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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Shipboard Publishing and Printing on Great Eastern

As was often the case on large passenger ships (even as early as the mid 19th century), the Great Eastern had a print shop on board to keep the passengers informed and entertained during a long voyage. But on the 1865 and 1866 cable expeditions the output of the print shop was a little more extensive and diversified than might have been found on a passenger voyage. It also achieved a publishing first: As the cable was being laid, live news from Europe was relayed over the cable to the Great Eastern and was printed in the shipboard newspapers.

In 1865 there were five issues of The Atlantic Telegraph with reports on the cable laying and world news. 1866 had a musical play entitled A Field Glass (dated only July 1866) followed by two July issues of The Great Eastern Telegraph and Test Room Chronicle and a third and final issue on September 8th. The last document that year was the script for Contentina, a ‘Comic Operetta’ performed on September 17th. For further details see below.

The cable staff all knew each other well from the long preparatory work on the projects each year, and the shipboard publications reflected this with humour and banter. Cable engineer Willoughby Smith, in his 1891 book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy, reproduced the text and illustrations of most of these publications, omitting only one issue of The Great Eastern Telegraph and Test Room Chronicle from 1866.

The five issues of the 1865 newspaper have various credit lines such as “Published and Printed by Day on board the Great Eastern.” Illustrations were by Henry O’Neil and Robert Dudley. The 1866 publications have no printing credit, but illustrations were again by Dudley.

The Great Eastern Telegraph and Test Room Chronicle 1866

Cover by Robert Dudley and sample page of
The Great Eastern Telegraph and Test-Room Chronicle

The handwritten note at the top of the cover reads:
“With Willoughby Smith’s Compts.”

Images courtesy of Bill Holly

Day and Son, the largest firm of lithographers in Britain at the time, were also the publishers (under contract to the Atlantic Telegraph Company) of the book on the 1865 expedition written by William Russell and illustrated with lithographs after the paintings made on board ship by Robert Dudley. From the credits above, the firm provided the printing facilities on board Great Eastern that year, and perhaps also in 1866.

In its issue of 6 September 1865, the Chicago Tribune , quoting a bulletin from the correspondent of the London Daily News, had this note on the printing arrangements on board Great Eastern on the 1865 cable expedition:

The business like system observed in recording the events of each day is worthy of note. Lithographic workmen with stone and press had one of the ordinary ship’s cabins given up to them. Every morning the diary of the preceding day was written by Dr. Russell, and a copy taken on the stone by Mr. John C. Dean[e]. A slip was then lithographed, and a hundred copies struck off. Meanwhile envelopes were addressed to the editors of twenty-five American journals, and to Scotland and Ireland, were kept in readiness, and as each day’s news was told off, it was added to the stock already folded for posting. By this means letters were sent off simultaneously, and without a moment’s unnecessary delay.

Mechanics Magazine had a more detailed description of the printing facilities and procedures in its issue of 25 August 1865:



In France, Mr. Russell’s account of the voyage of the “Great Eastern” with the Atlantic cable has given so great an interest to the enterprise that most of the French papers have begun the translation of his log.

Literature was not neglected in the big ship during the expedition, a lithographer being specially retained on board. His duty it was to lithograph and print the previous day’s diary of events, as written by Mr. Russell and copied out by Mr. J.C. Deane. Envelopes addressed to the editors of twenty-five American journals, and to the editors of sixty-five published in England, Scotland, and Ireland, were kept in readiness, and as each day’s news was told off it was added to the stock already folded for posting. By this means the letters were sent off simultaneously, and without a moment’s unnecessary delay. The “Terrible” took the American bag, and would forward it from Newfoundland.

A form, showing the number of miles paid out and the number run, was drawn out and signed by Mr. Canning, which was also lithographed and a number struck off, with blank spaces for the figures. This bulletin was issued every day, and stuck up in a conspicuous part of the deck, informing all of the position of the ship and the quantity of cable run.

Cover by Henry O’Neil for
the 1865 ship’s newspaper
The Atlantic Telegraph

Nor was this all; a publication of high literary and artistic pretensions was issued every week from the lithographic press. From inspection we are able to pronounce the Atlantic Telegraph, edited by Mr. Henry O’Neil, A.R.A., illustrated by Mr. R. Dudley and the editor, to be the most highly-finished production ever published at sea. The frontispiece is composed of well-executed portraits of the leading men engaged in the expedition: the Atlantic telegraph flag, with its combination of stars and union jack, floats in the background; the “Great Eastern” and her guard of honour are in the front, and the whole is enclosed in a neat framework of cable. The sketches are full of humour, especially one by Mr. Dudley, of Mr. Cyrus Field taking his turn of duty as watchman in the tank. Under the head of “Births” we find the following:— “August 2nd. On board the ‘Great Eastern,’ Sir Optimus Cable; his unfortunate father dying at the same moment.” “On the 8th inst., Mr. Varley of a Formula, stillborn.” The last page is occupied by a song entitled “The buoy I left behind me,” air “The girl I left behind me;” a portrait of the said buoy being prefixed.

Of the printing methods used on board ship in the 19th century, Steven Roberts writes:

There were several autographic and anastatic processes around in the 1850s and 60s. They used used a special paper with a glazed surface on which you wrote or drew with a peculiar ink; a lithographer then transferred the image to stone or zinc by pressure and took off copies. As well as handwriting they could reproduce line drawings.

Waterlow Lithographic Press

Shown is an engraving of a small “office-sized” lithographic press sold in London in 1855 by Waterlow & Son. According to their ad:

“Nearly One Thousand of these Presses have now been sold, and are being successfully used in all Her Majesty’s Government Offices, Public and Private Schools, Railway Companies, Assurance Offices, and also by the most influential Bankers, Merchants, Clergymen, &c., in the United Kingdom.”

Further details of Waterlow’s lithographic presses may be seen on this page.

I think that Waterlow were the largest makers / distributors of small litho presses in the UK.  As you can see it really is a “desk-top” model. These were used for “duplicating” letters and for printing some sorts of office stationery, and would obviously have been suitable for ship-borne use. The art was in preparing the stone or the zinc plate for printing.

There were specialist “lithographic writers” who had mastered writing in reverse on the stone, or more commonly, by the 1850s, writing on the shiny autographic paper with oily ink as described above. This “offset” method of making the lithographic image allowed the original image to be “right-reading,” and avoided the need to learn reverse writing. A similar process is used in modern photo offset lithography.

The charge in London for providing autographic paper and ink, “working the stone,” supplying paper, and “striking off” 50 folio copies in 1872 was less than ten shillings. The Cunard and India ships had small litho presses for their ship newspapers; no doubt the Great Eastern had one as well.
Waterlow & Son, who were lithographic printers as well as press-makers, introduced the private telegraph to London between their office in the City and their works in 1858. Waterlow’s printed telegraph stamps for Bonelli’s, the Electric, and the Universal Private companies, and somewhat later, most of the Eastern Telegraph Company’s telegram forms and envelopes. The firm was later a major supplier of printing to the GPO, including postage stamps and promotional posters.

Document printed on board Great Eastern, 1866

Details of Shipboard Publications

1865: Great Eastern left Ireland on July 29th and the expedition was abandoned on August 11th after the failure to recover the broken cable. The ship stopped briefly in Ireland on August 17th and arrived at Sheerness on August 19th. William Russell’s official diary of the expedition, 37 manuscript pages printed on board day by day, was published in The Times that same day.

Five issues of The Atlantic Telegraph were published: Saturday July 29th, Wednesday August 2nd (shortly before the cable broke), Saturday August 12th (the day after the recovery attempt was abandoned), Thursday August 17th (just before the arrival of the ship in Ireland), and an undated issue with illustrations by Robert Dudley and the words to a parody sung by Samuel Canning, “The Buoy I Left Behind Me,” the last item in the bound volume of that year’s publications.

1866: Great Eastern sailed from Ireland on July 13th and landed the cable at Heart’s Content on July 28th. The ships of the expedition then spent most of August and the first week in September in recovering and completing the lost 1865 cable, landing it at Newfoundland on September 7th. Great Eastern set sail for Liverpool on September 9th and arrived there on the 19th.

John C. Deane kept a diary of the 1866 expedition which was printed on board ship and subsequently published in newspapers after his return to England. Two additional pages give the text of congratulatory messages sent to Cyrus Field at Heart’s Content by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, as well as the messages exchanged over the cable between Queen Victoria and President Andrew Johnson.

This year also had five publications, but with more varied content than in 1865. Two issues of The Great Eastern Telegraph and Test Room Chronicle provided news of ship and shore (Saturday July 21st and Saturday July 28, together with a supplement reproducing the text of the messages between the Queen and the President), and a third was published on September 8th after the landing of the 1865 cable detailing the messages received over the recovered cable. There were also playbills for two entertainments: a satirical musical entitled A Field Glass (dated July 1866 and according to newspaper reports of the time, performed on July 4th on the way to Ireland); and Contentina: A Comic Operetta in Three Tableaux, performed on September 17th during the return voyage to England.

Last revised: 19 April, 2018

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