girls with their shawls or mantles so arranged as to show only the dark Spanish eye of Valencia; the men clad in their best go-to-mass toggery. The master of ceremonies was a brawny young fellow, answering to the unmistakeable name of “Tate,” bearing a huge stick. He paid the utmost deference to the “engineers,” as they called us, opening up a way for us with his cudgel to the inside of the ring. Indeed, a delightful spirit of true native politeness ruled all the actions of these primitive people. Partners met and separated with graceful salutations. There was nothing boisterous or obstreperous in their behaviour. The only novelty, and it was an agreeable one, was, that the young women seemed to have the privilege of choosing their own partners, if they had a mind. Who knows what a deal of romance there might be in this little knot of dancers—very insignificant to those who pride themselves on knowing the world; but all-important to the individual, and engrossing as the intrigues which constitute a royal courtship. What a flutter there would be beneath the blue vests, while the eye of the village belle yet wandered in indecision; and no wonder if Mike blushed and was awkward when the choice fell upon him. The capacity of the delightful little hotel—the Post-Office, the grocery, the everything of the island—was sorely tried by the sudden influx of electricians. The kitchen was in a paroxysm of cookery; and handsome Nelly, the waitress, found her office anything but a sinecure. In an outhouse a number of the islanders were enjoying their “whishky,” and singing songs in Erse and English, but in the usual lugubrious strain. Indeed, from the specimens I have heard in various parts of Ireland, the native song-tunes resemble more the howls of a wake than the sprightly lyric notes which associate themselves in our minds with Old Erin. Nothing could be more excruciating than the sounds which one hears on a fair or market-day proceeding from the inns and public-houses. You look with the expectation of seeing a corpse on the table rather than a bottle of whisky. Certainly our Scotch peasantry never indulge in such threnodies.
August 6th.—With the morning came the labour of getting a telegraph station on so extensive a scale put in working order. There were boxes to unpack, batteries to set up, galvanometers to get in trim; but in one corner of the room was a needle, swinging slowly and at measured intervals from side to side, at the will of an agent in Newfoundland—sight sufficient to inspire with energy any but a soulless man. We occupied a spare part of the premises of the Valencia slate works, where the slate, brought in large blocks from the higher part of the island, is cut into slabs. For this purpose, suites of saws, driven by steam, are used. There was also a rotating disc, with chisels attached; and various other appliances for reducing the stone to the desired proportions. Nothing could be more diabolical than the acoustic effects when all the machinery was in motion. Howling, shrieking, rasping, crunching; only a full orchestra of Corybantes could have produced harsher discord. The building was partitioned off into various apartments, including bedrooms, which remarkably resembled horse stalls; and were untenable, owing to the noxious fumes of nitric oxide from Whitehouse’s batteries. While they were in action it was impossible to pass them and get into the office without coughing violently. At the inner end of the building was the office. The window overlooked the sea, and commanded a view right up the glen of Cahirciveen, the most conspicuous object being Knockmadubber, with its huge shoulders and precipitous sides. On a bench, covered with green baize, in front of this window, were placed the various instruments for receiving and sending. To the right were Whitehouse’s huge induction coils and finely-contrived sending machine, by which the currents there generated were thrown into the line. Such was the appearance of the electric room when we entered it; but in a short time two mysterious-looking boxes were partitioned off at each end with green baize. Within each stood one of Thomson’s land reflection galvanometers, which require to be in comparative darkness before the indicating spot of light can be seen. Very shortly we shall find that the whole work of the station was performed in these boxes.
From the time of landing to the 10th August, we continued to receive from Newfoundland merely the signals used during submersion. They seemed to come direct from a battery. The Whitehouse coils produce their maximum effect almost at once, causing the needle to give a decided jerk; while a battery, applied immediately, attains its maximum with comparative slowness, and makes it walk deliberately from one side to the other. The sort of current is thus easily distinguished. About 11.30 P.M., on the 9th, the needle began to quicken its pace, showing that coil-currents, at the rate of about forty per minute, were being sent from Newfoundland. At midnight, V’s and B’s were received with great distinctness. These letters are usually sent when two stations are trying to get into tune, being represented, in telegraph language, by such symbols as afford the best
opportunity for adjusting instruments. This was the “creeping before the ganging,” as we Scotchmen say, and anxious look-out was kept for the arrival of words. When on my way down to the office next morning, an old Irish woman, whom I met, broke out with the exclamation—“Happy news, Sur! There’s a message from Newfoundland.” And so it was. At 1.45 A.M. the words, “Repeat, please,” were made out; and, at 2.26, “Please send slower for the
present.” The clerk on duty was a native of the Green Isle; and, with all the impulsiveness of a genuine Irishman, when he caught sight of the words, as they were printed off, he jumped out at the window, some dozen feet down, and ran to the hotel, shouting out‑“A message!” Dr. Thomson and Mr. and Mrs. Whitehouse came to the office in a few minutes. The effect upon them also seemed scarcely
less exhilarating. In fact, a little jollification ensued. But these words, “Repeat, please,” were words of evil omen, destined to pass more frequently through the wire than any other. Although, at the time of landing, the cable tested very well, it seems never thoroughly to have recovered after the appearance of leakage on August 2d, but gradually to have degenerated until, in September, communication was entirely stopped. A very short time after landing, unpleasant rumours got abroad of the existence of a serious fault, Mr. Whitehouse thought, close in-shore; and hints were made at the necessity of underrunning the cable in search of it. Before words began to come, the signals became capriciously variable in strength, but, on the whole, weaker. Now, when we know that the Newfoundland staff never ceased working—sending letters, words, short messages—it is evident that the state of the cable must even then have been bad—much worse than was imagined. The jumbling effects of earth-currents—those vagrant telegraphic pests—were already apparent. Soon these disturbances rendered the ordinary mode of receiving messages by relay and chemical printing quite useless. The office of a relay* is simply that expressed by the analogy implied in the name‑ to afford an accession of strength to a current spent and unable to produce a desired effect.
*Relay was an Anglo-Norman term used in the art of “Venerye” (hunting) for fresh sets of dogs held ready to let slip in a long course. Chaucer employs it in this sense. It afterwards came to have a metaphorical meaning. Young speaks of “relays of joy.”
The desired effect is to stain or print the message on paper. This is easily attained by taking advantage of electrolysis, or the power of electricity to resolve compounds into their elements. But there is a certain calculable amount of electricity which is the minimum that will so decompose, varying with different substances. Accordingly, a current may not have strength sufficient to produce a legible stain; but it can generally deflect a magnet appreciably. This motion is accordingly employed to set in action a fresh battery, strong enough to decompose and print. Now it is that the defect of our ordinary relay for submarine telegraphy may be made apparent. The magnet sets the battery in action by “completing the circuit;” and this takes place when it is deflected against its metallic stops. While a current is passing, the deflection is maintained; and a weak current does this as effectually as a strong one. Hence, if there is electricity at all in the line, the magnet will lie over in obedience to it. No current sent in from the opposite side which does not neutralise this permanent charge, and leave a residue sufficient to produce a reversal, can be indicated by any motion on the part of the magnet; and, as the printing battery is thus kept constantly in action, a continuous line will come off, instead of one interrupted into “dots and dashes.” Unless, therefore, the line is clear, there is always a liability to failure in the use of the relay. There are two phenomena which render the chances very much against the line ever being clear. Induction retards the current, so that its entire passage is a work of time; and, if current after current is pushed into the line the one will tread close upon the heels of the other, and they will issue at the remote end, confused and disordered. In fact, there will be a constant outflow, varying merely in strength, keeping the relay permanently over. Having a clear line—and, therefore, the use of the common relay—is incompatible with speed. But working slowly does not necessarily ensure the nice action of this instrument, especially if there be any flaw in the cable. Earth-currents will arise, and the battery-current must overpower them to produce a signal. It was thus that the difficulty mainly originated at Valencia; and fortunate it was that instruments so well suited to meet the emergency were available. Perhaps enough has been said in a former paper concerning the mechanism of these instruments. A word about the reason of their peculiar adaptation for submarine telegraphy may here be introduced with propriety. In the construction of the common needle instrument, it is assumed that all signals will be indicated as divergence of the index from a fixed zero to either side; and a certain range of motion is given on this supposition. But if, through the interference of any of the phenomena explained above, there be a strong permanent current, then the needle, being against its stops, cannot vary. Practically, the zero is changed to a point outside the stops. We want a galvanometer whose index is free to move, so that whatever may be the zero, and though it change every instant, it may be referred to and the message read off. This is the most practical characteristic of Thomson’s instruments; and it was by watching such motions that so much excellent work was got out of a sadly imperfect cable.
About mid-day on the 10th we received these sentences—“How do you receive? Please say if you can read this. Please send something.” But it was no use sending something, for nothing was ever received on the other side. This was partly because the new galvanometer was not there employed—partly because the leakage was much nearer this than the other end. Our currents, consequently, fresh and intense from the coil, sought out and forced through the fault; whilst theirs, being weaker, passed it and came to our instruments. To speak more scientifically, the resistance between the fault and Newfoundland was greater, that between the fault and Ireland less, than the resistance at the fault itself to a passage right into the sea. To obviate this difficulty as much as possible, Mr. Whitehouse abandoned his coils, and adopted Professor Thomson’s saw-dust battery; the special benefit of the change being, that the current thus generated was less intense and of greater quantity—less likely to find the fault, and better able to sustain diminution. Besides, orders were repeatedly sent to Trinity Bay, “Use Thomson’s galvanometer;” but they all lost themselves in the sea. On the afternoon of the 12th, we received our first message in regular form. As such we give it:—
“Laws to Whitehouse. Received five minutes’ signal. Coil currents too weak to work relay. Try drive slow and regular. I have put in intermediate pulley. Reply by coil.”
The Newfoundland staff continued such instructions most pertinaciously, never seeming to imagine any defect could exist in the line. Next day, the quantity of our battery was increased still more, but with little effect. In the morning, we were asked to—“Send word Atlantic.” This was done, and the reply was—“All right. Thomson’s galvanometer. Send so other words.” This word, Atlantic, was the first deciphered on the other side, and that by Thomson’s instrument, at that moment put in circuit by way of experiment. Unfortunately it was not kept in circuit. After this we did not get a single word through for many hours. It was like a conversation with a deaf man. “Send V’s,” says Jonathan. The V’s are sent. “Why don’t you send V’s?” is the reply. “Use Thomson’s galvanometer,” enjoins John Bull. “See to your key,” bawls Jonathan; “I think your blank key does not short circuit.” “Use Thomson’s galvanometer.” “Will you examine your key well,” comes under the water like a cry of despair. On the 14th, we were informed that they on the other side had also at last discarded the relay. One of the old-fashioned galvanometers was used instead—a beneficial change, but not so much so as might have been. A better understanding was, in consequence, established between the stations. Next day a message for our Secretary, two hours long, was received, stating the impatience of the New York and Newfoundland Telegraph Company for the opening of the line. On the morning of the 16th communication was reciprocal, and messages were interchanged with so much ease, that Mr. Whitehouse felt warranted to send the first official message. “The Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in Great Britain to the Directors in America. Europe and America are united by Telegraph. Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men.” Appropriate words. Next to the Gospel, electricity will prove the greatest pacificator of the age. A man who has no feeling in his members may cut and mangle them without being immediately inconvenienced. When intercommunication is tedious, and fellow feeling dead, the members of the great trunk of humanity may hack and hew each other without at once or seriously disturbing the distant and general body. But quicken the nerves of the man, and he will shrink from a pin’s point. Spread under sea and over land the electric network, and the barbarity of a bayonet-stab will send a thrill throughout the great system. Commerce will sicken, and civilisation pale so suddenly, that the very name of war will convulse all Christendom. To prevent any chance of mistake, instructions were appended to the message, “Repeat back faster.” Great was the suspense of awaiting an answer, and the anxiety lest it should be the ill-omened, “Please repeat.” The recording instrument was set in motion. Mr. Whitehouse paced up and down, looking sideways at the strip of paper on which the answer, good or bad, would be printed, but which still came off stainless and meaningless. At last the observer at the galvanometer shouted, “There they go,” and the style began to imprint its magic characters. We watched while they formed letters, and the letters words, guessing at what was coming. First came dots and at quicker speed, from which we inferred that the instructions at any rate they had read. Then came preliminary V’s, the intent of which I have explained. Soon appeared one “Understand;” and, then, to make assurance doubly sure, another; next, “The Directors,” &c. We all clapped our hands and hurrahed. The huge envelope, containing the Queen’s Message, was now opened. Outside were these instructions:—
“When the connexion between Ireland and Newfoundland, by Electric Telegraph, is established, this letter is to be opened, and the message contained in it is to be forwarded immediately to Washington. Foreign Office July 1st, 1858.”
The message itself was couched in these easy and kindly terms:—
“The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest. The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the Electric Cable which now connects Great Britain with the United States will prove an additional link between the two nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem. The Queen has much pleasure in thus directly communicating with the President, and in renewing to him her best wishes for the prosperity of the United States.”
It has been alleged, in a taunting manner, that sixteen hours were spent in sending this message. Certainly, the hours between the time of its commencement and of its conclusion number sixteen; but that the interval was entirely occupied with sending, is untrue. Mr. Whitehouse had determined some time previously upon underrunning the cable—i.e., raising the end inshore, passing the cable from bow to stern, and running the boat under it, scrutinizing each portion. Mr. Canning (assistant engineer during the expedition) had been endeavouring at this, under Mr. Whitehouse’s instructions, since the 14th, but, mainly owing to rough weather, had made little progress. While the message was being sent, he went out to reconnoitre, but found it very stormy still. Instead of waiting the result of the attempt, the sending was, during all this time, interrupted, for no end but to create confusion on the other side, and cause the first paragraph of our Sovereign’s despatch to be sent to Mr. President as the whole. Indeed, the President’s reply is a reply to the first sentence merely of the Queen’s message, and was published as such in the New York papers. The Spartan brevity of the curtailed message rather chagrined Jonathan. The New York Herald represents readers as saying—“Oh, humbug everybody knew she felt a deep interest, and expected some manner of expressing it worthy of going down to posterity. I believe the whole darned thing is a hoax!” To guard against mistake, the message was repeated back, and that in sixty-seven minutes. Shortly after, we received a despatch from Mr. Field, informing the Directors of his movements, and ordering the shipment of the heavy shore-end for Newfoundland. About mid-day (17th), came a message, in which everybody must feel an interest. It was a very striking illustration of the utility of our Anglo-American telegraph. It also exemplifies well the style of telegrams—short, pithy, saturated with meaning. Nothing better could befall a prosy writer than to be compelled to telegraph his ideas and pay for every word he employed. “Mr. Cunard wishes telegraph M’Ivor. Europa—collision—Arabia. Put into St. John’s. No lives lost. Will you do it? Stay anxiety, non-arrival.” After some delay occasioned by the resolution which the Directors had passed, not to receive any commercial messages, the information was very properly imparted to Mr. M’Ivor. This was exactly what was wanted to convince the sceptical—the Lieutenant Higginsons—of the reality of our success. Even this gentleman could scarcely say that our prearrangements were so extensive and complete as to include the collision, at a certain spot, on a certain day, at a certain hour, of two mail steamers! In the afternoon, no interchange whatever could be effected. It was the deaf old man once more. During the night we received a succession of most piteous enquiries whether we would take the President’s reply; but we could not get them to understand that we would. It was most tantalising, seeing that, had they only sent, we could have read with the utmost ease. Mr. Whitehouse now pushed on the operation of underrunning. The day (18th) was sleepily, dreamily hot. The clerks were distributed on the islets of the bay and pierhead, so as to form a cordon between the boat outside Dowlas Head and the office. Communication was kept up by red flags moved in semaphore style, to indicate the Morse alphabet—a long elevation being a dash, a short, a dot. The cable was cut at a suspicious portion, tested from the office thither, and “45 deg. of earth found.” The meaning may be made apparent thus. Suppose a length of perfect cable submersed, with the exception of its ends. Being perfect, only so much electricity will enter as suffices to charge or fill the entire length. But now put a pin through the gutta percha, to the conductor, so as to admit a little moisture. Here is an outlet, a current is established, and an instrument put between the battery and the cable will show a great increase in the amount flowing in. This is “earth” in telegraphic parlance—escape of electricity by leakage. “Dead earth” is entire escape, and is diagnostic of a fatal injury to the line. The faulty portion was replaced by the surplus cable landed from the Agamemnon. No perceptible benefit resulted from the operation. Indeed, the contrary seemed to be the case, for now communication was difficult both ways, but previously we received well enough. This fact, and the circumstances of the testing, cast doubt upon its accuracy; for we can scarcely conceive of so much leakage being stopped without an immediate and palpable result. In cutting through a cable, wet with salt water, there is great danger of a film of moisture being carried between the conductor and the sheathing.
On the morning of the 19th, we got those on the other side to understand that we could receive the President’s reply. The introduction of certain hopes and prayers as new, in which the Queen had anticipated him, is accounted for by the awkward mistake already explained.
“To HER MAJESTY VICTORIA, QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN.
“The President cordially reciprocates the congratulations of her Majesty the Queen upon the success of this great international enterprise, accomplished by the science, skill, and indomitable energy of the two countries. It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful, to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle. May the Atlantic Telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument, destined by divine Providence, to diffuse religion, civilisation, liberty, and law throughout the world. In this view, will not all the nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration, that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communications shall be held sacred in passing to the place of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities.
To chronicle the decline and failure of the Atlantic cable, as of any undertaking in which one has taken an absorbing interest, is a tedious and unpleasing task. To the writer it is so, because the leaden dulness of the narrative clogs the energies; to the reader, because of the repulsiveness of failure. At this juncture, however, when an appeal on behalf of a fresh endeavour at telegraphic communication with America is before the public, it is desirable that they should know I can do. For this end, I am more minute and diffuse than will altogether consist with the comfort of general readers.
20th.—Matters looked rather more cheery. Jonathan was still a little deaf, but very loquacious, so that, in listening to what he had to say, we almost forgot his infirmity. Early in the morning we were favoured with the following:—
“The Directors of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company desire to express to the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company their joy and gratitude for facilities and privileges of coming into closer union and fellowship with their fellow-men throughout the world. May the success that has crowned our labours secure to the nations of the earth a perpetual bond. of peace and friendship.
“PETER COOPER, President.”
Some time after, official subjects of conversation seemed to be wanting, and the clerk at Bull’s Arm intimated, “No more here. Superintendent allows me to converse with you. I am H Who you? Is B there?” A short palaver ensued, and various directions were received from our expatriated countrymen as to letters, newspapers, &c. In the afternoon we were informed of the arrival of the Niagara at New York, and that the Yankees had christened the Newfoundland terminus “Cyrus Station,” in honour of Mr. Field! We also had a bit of private experience and opinion thereon from the unfortunate clerk on duty, “Mosquitoes keep biting. This is a funny place to be in. Very swampy.” To-day we received at one time at the rate of 2¾ words per minute—the quickest yet attained, though not the quickest attainable under favourable circumstances. At this rate only, however, it has been calculated that, making full allowance for delays, %c., the proceeds at the present tariff might be £400 per day.
The 21st ushered in a new regime. Dr. Thomson took charge of the station. He immediately transmitted an order to use one of his galvanometers on the other side, as had all along been the case on this. The result seemed to astonish the folks at Bull’s Arm. “Land galvanometer in circuit. Signals beautiful,” said they; and we could imagine them giving the “beautiful” an emphasis far above Dominie Sampson’s “Prodigious!” For the first time Jonathan was relieved of his deafness, and became indeed “unkimmon cute,” to use his own elegant phraseology. Previously it had been “Repeat, please;” now it was, “Send as fast as you can.” Late at night a message arrived from the Mayor of New York to the Mayor of London. It perhaps rises a little above the staple platitudes of these messages, congratulatory and complimentary:—
“I congratulate your Lordship on the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable, uniting the countries of Europe and America, the cities of London and New York, Great Britain and the United States. It is a triumph of science and energy over time and space, uniting more closely the bonds of peace and commercial prosperity, introducing an era in the world’s history pregnant with results beyond the conception of a finite mind. To God be the praise.
“DANIEL F. TIEMAN, Mayor.”
During the next two days, nothing interesting occurred, though the line was kept in pretty constant use. The Lord Mayor answered the above. Like a dry, “un-idea’d” correspondent, who fancies the bed way to answer is to repeat a letter, he “reciprocates” all his Yankee cousin has said, and, trusting that “the kind feelings” of the “two countries” may be “cemented;” remains, &c. The night of the 25th was the most note-worthy of the many nights spent in the Valencia slate-works. The cable was always decidedly fashionable—subverting nature, vivacious at hours devoted by sensible people to repose, somnolent when the industrious part of creation was at work. The doings of this night were a perfect triumph of science. For many hours, without interruption or mistake, messages and conversational sentences were interchanged. Mr. Gurney, M.P., then Chairman of the Company, had arrived in the afternoon; and bonfires, lit by the simple-minded islanders, were blazing in front of the hotel. The propitious aspect of affairs made every one feel buoyant and hopeful. The Chairman and Professor Thomson determined to get some news from America for the morning edition of the Times. The idea was delightful and impressively novel “And it will appear in the paper—news to-day!—news to-day from America!” said they. A message had been already received which was thought sufficiently interesting for this purpose. After ordering some of the requisites of a telegraph station, it proceeded to ask money to pay labourers:—“House in a wilderness. Road to make, and woods to cut down and clear. Great difficulty in sending letters from here.” Here I would refer to the garbled and corrupt form which these and subsequent messages published in the Times contrived to assume between Valencia and Printing House Square. The consequences were very prejudicial to the interests of the Company. People came to look upon the whole affair as a curious scientific foible, incapable of ever becoming a paying commercial concern. The blunders of the Atlantic Telegraph formed an important item in the “Varieties” column of provincial newspapers, ranked with antediluvian jokes, stories of huge gooseberries, and other monstrosities. These messages left us, as they arrived, perfect, without a single inaccuracy, or even a doubtful word. We now asked for some information about the Europa, and for general news. The answer was:—
“Persia taken Europa’s passengers and mails. Great rejoicing everywhere in United States at success of cable. Bonfires, fire-works, feux-de-joie, speeches, balls, &c. Mr. Eddy, the first and best telegrapher in the States, died to-day. Pray give me some news for New York. They are mad for news.”
In the excitement of the moment, it was proposed to telegraph to the principal capitals of Europe for news to satisfy our “mad” transatlantic friends. But to pull the bells of so large a portion of the sleeping world was too much like a telegraphic “lark,” so we contented ourselves with using that liberty with London only. Mr. Gurney, however, sent a private message to a friend in Corfu. What a night’s work, quietly and modestly done in the Valencia slate-work! This humble village, on a little island off a secluded part of the Irish coast, became a great electric heart, sending its quick pulsations to the uttermost parts of the earth. The success of the night was so decided that the opening of the line to the public was talked of as an event not to be longer delayed. But, alas for sanguine hopes! We had seen the best of the Atlantic cable. The light stole softly over the sea and long-withdrawn glen, as when the hand of a parent parts the curtains gently that the children’s eyes may not be dazzled. The bell of the work jangled out its warning, and we left the clerk desperately endeavouring to get a message through, but vainly. As the new day opened, so it continued and closed. After several “Repeats” and “Don’t understands,” we managed to pass some intelligence concerning mails and domestic affairs. The 26th was diversified by an occurrence of considerable scientific interest. No signals had come for many hours. The galvanometer light-spot stood permanently to one side, showing the existence of a very strong constant earth-current. It was quite evident that the track of the cable was the scene of some extraordinary electric disturbances; but the following gave rise to thoughts of wider compass as to their nature:‑
“We have had heavy storm with thunder. Cable put to earth. Hour and twenty-five minutes’ strong permanent deflections on galvanometer.”
There is a severe thunderstorm in Newfoundland, and coincident signs of violent disarrangement of electric equilibrium are observed at both ends of the cable, some 1700 miles apart. This suggests the enquiry how far disturbances of atmospheric and terrestrial electricity are conjoined. The 28th brought us a long message, which I give, that the public may see how much commercial value one telegram may possess. Besides, each item of information here given possesses its own worth to certain parts of the community, and must be added to the aggregate.
“To THE DIRECTORS.
“Sir William of Kars arrived at Halifax, Tuesday. Enthusiastically received. Immense procession. Welcome address. Feeling reply. Held levee. Large numbers presented. Niagara sailed for Liverpool, one this morning. Gorgon arrived at Halifax last night. Yellow fever, New Orleans. Sixty to seventy deaths per day. Also declared epidemic at Charlestown. Great preparations at New York and other places for celebration, to be held on 1st and 2d September. New Yorkers will make it greatest gala day ever known in this country. Herman sailed for Fraser’s River, 600 passengers. Prince Albert sailed, Saturday, for Galway, 250 passengers. Arabia and Ariel arrived at New York. Anglo-Saxon. at Quebec. Canada at Boston. Europa left St. Johns this evening. Splendid aurora at Bay Bull to-night, extending 85 deg. over horizon.”
The leakage was now getting rapidly worse. A mere driblet of the electricity poured in found its way out to our instruments—not a fiftieth part, instead of nine-tenths. The earth-currents, therefore, got the predominance. Electrolytic action at the fault took its share in the confusion. The signal-producing currents were swamped or buffeted about, so as to be quite undistinguishable. Their weakness was shown in nothing more than in the effect of receiving them through one of the old-fashioned galvanometers with long needles. The needle, in its swing, developed in its coil by induction a current so strong in proportion to the current already circulating there, as to produce tremulous vibrations in Thomson’s galvanometer. Another day passed, and brought nothing but those erratic currents, causing the spot of light to dash from side to side of the scale as if demoniac. On the 30th, Mr. Field telegraphed from New York:—
“Parties pressing upon us messages for Europe. When will the line be open for business? Early on the morning of September 1st, please send me message that I can read at the celebration that day and another on the 2d, I can read at dinner that evening.”
We did manage to send Mr. Field a message in time for the celebration, which he unrolled and read in the presence of the meeting, creating a perfect furor. We got nothing through for the dinner. In the afternoon came two paid Government messages for Canada, from the Horse Guards. Their transmission saved the country many thousand pounds. It is the policy of England, more than of any other nation, to promote quick modes of communication and transit. Had Rome possessed a telegraphic system radiating out to the frontiers of savage Germania and through her outlying provinces, her gigantic frame could scarcely so soon have fallen in pieces. The limbs of empire would have been knit into compactness. After many failures and long delay, the Government messages were passed. From this period scarcely any satisfactory work was done. Our sole occupation came to be, in the words of Professor Thomson, “the dull and heartless business of investigating the pathology of ‘faults’ in submerged conductors.” The spot of light moved, but it was to the uncertain impulse of earth-currents. Slowly it would walk up and slowly down the scale, rising and falling with the tides of magnetic influence. Sometimes, though this moment not a quiver was perceptible, the next, as if caught by a passing wave, it would dash out of range on one side, then slowly fall, and disappear as quickly on the other. Once or twice a magnetic storm seemed to be raging over the path of the cable. The spot flew up and down the scale so as to be seen like a continuous glimmering of light. Amid such commotion, glimpses were sometimes caught of the signals still sent, though hopelessly, from Newfoundland. For a few days, fragments of messages were cast up now and again, the jetsam of the sea which was soaking into our poor cable. Here is a sample of these disjecta membra. “Spot is difficult, tell when you are sending. * * * Field to Directors * * * but should like to have something intelligible from you. * * * * it.”
From broken sentences we descended to words. Soon even these ceased to cheer the eyes of the weary watchers, and only letters appeared, rari nantes in gurgito vasto; then came chaos.
But these phenomena were not allowed to pass without interrogation as to their origin and explanation. Like a patient in an hospital, the cable had its physicians and its students, who drew instruction from its infirmities. First came Mr. Varley. His panacea was long doses of positive electricity, intended to form some imaginary compound of copper and alumina, succeeded by negative. It was amusing to witness his efforts to twist and squeeze sense from the invariable jumble, that the benefit of the nostrum might be demonstrated. Mr. Henley followed with his huge magneto-electric engine, which, by a bend of the arm, might be made to give a flash some six inches long. But as might have been prognosticated of this and every other instrument, however good, no benefit resulted. The chief object of experiment was to determine the distance of the fault, on which depended the chance of remedying it. The mode of testing employed was chiefly by “resistance”—by finding how much fine wire was required to offer the same resistance to the current as the actual cable. This can be found only after prolonged trial with positive and negative charges of various strengths. To deduce satisfactory results from the data thus obtained, implies previous experiment to determine accurately the resistance of the sound cable—i.e., how many yards of fine wire form an equivalent to a mile of cable. This being known, it is usual to make the wire up in coils, equal to lengths of cable, from ten miles upwards. After reiterated experiments, until you obtain the same indication from a current, whether sent into cable or coils, you find what length is represented by the coils. This is a rough approximation to the distance of the injury. There are various phases of this method, but all are radically the same. To read the description cursorily, the plan appears all very pat and infallible; but, necessarily, it is uncertain, and the conclusion cannot be jumped to at once. The great seat of doubt is at the fault, which itself offers resistance, varying with its extent. If this is not deducted, then the distance will be overestimated. In the present instance everything was done to ensure accuracy which the most profound science could suggest. In every way the most extensive, accurate, and valuable class of experiments was made by Professor Thomson. A few of the results of his investigations have been made public by a letter addressed to Mr. Joule of Manchester, and communicated by that gentleman to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. But the most valuable deductions are to be expected from his observations on earth-currents or terrestrial magnetism. Professor Thomson succeeded in neutralising to a great extent their influence, and, at the same time, ascertaining their nature (positive or negative) and their strength, in terms of the electromotive force of a single cell of Daniell’s. Many interesting and valuable observations on faults were made—particularly as to the effects of the opposite electricities, depending on their electrolytic or decomposing action at the fault. Positive currents oxidize a film of the exposed conductor, taking the oxygen from the water. This oxide acts as an insulator, and mends the injury slightly. A negative current again would, unless the film had been washed away, which is very likely to be the case, re-decompose the oxide and reduce the copper again to a metallic state. By observing this phenomenon, the existence of a fault may be discovered. Dr. Thomson says in his letter, “On the fourth day after the end of the cable was landed here, I found that a positive current, entering from ten cells of a constant battery, fell in the course of a few minutes to half strength. When the battery was next suddenly reversed, the negative current rose, and remained after that nearly constant, at about the same degree of strength as that at which the positive current had commenced.” This was clear proof of a flaw. A very good idea may also be formed of the size of the fault, from the time which the currents take to work it up to a maximum or reduce it to a minimum of insulation. This will, of course, be shorter in a small than in a great injury. Having determined the size, we have the means of supplying approximately the important element in testing, of which we have spoken—the resistance of the fault. It is the introduction of this element, deduced from unwearied and reiterated experiment, alternately sending the current through the cable and through the wire resistance, that gives Dr. Thomson’s testing its peculiar value and accuracy. This, together with the fact that three separate and independent estimates were made, and all agreed very closely, leads us to believe that 250 miles was the distance of the main fault. Another curious effect of the decomposition of the water, observed in artificial faults, arose from the gas evolved, which, adhering in globules about the naked conductor, padded it, as it were, with air insulation, and quite mended it for a few minutes. A ripple in the water, brushing off these air bubbles, gave the needle a shake resembling that from a battery reversal. The departure of each bubble produced this motion, sometimes so systematically as to counterfeit signals. It will be seen from these remarks that the only thing the electrician can do for a cable, whose conductor is partially bared, is to preserve it from chemical action, by using negative currents only. Professor Thomson accomplished this very ingeniously, by dividing his huge battery into two. From one half, a negative current was constantly applied, while the other was employed in the usual way for sending. The effect of this arrangement was, that the positive current of the sending battery was neutralized by the constant negative, while the negative was superadded to this constant negative.
And now, let us leave the old cable to rest and fossilize in its ocean bed—a glorious puzzle in reserve for the geologists of a new earth, when the dry land, which has borne the burden of humanity for so many cycles, shall have sunk “full many a fathom deep,” and the sea-bottom be upheaved. While I write, the proposals for another attempt are before the public. It is almost three years since the prospectus of the Atlantic Telegraph Company was issued. The scheme was novel, startling, almost incredible: the difficulties appeared greatest to those who understood the matter best. Doubts were expressed by men whose opinions were not to be despised; phenomena unknown, even unimagined, must be expected; yet, in a few weeks, all the shares (£1000 each) were purchased. A company was formed of men of science, who could see in the enterprise a new era in the intercourse of nations; and men of money, who were patriotic enough to make the sacrifice—for even the most sanguine viewed their shares more as subscriptions than as producers of dividends. Every stage of the undertaking is tentative. After much painstaking research and thought, the nature of the cable is determined upon. Machinery must be devised to manufacture, to lay, to work it. All this is done, and the gigantic experiment is made, and fails. The general public are asked to show their interest by purchasing £10 shares, and not in vain. All the improvements dictated by experience are adopted, and the ships sail once more. They encounter one of the most fearful gales ever experienced on the Atlantic. In one vessel, the mass of the cable is, by the rolling of the vessel, ravelled like a skein of silk. It is disentangled while the storm still rages, and again coiled down. Three attempts are made, and three failures ensue. Experientia docet. The attempt is again made, and succeeds. But the cable had been unshipped and shipped twice, some parts more frequently; it bad been dreadfully knocked about in the storm. What wonder, then, if it failed to withstand the insinuating element around it? How great wonder is it that it conveyed from side to side some hundreds of messages, demonstrated the correctness of science, and justified the faith of the original projectors? Now, after so devotedly suffering these losses, with all the invaluable and incommunicable knowledge of experience, the Company appeals again to the public. They have claims which a merely commercial company could never advance. It is only justice that, having paid so dearly for showing how to do a profitable thing, they should have the first chance of the profit. But such arguments seldom weigh in the share market. There are others of self-interest no less cogent. The Company has experience, we have said. It also embraces the foremost men in electric science; and with them the exclusive use of the most recent patent improvements in recording and sending instruments, insulation, &c. There are other advantages of Government support, and traffic arrangements with American companies, which are well exponed in the “Statement” now being circulated. But the public know all this right well, if we are to judge from the reception which rival schemes have met. These schemes are, however, by no means prepossessing, either for the eminence in science or commerce of their supporters, or for the intelligence which their designs have shown. They have talked of improved cables and the advantages of new routes before ascertaining the practicability of these routes. They forget Meg Dod’s famous receipt for hare-soup—“Having caught the hare,” &c. No doubt the best possible line to America would be an air-line; but it is an important consideration that the Atlantic is too deep for poles. The Southern route has no advantage of any kind over the Valencia route. The Northern could be wrought quicker, and might be more easily repaired; but we know nothing of the bottom, and this is the primary and necessary knowledge. This we do know, that the mere fact of running from island to island gives an a priori expectation of a precipitous descent from the shore and a bottom beset with crags. Maury* has given two sections of the Atlantic—one from N. to S., another from E. to W.—showing the relation of the West Indian and Cape Verde Islands, and the Azores to the depth. They resemble needles stuck up in a basin of water.
*“Physical Geography of the Sea,” Appendix.
Besides the dangers incident to an insular nature, we have those peculiar to Northern latitudes. The names are not very attractive. There is Iceland, so christened when the bold Viking sighted its white mountain tops and precipitous shores; and Greenland, because green is so rare a thing that, when seen, it specifies the locality. Icebergs are not the most formidable obstacles. The line of winter ice dips outside of Cape Farewell, and the coast is, in that season, unapproachable. When the breaking-up time arrives, the chances of a cable would seem but small. But the great fact is, that we know nothing positively of the bottom in any part of the proposed course.
I think this long and dull article will best close with a joke—it may create a reaction in the system of the reader who has plodded with me thus far. The joke is in the form of an extract from the New York Herald. It appeared there in editorial type, and succeeded a leader equally ridiculous advocating Hughes’s printing telegraph. From the use of that instrument it promised “the transmission of messages both ways at once, at the rate of twenty words a minute.” Never was the connexion between superstition and ignorance so well illustrated.
THE CABLE AND SCRIPTURE.*
The success in laying the Atlantic Cable has impressed many with the idea that the year 1858 will ever remain a memorable era in the history of the world; but, a little overhauling of the Scriptures will show that the idea so far from being new or original, is simply a fulfilment of prophecy, and carrying out of suggestions made by the inspired writers. We append a few extracts to convince the sceptical:—
PSALMS xix. 14.—Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
JOB xxxviii. 36.—Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, here we are?
REVELATIONS x. 1.—And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud; and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:
2. And he had in his hand a little book open; and he set his right foot upon the sea and his left foot upon the earth,
3. And he cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.
4. And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.
5. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,
6. And aware by Him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer.
JOB xxxvii. 3.—He directeth it (his voice) under the whole heavens, and his lightning to the ends of the earth.
JOB xxviii. 26.—When He made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning and the thunder.
JOB xxxviii. 25.—Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder?
PROVERBS viii. 29.—When he gave to the sea his decree that the waters should not pass his command.
The coincidence of the seven thunders and seven voices in the Evangelist’s vision, with the seven wires of the cable; the several allusions to the “way for the lightning;” the inquiry whether the lightning can be made to speak; and the direct reference to the insulation of the cable by giving a decree to the sea that “the waters should not pass his command,” ought at once to settle the question of priority of the idea, concerning which there is now much wrangling in the newspapers. Verily, “there is nothing new under the sun.”—New York Herald, 16th August, 1858.
* The Herald is responsible for the errors of reference and transcription in these quotations.
Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 8 February 1859, page 5
PAYING OUT THE ATLANTIC CABLE
The following “Leaves from the Journal of a Telegrapher,” have been handed to us for publication. They were received per last mail by a gentleman resident in Sydney, from his son, who was personally engaged in this great work, as an Electrician on board H.M. war steamer Agamemnon, and will be read with interest by all who have watched the progress of this stupendous international enterprise, notwithstanding the subsequent failure of the Cable duly to perform its functions:—
THE INSTRUMENTS IN USE ON BOARD SHIP
Perhaps never vessel sailed the sea so richly freighted with the fruits of human ingenuity as the Agamemnon. Wherever one casts an eye it alights on something worthy of observation and study. Of course, the grand centre around which these intellectual fruits cluster is the cable itself—wonderful as a manufacture, as to the properties it must possess to be of electric use, and as to its ultimate destination and functions. From the hold the cable goes to Drew’s paying-out machine. The two most interesting points about it are the brakes and the index which registers the strain. The brakes are Appold’s, and consist of an outer rim of elm wood, fixed inside an iron ring, so as to press upon the broad circumference of an iron wheel. By a system of levers iron weights can be applied to these wooden brakes up to the full extent of which the engineer on duty may work, but not beyond. This is managed by a wheel, exactly like a ship’s, in front of the index, which indicates the strain. This index is a pointer, fixed to a weighted grooved wheel, which rides on the cable, rising when the cable becomes taut, falling when it is slack. The officer at the wheel watches this pointer, releasing the brakes of the weights as it rises, letting them on as it falls. The particular beauty of the arrangement is, that definite bounds can be put to the amount of resistance offered by the brakes, which was not the case in the old contrivances. It is curious that, because of this property, Appold’s patent was first applied as a means of graduating the labour of the tread-mill. Close by the paying-out machine on the quarter-deck stands a beautiful little engine, worked by steam from the ship’s boilers, ready to throw into gear to reverse the drums of the machine, and haul back the cable. Experiment, however, has shown that cable, once over the stern into deep water, is useless when recovered. Still, were this engine constructed so as to be thrown in a moment in or out of gear, it could be used to the utmost advantage as an auxiliary in the actual laying of the cable. Attached to the axis of the foremost drum, round which the cable runs, is a roto-meter, to register the number of revolutions it makes, with a clock by which to find the number per minute. By a similar arrangement, the amount paid out in hundreds of miles, miles, and fathoms, is shown by three separate index hands. At the stern there is a huge wheel from which the cable takes its departure on its deep-sea journey; to the axis of this wheel another instrument for regulating the paying-out is fixed; close by there are two long iron arms, moveable over a graduated scale, by which to find the horizontal and vertical angles of the cable in entering the water. The greater the Vertical angle the less the strain on the cable, other things being equal, as there is a greater surface of water bearing it up. The horizontal angle registers the lee-way, or drifting sideways of the ship. These all belong to the engineering department, and observations from them will be taken and recorded every fifteen minutes; besides the speed of the ship, revolutions of the screw, weights on the brakes, strain on the cable, &c, &c.
The electrical room is on the starboard side of the main-deck forward. The arrangements have been altered several times, in order to avoid the water which showers down from the upper deck. At one end of the little place the batteries are ranged on shelves and nailed in. At the other stands a table with the various instruments, arranged in electric series. On one side stand the “detectors” of the old system, so called from being chiefly used in testing for faults; and Whitehouse’s beautiful “Magnetometer,” called by some one his “pet child.” It measures by dynamic effect the strength of the current entering and leaving the cable; so that, just as one could form some notion of the soundness of a pitcher, or the degree of its unsoundness, by comparing what is poured in with what is taken out, so the cable can be tested with great accuracy by this instrument. These are under the eye of one of the clerks on duty. On the opposite side of the table is Thomson’s marine galvanometer, so called because it combines delicacy, with perfect stability at sea. It is closed up in a plain deal box, which is placed on a frame, equally primitive, attached to springs. Yet this little “Jack-in-the-box,” as we often call it, does the work of every instrument on the table in its own peculiar way, and a deal more accurately. The indication is given by a little mirror which reflects the light of a paraffin lamp through a lens on a scale. This little mirror is fixed to a very small magnet, which, being influenced by the currents, moves it, and therefore the spot, over so many degrees. We send and receive during alternate ten minutes. The current is sent through Dr. Thomson’s galvanometer to the lower end of the orlop coil, which will be brought to shore through all the cable on board, over the stern, under the sea, to the Niagara, where it traverses all her cable before reaching instruments exactly similar. The most valuable observation is taken in sending on the marine galvanometer. Three seconds before it is taken, the clerk at the opposite side of the table, who times all the observations by a watch regulated by a chronometer too valuable to bring into so wet a place, says “ Look out.” The other clerk at once fixes his eye on the spot of light, and immediately the word is given “ Now,” records the indication. This testing is made from minute to minute, so that a flaw is detected the moment it occurs. Indeed, on one occasion, a break which happened between the taffrail and the water was observed before it reached the sea, which of course made it at once evident enough.
THE LOSS OF CONTINUITY
July 29. It is rather an exciting occupation to watch the tell-tale signals as we pay out. Even the most indifferent “holds his breath for a time” when their story is of dubious or ominous import. We are regarded by the engineers about the paying-out machinery as birds of evil omen. If one of our number rushes upon deck or approaches with a hurried step, they look as a Roman husbandman might have done at a crow on a blasted tree. Indeed it is almost impossible to realise the anxiety and heart-interest everybody manifests in the undertaking. No one seems to breathe freely. Few, but the men, even sleep soundly. Professor Thomson frequently does not put off his clothes at night. To-night, but a few hours after starting, we had an alarming crisis. We had signalled to the Niagara forty miles submerged, and she was just beginning her acknowledgment, when suddenly, at 10 p.m., communication ceased. According to orders those on duty sent at once for Dr. Thomson. He came in a fearful state of excitement. The very thought of disaster seemed to overpower him. His hand shook so much that he could scarcely adjust his eyeglass. The veins on his forehead were swollen. His face was deadly pale. After consulting his marine galvanometer, he said the conducting wire was broken, but still insulated from the water. Mr. Bright noticed the Professor hurrying to the electrical room, and followed close on his heels. He supposed the fault might lie in a suspicious portion which had been observed in the main coil. The cable was tested on both sides of this place, but it was all right there. The fault was not on board, but between the ships. There did not seem to be any room to hope; but still it was determined to keep the cable slowly going out, that all opportunity might be given for a resuscitation. The scene in and about the electrical room was such as I shall never forget. The two clerks on duty watching, with the common anxiety depicted on their faces, for a propitious signal; Dr. Thomson, in a perfect fever of nervous excitement, shaking like an aspen leaf, yet in mind clear and collected, testing and waiting, with half-despairing look for the result; Mr. Bright, standing like a boy caught in a fault, his lips and cheek smeared with tar, biting his nails as if in a puzzle, and looking to the Professor for advice; Mr. Canning, grave, but cool and self-possessed, like a man fully equal to such an emergency; the captain, viewing with anxious look the bad symptoms of the testing as indicated on the galvanometer and pointed out by Dr. Thomson. Behind, in the darker part of the room, stood various officers of the ship. Round the door crowded the sailors of the watch, peeping over each other’s shoulders at the mysteries, and shouting “gangway!” when any one of importance wished to enter. The eyes of all were directed to the instruments, watching for the slightest quiver indicative of life. Such a scene was never witnessed save by the bedside of the dying. Things continued thus. Dr. Thomson and the others left the room, convinced they were once more doomed to disappointment. Still the cable went slowly out, while in the hold they were re-splicing the suspected portion. The clerks continued sending regular currents. All at once the galvanometer indicated a complete breaking in the water. We all made the dread interpretation, and look at each other in silence. Suddenly one sung out, “Halloa! the spot has gone up to 40 degrees.” The clerk at the ordinary instrument bolted right out of the room, scarcely knowing where he went for joy; ran to the poop, and cried out, “Mr. Thomson! the cable’s all right; we got a signal from the Niagara.” In less than no time he was down, tested, found the old dismal result, and left immediately. He had not disappeared in the crowd when a signal came which undoubtedly originated in the Niagara. Our joy was so deep and earnest that it did not suffer us to speak for some seconds. But when the first stun of surprise and pleasure passed, each one began trying to express his feelings in some way more or less energetic. Dr. Thomson laughed right loud and heartily. The strain upon the nervous system proved in one case so great as to produce faintness when the excitement had ceased. Never was more anxiety compressed into such a space. It lasted exactly one hour and a half, but it did not seem to us a third of that time.
On the second day after we commenced paying out, towards the afternoon a nasty east wind, dead in our teeth, got up; the sky became dark and foreboding, and the glass began to fall. As the gloom spread round the horizon, it seemed to gather over the spirits of all on board. In the evening we struck our top- gallant masts and royal yards, that our resistance to the wind might be less. During the night it became very squally and wild, and a drizzly, greasy fog set in. In the morning it blew so hard that, with all four boilers in action, and steaming full speed, we made only some four knots. With every pitch of the vessel, as the stern rose, the cable went out with a run, making the drums whirl round; but when the stern fell into the trough, the strain, of course, fell off, and the drums stood still. To have left the cable to start them with next pitch would certainly have broken it, so relays of men were kept at hand who never allowed the drums to stop. There was something very curious in the position of the clerks on duty while this struggle was in progress—sitting alone in the electrical cabin, their tell-tale instruments before them, watching anxiously their every indication; the needles quivering with every thump of the sea on the Agamemnon’s bow, and Thomson’s galvanometer case jolting backwards and forwards on its springs with the panting of the screw; the wind whistling through the gutta-percha speaking-tube which leads from the poop to the room, and the hum of the paying-out machine, now rising, now falling, and leaving the ear painfully listening for its recommencement. Many an anxious look was taken over the stern of the Agamemnon at the slender-looking wire, buffeted about by the waves, lifted up and let fall flop against the water. The ship drifted so much to port under the influence of the gale as to give the cable a lateral angle of from eight to thirteen degrees. Still our hopes of final success were much higher, seeing the cable run out in a gale with no more strain indicated than in a calm, tense and stiff as a bar of iron under a strain of 25 cwt. In fact the gale is teaching us by force how to lay cables.
SUCCESS IN PROSPECT.
As we drew nearer Ireland the storm began to abate, and things became altogether so cheerful in aspect that we dared to hope. While we were admiring a bright glimpse of the sun through a break in the thick drift, the Valorous signalled, “Cheer up! the weather is going to moderate.” Still, to the last, we never were entirely free from anxiety from one cause or another. The signals failed once altogether. The only instrument which kept us from despair was Dr. Thomson’s. I could compare him, watching the slight quivering indication, only to one holding a mirror to the lips of a dying relative to see whether so much of breath remained as would dim its surface. Twice, also, we narrowly missed having a collision with vessels, in each case American. On one occasion the unlucky craft was a small anomalous-looking schooner. But the crew made all possible amends, as soon as they saw the cable at our stern, dipping their ensign some half-dozen times, and cheering lustily.
On the night of the 3rd August we got into shallow water. About ten Dr. Thomson came into the electrical cabin, evidently in a state of enjoyment so intense as almost to absorb the whole soul and create absence of mind. His countenance beamed with placid satisfaction. He did not speak for a little, but employed himself stretching scraps of sheet gutta-percha over the hot globe of our lamp; watching them with an absent eye as they curled and shrank. At last he said: “At half-past eleven you may send the 200 fathoms soundings signal.” He then proceeded to congratulate those present on being connected with such an expedition, regarding its object as already un fait accompli.
Next day it seemed as if the elements participated in our satisfaction; the calm, benign sunshine making us feel listlessly happy and inclined to bask under its influence. Our progress became quite triumphal. All our ports were raised. The Valorous sailing close on our starboard quarter, looked, when seen through the open port, like a framed picture of a ship on a sunny sea. To be on watch in the electrical room was now pleasurable. The fiddlers played with more than ordinary unction. The fineness of the evening, the majestic smoothness of the Agamemnon’s march, and the sweetness of the music, combining with the ecstacy of conquering, at any time, were quite ravishing. I thought of gondolas, guitars, and moonlit waters, and again the sturdy old man-of-war became a second Cleopatra’s barge with “sails of silk and ropes of sendal.” Betwixt nine and ten, the last difficulty—the shift from the upper to the orlop coil—was successfully passed. The Valorous steamed ahead to look out for land, and we went slowly that we might not make it before daylight. About four on the morning of the 5th, we were off the wild entrance to Valentia Bay. From the electrical room, where duty had become almost a farce—thanks to the sight of land and the thought of triumph—we could see the Blasquets, (rocky islets off the mouth of Dingle Bay), whose barren sides looked grey and grizzly as a witch’s locks. The morning light was just sweeping aside the early mist which hung like a muslin sipuar about the hills, uncovering knolls and hollows clothed in richest green. By and bye the mist which still lingered on the hill sides covered their ruggedness with a rich purple glow, until they looked like the ramparts of another Eden. Meanwhile the Valorous steamed rapidly ahead until she disappeared in a bend of the bay; but we could hear her guns rattling to rouse up the inhabitants to a knowledge of the greatest fact of the age.
A woman on the hills was, I understand, the first to see us. We proceeded slowly inside Dowlas Head which, as seen from the sea, resembles remarkably in outline that old Christmas dish—the head of a tusked boar. About five we dropped anchor inside the bay, between Lamb Island and the precipitous cliffs of the main land. The dark gloomy glen of Cahirciveen lay before us, with the river straggling in the middle; and a long way to the right the masts of the coasting vessels at the quay, marked the position of Knightstown. All was confusion on board amongst us, distracted between keeping a look-out for the resumption of signals by the Niagara, taking peeps at the queer-looking place in which we found ourselves; packing up personal effects and preparing for a transference of electric operations ashore. The two paddle-box boats of the Valorous were used—one to take the cable to land, the other to carry the luggage. Coiling the cable into the boat was a work which was not completed until past noon. Meanwhile a heavy squall, bearing with it a fearful shower of rain, swept in upon us from the Atlantic. About one o’clock all things were ready for our good-bye to the worthy ship. The cable-boat was to be towed ashore by one of the Valorous’ gigs, in which were the electricians, with a portable battery and their instruments. The engineers were with the cable. The marines were all mustered on the poop. The captain and officers were on the quarter-deck to bid us good-bye. Owing to the heavy swell and the height to which the now disburthened Agamemnon towered, it was difficult to get everything and everybody safely into the boat. At last we shoved off. The marines fired a feu-de-joie, the sailors ran up the mizen rigging and cheered, while we responded lustily, waving our caps. When we dropped astern and had got the cable-boat in tow, the first lieutenant stood up by the spanker-boom, took off his cap, and led the assembled officers in giving such a three-times-three as only British sailors can give. We answered, if not as loudly, at least as warmly. How noble the good old ship looked, rising and falling, “like a castle on the brine.” After a terrible tossing about on the swell, which was so great as sometimes to hide the boat we were towing from us, we got opposite the Valorous. She was dressed from stem to stern. All hands were on deck, many in the rigging. We received and returned the same hearty cheers. Last year the end was landed at an exposed uninhabited part of the mainland coast, called the White Strand. This year we took it to the Coast Guard House, on the Island at Knightstown. On rounding Church Island we got into smooth water and in sight of the little village. Just as we were nearing the shore we saw a beautiful screw gun boat, bearing her Majesty’s flag, stealing round full speed a nearer way. She had on board the Knight of Kerry, who not anticipating such an arrival, had gone round to Dingle Regatta.
When we got close inshore we threw off the cable-boat. Before our prow grated on the strand her impetus had taken her ashore. The Valorous, in the distance, fired her guns. The end was seized by the jolly tars and run off with; a good-humoured scuffle ensued betwixt them and the gentlemen of the island for the honour of the pulling the cable up to the office. The Knight of Kerry was upset in the water. As soon as it got fairly on terra firma, a bevy of ladies gave it a make-believe hawl just so much as to tar their gloves or white hands, and give occasion for a nice business-like little fuss in getting butter or other oleaginous matter to remove the stain! Meanwhile we were thrown rather behind. Seeing that those who most deserved the honour were likely to lose it, Dr. Thomson, followed by Anderson, a clerk, and myself, jumped out of the boat and waded ashore, but in time only to tar our hands ineffectually, like the ladies. The end was taken to the slate works, where the Company’s offices are temporarily fixed. About five minutes to four Dr. Thomson sent the first current from shore to shore, to test the state of the cable. All was right. At four we received the first current.
Thus was the grandest undertaking of the century terminated with success, and just a year after the commencement of last expedition. The ships started first 5th August 1857; we brought in the cable 5th August 1858. It might be imagined that we who have seen every stage of the enterprise must have become so familiarized with the idea of. electric communication between the two worlds as to have ceased to wonder at its accomplishment. Not so. We have seen so many failures, encountered so many difficulties, and, above all, watched the attenuated thread (the cable is no more, compared with its length and the depths it has to traverse), pass over the stern and disappear in the billowy waters, buffeted about like a plaything by their rude strength. When we recall these circumstances, the laying of the cable seems like a curious and unlikely dream. We met our fellow-countrymen in mid-ocean, signalled to them through the whole length of wire as coiled in the two vessels, and withdrew so gradually that we can hardly believe it to be now stretched over such an extent of unexplored depths, making us as near each other in mind as we were in body. I might write many grandiloquent pages on this topic, but it is one for silent thankfulness and solemn awe—thankfulness to Deity that such an agent for human improvement is entrusted to us—awe when we contemplate the futurity which is stretching in dim grandeur before us Englishmen.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth! peace, good will toward men.”
Follow-up: In 1931 a grateful reader of the Sydney Morning Herald tracked down the above article in the course of his research and sent this letter to the Editor:
VALUE OF THE “HERALD.”
TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD.
Sir.-In your issue of August 10 the “Yorkshire Post” reviewer of the “Sydney Morning Herald” book, “A Century of Journalism,” is quoted as saying, “Not many papers can make the ‘Herald’s’ boast that in the files you can trace almost the whole story of the nation, etc.” An interesting example of the value of the “Herald” in this connection came to my notice recently in preparing a lecture on “Lord Kelvin and the Atlantic Telegraph.” Professor Silvanus Thompson in his fine “Life of Kelvin” (1910) quotes at considerable length an account of what took place in the test-room on board the Agamemnon, which was engaged in laying the cable across the Atlantic in 1858.
This vivid picture of Professor William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin) at work with his wonderful mirror galvanometer has apparently been preserved nowhere else except in the columns of the “Sydney Morning Herald” of February 8, 1859, from which Silvanus Thompson makes a lengthy extract. It took me some time to find and verify his reference, but here is the passage on page 5 of that issue of the “Herald,” under the heading “Paying out the Atlantic Cable.” The extract printed in Kelvin’s biography is prefaced in the “Herald” by this explanatory note: “The following ‘Leaves from the Journal of a Telegrapher’ have been handed to us for publication. They were received per last mall by a gentleman resident in Sydney from his son, who was personally engaged in this great work as an electrician on board H.M. war steamer Agamemnon.”
I am, etc.,
Epping, Aug. 13.
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