History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
1865: Laying the Shore End
Published in The London Daily News, 23 July 1865 (first section) and The Times (second section) and reprinted in other newspapers at the time.
Note: The illustrations on this page of the scenes around Valentia at the landing of the shore end of the 1865 cable are by Robert Dudley, from watercolours made for William Russell’s book on the Atlantic Cable expedition of that year. The original newspaper article was not illustrated.
The Atlantic Cable.
VALENTIA, Sunday, July 23, 1865.
The successful laying of the shore end of the Atlantic cable yesterday morning made a tableau for an artist. Imagine the best of the good Irish scenes in the “Colleen Bawn,” or “Arrah-na-Pogue”—that is, imagine the most lovely scenery, the most picturesque costumes, and the most effective grouping, placed in a splendid natural amphitheatre, with intense human interest as the motive power, and thoroughly impulsive enthusiasm as its accompaniment, and you will realize very fairly what took place on Saturday in Foilhommerum Bay. But before doing this, pray understand the impediments besetting the journey thither. To sail in the Great Eastern from the Nore to Valentia, to witness the laying the shore end of the Atlantic cable, does not at first sight convey an idea of difficulty, or imply a notion of adventure. But wind, weather, the condition of the coast, the vast size of one cable vessel, and the very shaky constitution of another, the amenities of Irish travel, the lack of cars, and the wily subterfuges of carmen, have collectively combined to make reaching Valentia from the Great Eastern a matter of more difficulty than might be supposed. First, when she was near Valentia, in the rough weather, the use of the boat, sent off with so much difficulty, was restricted to Mr. Moore, the pilot; Mr. Canning, the chief of the cable-laying staff, and Mr. Temple, Jr., who acted as his aide. The waves, though both smaller and quieter than we had experienced during the hours when the Caroline at our stern was in actual danger, were still turbulent and threatening, and after the boat had more than once narrowly escaped destruction by being dashed against the big ship’s side, Capt. Anderson wisely ordered her to push off at once, refusing to allow either passengers or luggage to go on board. The Great Eastern was then as you know taken into Bearhaven for shelter, and all who wished to reach Valentia had to do so from that port.
Twenty-two miles in an open boat, and fifty-four more in the rudest jaunting cars over the wildest and most desolate ports of the County of Kerry, brought four of these travelers here yesterday morning, but some of the directors and their friends have not made their appearance up to this time; some are on the big ship still, some yet on their way hither, and others speeding back without seeing Valentia or the real commencement of the enterprise at all. Thus it is that of the forty or fifty saloon passengers who left the Nore in the Great Eastern, only four were present at the interesting scene of yesterday, who were not absolutely occupied in laying the cable.
The first sight of Valentia from the land is disappointing. From Waterville, the road is uninteresting and dull. Large gloomy mountains alternate with vast patches of wild and uncultivated bog, while the merciless showers of what is surely the rainiest country in the world damp the spirit as they soak the body of the traveler. Low hanging dense clouds obscured the view, the impossibility of obtaining trustworthy information soured the mind, and the uniformly evasive answers of peasant and wayside pedestrian—who might be as impenetrably stupid and blandly vacuous as they pretended, but who succeeded in roasting the inquisitive Sassenach with considerable humor and force—irritated the tempers of those who were hurriedly pressing on, in the hope of arriving here before the shore end was laid. After much mortification and humbling of the spirit and great weariness of the flesh, a ferry-house was reached, from which at a distance of half-a-mile across the water, the island of Valentia, and the white houses and slated roofs of its little town, were plainly visible. Two perfectly idle steamers lay in the land-locked harbor, but not a vestige of either cable or electricians, or of the Great Eastern, or her heavy supplement, the Caroline, or her guard of honor, the Terrible and Sphinx, or her companion steamer; the Hawk, or her messenger steamboat, the Advice, was to be seen. But for the palpable newness of the roughly-hewn, half-barked stumps of wood supporting the single wire which ran by the roadside along which we had been jolted almost to dislocation—but for the strained air of excitement and expectancy of the three bare-footed, bare-chested, shock-headed young tatterdemalions on the wharf, one of whom said of the old portmanteau and fat carpet-bag he considerately pounded on a stone-heap, and then dropped into the water: “Shure, Mickey, an’ these are his honner’s insthruments for laying hur!”—and but for the conscientiousness of the old boatman, who demanded half-a-crown for taking us across, while admitting a penny to be the price to “our own people;” but for these trivial circumstances, there was nothing to herald the mighty stride about to be taken in the history of civilization, or the ameliorating effect its approaching consummation had brought about.
Once in Valentia, however, the inquirer heard on authority that the laying of the shore-end was expected to commence that morning in a bay at the other side of the island, and five miles from the town, and that a horse and car could be hired as a favor for a moderate sum—say the prime cost of both—in which his “honner would thravel as iligant an’ asy as in his cradle, purvided he stipped up tinderly, and avoided prissing too hard on the wake side.” Seated in this precious vehicle, which required as much trimming and careful distribution of weight as one of Serle’s lightest outriggers, our typical explorer journeyed along the banks of the sea channel separating Valentia from the mainland and running from the bay. Passing groups of peasantry, and pigs, and fowls, all strangely animated, and all journeying toward “the telegraph to ’Meriky, yer honner!” he reached, nearly at the summit of the last hill, a low wooden hut, painted black, and not unlike the Summer establishment of some watering-place photographer. This is the temporary office of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Along the waste land, at some distance to the right, are half-a-dozen thatched hovels, while a few feet from the grass-grown turf-wall, which divides the field containing this office from the cliff, you look down upon the Caroline, which is in communication with the land by a lengthy floating-bridge of fishing-boats.
To the right and left precipitous rocks rise nearly three hundred feet from the sea, so hollowed at each side as to give to the securely-sheltered little haven, which is scarcely a mile from end to end, the conformation of a horse-shoe. Rugged, steep and utterly inaccessible, save where a rude and broken path has been formed by the cable-men, these cliffs are studded with wild flowers and ferns, and variegated by large patches of the brightest verdure, which alternate with masses of tangled seaweed and huge blocks of slate and parti-coloured rock. Butler’s Island, a large grass-grown strip of stony ground stretching from left to right, from the far point of the bay, lessens the opening to the sea, and materially helps to shelter this beautiful nook, though, as there is of course neither land nor breakwater between its entrance and America, it will be readily understood that in rough weather it presents a very different appearance to the one it wore yesterday.
Then all was smiling, sunny and calm. The spectator who, after drinking in the beauties before him from the heights, scrambled down the rugged path and stood among the men hauling the cable on shore, or balanced himself on one of the crags arresting his downward path, was, as I have said, in a magnificent natural amphitheatre, with toiling peasants, earnest savans, excited seamen, and eager capitalists for his actors—priests, local gentry, electricians and telegraphists for his fellow lookers-on, and the broad Atlantic for his stage. Mr. Creswick never surpassed the rich hues and bright tints of the rocks and vegetation around; Frith never painted brighter eyes, more supple figures, or more picturesquely artistic costumes than those of the barefooted nymphs assembled to look at Pat or Mike “helping the tiligraph gintlemin;” Stanfield never transferred to canvas a more beautiful and varied sea-piece than the one before us. On the highest pinnacle of the cliff, to the right, the country people had planted a succession of improvised flags, consisting of colored pocket handkerchiefs, scarlet cloaks, blankets, petticoats, and what not, which fluttered gaily in the breeze, while all round the summit a long fringe of lookers-on stood out sharp and clear against the blue sky, some mounted, some squatted on the ground, dudheen in mouth, some gesticulating in little groups, and all manifesting the keenest interest in the proceedings of the day.
The peasant’s view of the mysterious wire is that it will somehow bring him nearer to the land of promise. Every Irish laborer tells you of the relatives or friends who have prospered in America, and no man or woman here seems too old or feeble to hope for the day when their savings will amount to “five or six pounds, yer honor,” that they may bid the old country good-bye and begin the world anew. The telegraphic colors, represented by rosettes of red, white, and blue, made and presented by Lady Capel Molyneux, decorated the coats or hats of those immediately interested in the enterprise, and out of the three or four hundred employed on the boats and shore to assist in hauling the cable in, it is scarcely necessary to say no two figures were attired alike. The high-collared, swallow-tailed blue coat, new, perhaps, before the electric telegraph was invented, and sadly soiled and threadbare now, worked side by side with the ragged nondescript garment which had been fustian, but had reached the stage of hardly-kept-together tatters. Shirts which blushed darkly at being exposed, jersies blue, red, and brown, caps and hats of every variety and shape, bare heads, bare legs and feet and arms, made up the line. The boats were similarly manned, and continued this line from the stern of the Caroline, some 700 yards off, so that the cable was passed literally from hand to hand, from ship to shore.
The appearance of this long row of boats was very striking, and when with the true Celtic impulsiveness their crews let the cable slip prematurely into the sea, that they might cheer and wave their hats at its having been brought safely to land, and the bridge resolved itself into a little fleet, the whole bay seemed animate with life. This rather Irish incident delayed the proceedings about an hour, as it was not until the bridge had been re-formed, and the cable fished up and restored to the men in the boats, that the paying out could be recommenced. Meanwhile Mr. Canning continued his earnest supervision, and one or two enthusiasts in the cause, stripped to their waists, plunged bodily into the sea. Strict injunctions not to shout were fairly observed, until the Knight of Kerry, spoken of as “the best of landlords,” and immensely popular throughout the country, was recognized on the cliff, when the repressed enthusiasm had to be again worked off, and the call for “three cheers for the Knight” elicited, despite the deprecatory hand-wavings of its present object, another hearty burst. The accompaniment, however, was this time restricted to one hand, and did not interfere with work. The Knight of Kerry who, alpenstock in hand, made his way down the cliff to the shore, was himself a picturesque addition to the already picturesque scene, and his presence was moreover a manifest encouragement to the simple-hearted and affectionate race laboring at the coil. Sir Robert Peel descended with him, and, joining Lord John Hay at the foot of the cliff, remained until the paying out was stopped for a time and the cable was pulled up the cliff, and its end placed in the testing-room of the big hut or office of the company. This was done in procession, the peasants carrying the massive coil with a certain tenderness, the old women and children, who had not ventured down the steep and hazardous incline, pressing forward to touch it as if it were a charm, the two Catholic priests heading the company, and bestowing by their presence a tacit blessing on the work.
Thus was the shore end of the great Atlantic cable reverently laid to earth in the trench cut for it, and running from the edge of the cliff to the instrument room. Had this been a mortal funeral, with a rousing wake to follow, there could not have been more joyousness and buoyancy. Mr. Glass, Lord John Hay, Mr. Edwards, Sir Robert Peel, the Knight of Kerry, and other gentlemen were there to receive it, and appropriate congratulations and good wishes were exchanged. The Caroline then slowly steamed out to sea, towed by the Hawk, and completed the rest of the 25 miles of the shore end at a late hour last night. The work of landing the cable commenced about 7 A.M., and lasted until nearly 1 P.M., and the solitary untoward circumstance connected with it, save the half-laughable delay I have named, was the impossibility of communicating by telegraph to England. There was some hitch in the coil near Killarney—subsequently found to be due to an impulsive Irish cow, which had considerately knocked down a post and some wire the day before—and no messages could be transmitted until late in the afternoon. Officers of the company remained at the cable-house all night, and continued to test the wire as long as it was being paid out. The telegraphic office at Valentia town was thus informed of the number of miles laid, and of the perfect condition of the table, at short intervals, and every soul in it, from the directors, staying at the over-crowded hotel, to the car-drivers, fishermen and hangers-on about the streets, was practically in communication with the Caroline during the whole of Saturday. The little place is, of course, full, and every available bed occupied.
The Great Eastern has been telegraphed for from Bearhaven, and is expected in sight every moment. Five A.M. was the hour named last night for the departure of the Hawk and party to witness the splicing of the main cable with the shore end, and to convey the one or two gentlemen still here who propose making the trip across the Atlantic. But to send a message twenty miles in this part of Ireland involves time, and the morning will probably be well advanced before the Hawk starts. After the splice four hours will be allowed to Mr. De Sauty, the electrician on board the big ship, for thoroughly testing the insularity and working power of the connected wires. This pronounced satisfactory, and assuming the weather to remain as favorable as it is now, the Great Eastern sails forthwith, and exchanging the quiet waters and romantic scenery amid which she has been lying since Wednesday night, for the surging Atlantic and the excitement of arduous and continuous work, will fairly commence the grand undertaking to which the occurrences of the last ten days have given such an auspicious earnest of success.
Connecting with the Great Eastern
VALENTIA, Monday, July 24.
Before this reaches the public the Great Eastern, if all go well, will already have laid some 300 miles of the Atlantic cable, will have passed over the shoal known on the submarine maps as the Irish Bank, and have steadily settled down to her work in some 2,000 fathoms water. Nothing could possibly have been more auspicious than all the circumstances attending her departure, both as regards weather and the mechanical fitness of all the apparatus connected with the process of submerging. During her stay at Bearhaven all the machinery for paying out, under-running, letting go the buoy rope, &c., has been tested and found to answer on board the ship as well as in the factory at Woolwich. The circular guards, called crinolines, to be suspended over the cable-tanks, and through the centre of which the cable will be paid out, have been fixed, and the contents of the three tanks, which have hitherto been only temporarily joined, carefully spliced together as they are to rest at the bottom of the Atlantic. As the cable is to be paid out first from the after tank, and next from the forward, the end of that in the tank astern has to be joined with the first part of that ahead. For this purpose it has to be taken along the whole length of the Great Eastern’s deck under a wooden case, which is firmly screwed down to protect it alike from accidental or malicious injury, the latter, strange to say, bring generally considered the more formidable of the two risks.
When the cable is paid out from the aftermost tank, the long “lead,” as it is termed, to the forward coil will make this part of the transmission comparatively easy and sale, but passing from the forward to the midship section is only a short distance, and this will be the greatest danger of the undertaking. With a stiff wire rope passing out at six knots, or nearly seven miles an hour, its liability to kink in running from one coil to another is something unpleasantly easy, while stopping the speed of the vessel is almost even more dangerous, as it suddenly checks some four or five miles of heavy iron rope in its downward course to the bottom. Almost every accident that has occurred in laying cables has arisen either from passing from coil to coil at speed, or slowing the vessel too much to reduce this danger. The composite order of the machinery of the Great Eastern, which enables her with her paddle-wheel engines to turn at once astern, reduces this danger, however, to as low a risk as possible.
During all the time that the vessel has been at Bearhaven the cable has been regularly tested through at least twice a day, and in every instance the signals have been singularly clear and perfect. Beyond all question the condition of the wire is certain to improve, if successfully laid, under the great compression and uniform temperature which the depths of the Atlantic will afford it. Thus, for instance, with the shore end, which was laid on Saturday, the testing on board the Caroline gave only 7,000,000 units, yet, yesterday, when it had scarcely been down some 30 hours, this rate had risen from 7,000,000 to 13,000,000 units. The average rate of perfection of the Atlantic cable for the deep sea portion has been 11,000,000 units, so that on being submerged 15,000,000 units may be safely looked for, an improvement which ought to make a difference of at least one and a half words a minute in the rate of telegraphing, or, in other words, a gain of £150,000 a year in the receipts of the company.
The Great Eastern was warned on Saturday to keep herself in readiness for an early start at day-break yesterday to join the Caroline, which had the end of the shore line on board. It may be mentioned that the shore end of the cable, though commenced under the cliffs with what seems a ponderous bar of iron, gradually tapers into a smaller and lighter rope as the depth of water and distance from the shore increases. Under the rocks it is for five miles out 2½ inches in diameter; at ten miles distance only 2 inches; at 15 miles it is reduced to 1½ inches; at 20 miles to about 1 inch, and at 25 miles of its extreme length it merges into the ordinary size of the deep sea wire, with which it has to be joined. The Caroline laid this end, as we have already described, on Saturday, carefully buoying the last portions of it, leaving some half-mile or so on board her decks to form the splice. This operation was completed yesterday. The Great Eastern was off Bray Head at 9 A.M., but at such a distance from the dangerous shore that only those provided with good glasses could make out from the land where the huge vessel lay, under the cloud of smoke which she poured forth, and which reached like a fog-bank across the ocean.
The party who started to witness the making of the splice and the final starting, left Valentia in the Hawk, the Great Eastern’s rapid tender, soon after 9 in the morning. Among those on board were Lord John Hay, Sir R. Peel, M.P., the Knight of Kerry, with his daughters, the Misses Fitzgerald, Capt. White, R.N., Capt. Hamilton, Mr. W.H. Russell, Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Glass, &c. The western extremity of Ireland was reached in about an hour, and soon afterward the magnificent rock that carries the Skellig Light, a wild, stupendous mass of cliff which, amid deep water, rises from the ocean to a height of 800feet and which the incessant beat of the Atlantic seems to have worn into seams and angry gaps that almost undermine its base. About fifteen miles beyond these rocks the Great Eastern was at rest, not moving to the dull, easy swell, though her two guards of honor, the Terrible and Sphinx, were rolling slightly; while the Caroline, with the end of the shore cable on board, and looking uglier than ever now that she was light and out of water, was especially lively.
It is difficult to describe in any but the most matter-of-fact terms the routine process which marked the commencement of this enterprise. It had already begun when the Hawk arrived and the paddle-box boats of the men-of-war and the cutters of the Great Eastern were filled with cable, which passing through the paying-out machine astern was being slowly towed from the great ship to the Caroline. The operation of splicing was one of time and difficulty, for smooth as the sea had seemed from land the regular heave of the Atlantic was deep enough. Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Hay, and Mr. Russell managed to get on board the Great Eastern, but with such difficulty that few others were induced to venture on the risk of the undertaking, and still fewer to accomplish it.
Soon after 1 o’clock the coils of the deep sea cable were safely wound on board the Caroline, and the work of splicing them at once commenced. This was done by stripping both ends of hemp outside wires and gutta-percha for a short distance till the copper conductor of the line was laid bare, and pared down to a fine wedge-shaped point at at either end. The connecting conductors were then overlapped in the form known as a “scarf” joint, and firmly bound together with fine threads of copper wire, till the junction was made even stronger than the main portions of the line. The threads and conductor were then soldered together thickly, and strips of soft gutta percha, like bands of brown tape, were wound layer over layer, and their edges closely pressed, so as to form one homogeneous mass, till a certain thickness was completed. Then came a coating of insulating material called Chatterton’s Compound, and then again another layer of gutta-percha tape, until the whole was inclosed in four rings of the gutta percha and three of the compound. The joint was then immersed in cold water for testing, and, the signals proving perfect, the last protection of hemp and outside wire was added, and the joint sunk again into the sea that its perfectness as to conductivity and insulation might be ascertained from the extreme end of the whole length of the cable on board the Great Eastern.
It was past 4 o’clock before the last of these tests was concluded, not that it did not test well from the first, but simply because it was intended to exhaust every trial known to electricians before the great journey was begun. All the signals from end to end of the wire came down wonderfully distinct into the instrument room of the receiving-house at the head of Foilhommerum Bay, and at 4:30 the flags on board the Caroline and Great Eastern, which had always kept moving her paddles at intervals, had forged ahead of the Caroline some two or three miles, paying out the cable slowly as she went on, and leaving the latter vessel the only float by which one portion of the wire was kept above water. The instant, however, that the flags went down the last fastenings which held it to the Caroline were cast adrift, and with a great splash the final joint of the Atlantic Telegraph, and the first thirty miles of its length, went down slowly into the blue water and were out of sight.
Long before this Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Hay had returned on board the Hawk, which at once steamed away, when the splice was turned adrift, to overtake the Great Eastern. This was very easily done, for while the latter was barely steaming five knots an hour, the former was running fourteen. As the tender came near, the thin, narrow rope of cable could be seen passing over the last wheel astern, and sinking gently into the foam without strain of any kind, as it seemed for a moment or so to float slowly aft before it disappeared under the swell that still kept rolling deeply in. The after deck sponsons bridge and paddle-boxes of the Great Eastern were crowded as the Hawk came alongside, and it was easy from the distance which the tender held to distinguish the faces of those on board as they waved their hats and cheered. In the midst of this the Great Eastern fired two guns from her bows at 5:30 to mark the commencement of her journey, and Sir Robert Peel, mounting to the little quarter-deck of the Hawk, marked time, while three small but earnest cheers were given by the select company on board to the success of the great enterprise. In return came back a swelling, hearty roar from all on the cable ship, as, with the last salute of waving hats and caps and handkerchiefs, the tender dropped astern, leaving the Great Eastern dipping slowly but steadily ahead, at the rate of about six knots an hour.
Both the Terrible and Sphinx were close at hand, contributing a little, and but a little, to the huge volume of smoke which their gigantic consort spread far and wide over the sea, and which even appeared in the distance to taint the blue mountains of Kerry on the shore. As long as signs could be made or hats waved the vessel was anxiously watched; but she soon hid herself in her own smoke, and when the Hawk neared the Irish coast a mere brown cloud in the horizon was all that showed where the greatest ship in the world was steaming away, to endeavor to accomplish the realization of an idea even more venturesome and infinitely more important than that which she herself embodies. May she be successful!
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Last revised: 1 September, 2014