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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 printing 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. The cable staff all knew each other well from the long preparatory work on the projects, and the shipboard publications reflected this.

Cable engineer Willoughby Smith, in his 1891 book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy, reproduced the covers and text of a number of publications printed on board during the Atlantic cable expeditions of 1865 and 1866. These included the 1865 ship’s newspaper, “The Atlantic Telegraph;” a musical play entitled “A Field Glass” (also 1865); the 1866 newspaper, “The Great Eastern Telegraph;” and “Contentina,” a ‘Comic Operetta’ performed on September 17th 1866.

The 1865 material is credited by Smith 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.

Day and Son, the largest firm of lithographers in Britain at the time, were also the publishers 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 credit above, the firm evidently provided the printing facilities on board Great Eastern that year.

The Great Eastern Telegraph 1866

Cover by Robert Dudley and sample page of
The Great Eastern Telegraph. 1866
and Test-Room Chronicle

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

Images courtesy of Bill Holly

In its issue of 6 September 1865, the Cleveland Leader had this note on the printing arrangements on board Great Eastern on the 1865 cable expedition. Judging by the typos, this was evidently somewhat sloppily copied and modified from other reports:

The business-like system which was observed in recording the events of each log is worthy of note. Lithographic workmen with stone and press, had one of the ordinary ship’s cabins given up to them, and every morning a diary of the proceedings of the day was written by S. Russell, and a copy of it by Mr. John C. Dean. A slip was then biographed and copies struck off, and meanwhile envelopes were addressed to the editors of twenty-five American journals, and 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 unnecessary delay.

Mechanics Magazine had a rather better 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

Last revised: 21 January, 2015

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