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

The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company
by James Clerk Maxwell (1857)

Introduction: In September of 1857, after the failure of the first Atlantic cable expedition, James Clerk Maxwell sent a letter to his former schoolfellow and lifelong friend Professor Lewis Campbell. The text of the letter is reproduced in Campbell and Garnett’s 1882 biography: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell wrote poetry for much of his life, including some on technical subjects. His letter to Campbell contained “The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company”, a lament on the cable’s failure, which he suggests was caused by the engineers’ not listening to William Thomson’s advice. The text of the letter is below; the “common song” that Maxwell refers to as the source of his inspiration was “Over the Sea”, words and music by Mrs Groom.

A further parody of this song, entitled “The Lay of the Electricians”, appeared in The Atlantic Telegraph for Wednesday August 2nd, 1865. This was the shipboard newspaper published on board Great Eastern during the Atlantic cable expedition of 1865 for the amusement of the staff and crew, the run of which is reproduced by Willoughby Smith in Appendix A of his 1891 book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy.

In 1872 Maxwell also wrote several stanzas on Thomson’s mirror galvanometer, parodying Tennyson’s “Song III” from The Princess.

-- Bill Burns

The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company

TO LEWIS CAMPBELL, Esq.

Ardhallow, Dunoon, 4th Sept. 1857.

The road along Loch Eck is the most glorious for shape and colour of hills and rocks that I have seen anywhere, specially on a fine calm day, with clouds as well as sun, and with large patches of withered bracken mixed with green on the less steep parts of the hills. Then the crushing and doubling up of the strata, and the slicing and cracking of the already doubled up strata, quite without respect to previous torment, gives a notion of active force, as well as passive, even to ungeological minds. We inspected Duncan Marshall, the Hermit of these parts, and wound up the day with a pull in the boat till dark. . . .

Mrs. Wed[derburn] professes herself ready to “follow follow South” when asked, so when Johnny and I have done our Moidart and Loch Aylort, we shall hoist sail or get up steam or something, and then very likely he may reappear to his parent and aunt, and I shall continue my road with my aunt to wait upon the faithful Tobs, and realise Saturn’s Rings, and probably feed a few natives of the valley with the produce of its soil.

I was writing great screeds of letters to Professor Thomson about those Rings, and lo! he was a-laying of the telegraph which was to go to America, and bringing his obtrusive science to bear upon the engineers, so that they broke the cable with not following (it appears) his advice. However, I know nothing. List to the new words to a common song, which I conceived on the railway to Glasgow. As I have only a bizzing, loose, interruption-to-talking-&-deathblow-to-general-conversation-memory of the orthodox version, I don't know if the metre is correct; but it is some such rambling metre anyhow, and contains some insignificant though apparently treasonable remarks in a perfect thicket of vain repetitions. To avoid these let
                                (u) = “Under the sea,”
so that 2(u), by parity of reasoning, represents two repetitions of that sentiment. This being granted, we shall have as follows:—

THE SONG OF THE ATLANTIC TELEGRAPH COMPANY.
I.

2(u)
Mark how the telegraph motions to me,
2(u)
Signals are coming along,
With a wag, wag, wag;
The telegraph needle is vibrating free,
And every vibration is telling to me
How they drag, drag, drag,
The telegraph cable along,

II.

2(u)
No little signals are coming to me
2(u)
Something has surely gone wrong,
And it’s broke, broke, broke;
What is the cause of it does not transpire,
But something has broken the telegraph wire
With a stroke, stroke, stroke,
Or else they've been pulling too strong.

III.

2(u)
Fishes are whispering. What can it be,
2(u)
So many hundred miles long?
For it’s strange, strange, strange,
How they could spin out such durable stuff,
Lying all wiry, elastic, and tough,
Without change, change, change,
In the salt water so strong.

IV.

2(u)
There let us leave it for fishes to see;
2(u)
They'll see lots of cables ere long,
For we'll twine, twine, twine,
And spin a new cable, and try it again,
And settle our bargains of cotton and grain,
With a line, line, line,—
A line that will never go wrong.

For site visitors who would like to sing along with James Clerk Maxwell, an MP3 file of the tune may be played by clicking here. Thanks to David Morton for rendering the Victorian sheet music for this song, probably for the first time in over a hundred years!

Last revised: 26 October, 2015

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