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

Atlantic Telegraph:
Letter from a Shareholder to
Mr Whitehouse, and His Reply

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

While there were other factors, it is generally accepted that Whitehouse’s insistence on using high voltage induction coils was ultimately responsible for the failure of the cable. The Board of Directors of the Company fired Whitehouse and issued a statement censuring him, to which he replied publicly by means of letters to newspapers and privately published pamphlets.

This pamphlet, published by Whitehouse late in 1858, consists of a letter to Whitehouse from “a shareholder”, identified only as “F.M.” and Whitehouse’s reply.

--Bill Burns













November 26th, 1858.




It was with the greatest pleasure that I read your letter of application to the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, which appeared in the St. James’s Chronicle of the 28th ult., and with much anxiety that I awaited the result, of which we were informed in your subsequent letter in the same paper.

You have, I assure you, my warmest and deepest sympathy. The proceedings and conduct of the Directors in reference to the present state and position of the cable, and especially towards yourself (in the absence of any rational explanation), is absolutely a mystery,—considering the pecuniary interest they have in the success of the undertaking, and which alone might have been considered sufficient to insure their doing their best.

Nothing that has appeared from head quarters (if there are such quarters), pretending to be an explanation, deserves a moment’s consideration from the Shareholders.

It carries neither truth nor reason on the face of it.

All that has come from your pen, on the other hand, must carry conviction to every mind not labouring under some foreign and sinister influence. It cannot be for want of evidence, but for want of honesty, that you are not listened to, and placed in your proper position.

For you have not dealt in mere assertions, but (what no other has attempted to do) advanced proof in support of your strongly-expressed views and opinions.

From first to last you have, as it appears to me, acted the part of one whose heart was in his work, urged on by the love of science, and zeal for the accomplishment of an enterprise which would be one of its proudest triumphs. And possessing that confidence and proper self-respect which science, based on induction and accompanied with uprightness of intention, must ever inspire, you have done what every right-minded officer in the army would have done, and been justified in doing, in case of a pressing emergency, in the culpable and disgraceful absence of his superior in command—advance his troops against the enemy without orders, and contrary to the strict rules of military discipline. Who is there that can fail to perceive that this is a case of Science versus Ignorance, supported, on this occasion, by their respective allies, Truth, Honesty, Sincerity, on one side, and their opposites on the other !

I do greatly fear a serious injury to the cable, and a complete failure in the success of the enterprise, in the hands of those who are now conducting the electrical department, and I may add, of those who are directing every department.

I really am astonished that some movement has not taken place on the part of a large body of the Shareholders. Day after day have I opened the papers, looking for something of the sort, and have been disappointed.

May I be permitted to suggest something of this kind; at all events, there can be no harm in my doing so. That you put into the Chronicle and other papers a letter, proposing to the Shareholders that a meeting be held in some central position, say Liverpool, on a day to be afterwards fixed, and requesting each of them to signify to you by letters, their willingness, or not, to attend such meeting, to afford you an opportunity of “submitting to them, and substantiating the fact and figures given in your last letter in the ‘Chronicle,’ together with the calculations upon which they are based,” and afford the Shareholders an opportunity of stating their views and wishes; and, if considered desirable, memorialising the Directors on the subject.

If it is not asking too much of you, I should really be very glad to know from you, what you think they are about, and what you propose to do yourself. I hope I am not taking too great a liberty in proposing to you such questions, and indeed in addressing to you this letter at all. But I am greatly interested in the whole subject, and especially as regards your future position in reference to the cable.

I, in common with many others, felt ourselves safe in your hands, and now we feel at sea.

You can imagine our disappointment on arriving at Valentia, to find the cable silent, and yourself absent.

My dear Sir, yours very truly,    

P.S.—You are at liberty to make any use you please of this letter, with one exception—that my name do not appear.




Your letter is one of several which at the present juncture I have received from Shareholders to whom I am personally unknown, containing expressions of the utmost confidence and cordiality in co-operation.

It is a source of the deepest satisfaction to me to find this sentiment so widely spread among those to whom my doings were first perhaps made known at the time when, shortly after the landing of the cable at Valentia, my earnest anxiety (it may be said my over zeal) for the welfare of the Company led to my dismissal, having attempted to supply to the best of my ability the personal presence, administrative energy and activity which were wanting on the part of the Directors.

The comprehensiveness of your letter enables me in one to reply to all; and thus briefly to lay before the Shareholders, prior to their meeting, an opinion which, as Electrician Projector, they can call upon me to give, upon the past, present, and future of the Atlantic Telegraph enterprise.

As it is probable that, at that meeting, reference may and perhaps must necessarily be made to circumstances connected personally with myself and my position with regard to the Directors, I think it but right to state, that I shall enter into nothing in a hostile or party spirit. I shall ask for no proxies. I shall canvass no votes. Such questions shall be decided on their own merits. I simply challenge the most minute investigation into everything that I have done.

Aware that unfriendly feelings have been arrayed against me, and unjust charges made, it has been difficult, under such circumstances, to avoid at times the use of language which may wound some for whom it was not intended.

There are in the Board men capable of the highest and noblest feelings, of whom it has grieved me to be obliged in their collective capacity to speak disparagingly; men whom, as individuals, I shall ever respect and esteem; but whom I cannot isolate from their relation as integral parts of a body which has acted, as I believe, unwisely in the extreme towards the enterprise which they control, and not less unjustly towards myself.

Thrown off though I have been by the Directors, the Atlantic Telegraph still has my warmest, as it had my earliest sympathies, and though my efforts have been ignored, and may remain unrecognised and unrewarded, I still would labour for its success; satisfied if assured of the confidence of the Shareholders in the earnestness and integrity of my efforts towards the re-attainment by your Company of the high position which it has, I believe, justly forfeited, but which it may yet again, I hope, as justly claim to hold.

But to return to a consideration of the “present state and condition of the cable.”

It grieves me to say, that recent and most reliable information compels me to admit the full force of your fears as regards serious injury.

When, shortly after landing, the insulation of the cable became seriously defective, I adopted, first as a matter of pre- caution, and secondly in order to attain good signals,—a greatly diminished intensity of battery power; it being well known to practical men that any great increase thereof would be, in a defective line, contrary to sound principles, as well as useless and dangerous to the last degree. Acting upon this principle, the intensity of the battery-power employed was, under my direction, gradually reduced from 120 elements to 20, with which diminished intensity of current, communication with Newfoundland was more easily as well as safely maintained. It wag thus worked till I left Valentia.

The Electricians subsequently sent to fulfil my duties thought it right to make use of an intensity of current in round figures just twenty times as great as this-380 to 420 cells of the same battery having been employed, and this enormous force having even been made use of by one of the Electricians, conjointly and simultaneously with the current from the gigantic induction coils, which he had then seen for the first time. Of the force and peculiarities of these coils he was of course practically ignorant, and although he made a report upon them, with experiments, to prove that they, when used alone, had very probably injured the insulation of the cable, yet himself thus employed them superadded to the battery in the most reckless manner, attempting meanwhile to justify his unphilosophical use of such hazardous power by assertions that the state of the cable was so bad, that it could not be made worse.

The use of these measures has been the cause, doubtless, of the manifest deterioration in the condition of the cable at the Irish end, which commenced not long after my recall from Valentia.

The adoption of similarly ruinous measures at a later date at Newfoundland, was there, in like manner, immediately followed by like results:—the insulation at that end of the cable, till that time perfect, has rapidly given way under the use of the enormous electrical force employed.

I appeal to an early telegram of the Directors to me at Valentia, to show by their manifest distrust of my judgment in the use thereof, that they were not unaware of such a possible source of danger, while the Secretary in his letter to the papers announcing the receipt of these words, “Daniel’s now in circuit,” directly speaks of “most extraordinary and (to the cable) dangerous efforts:”yet these efforts were allowed. The now manifest injury at both ends of the line, from the unnecessary use of this extraordinary electrical power, added to the pre-existing faulty state at this end, makes the recovery of the cable a matter of the gravest doubt. Nor have the recent miserably inadequate and tardy efforts at laying the shore end at Valentia thrown any ray of hope upon the matter—nor were they, indeed, in themselves of a nature calculated to do so. I do not, however, think its recovery impossible, though I am not prepared to renew on the same terms the offer made by me before such electrical injury was known to have existed.

It is undeniable that the communication both ways was the very best, most perfect and most rapid during the three or four days immediately following the repairs of the cable made by my desire in the harbour, and before the formidable amount of battery force was prepared for use: and, conversely, that failure followed closely upon the use of those extraordinary efforts. Judging, therefore, of the probabilities of things by the known relation of cause and effect, I am constrained to admit the probability of the line having remained in successful operation had not this known destructive amount of force been employed. The Atlantic cable is not the first gutta-percha insulated line which has been so ruined.

I turn now to the numerical data with reference to the working which I promised to lay before the Shareholders.

On the 20th of August, the second day after the repairs alluded to, by permission of the Superintendent at Newfoundland, the clerks at that station conversed with their friends at Valentia (after business was over), at the highest speed yet attained. Eighty-four words in 36 minutes, and forty-one in 15 minutes of both of which I have the record slips for reference, with time marked every minute upon the paper, automatically by the station clock—these being at the rate of two and a third, and two and three-quarters words per minute, spelt in full;—part of this latter message is even at a higher rate, which could have been maintained as perfectly throughout. Let it not be supposed that this speed was attained by any sacrifice of accuracy in working; far otherwise, as the slips themselves testify, even the error which crept into the published telegrams are due, not to the cable, but to careless re-transmission between Valentia and London.

Two and three-quarters words per minute give 165 words per hour—and this at 2s. 6d. per word (our present tariff) would give £20 12s. 6d. per hour.

Say £20 per hour, and allow four hours in the twenty-four for unavoidable delays and obstructions, and this would equal £400 per day.

10 per cent. on present capital  £50,000   |   6 days at £400 =  £2400 per week.
Reserve 50,000   | 52  
Per current expenses; maintenance
of two stations and offices
24,800   |
  or,  £124,800 per annum.

  This rate of working would have given nearly five words per minute by the adoption of the system of “abbreviation or code signals” spoken of in my report of January 4, 1858, and published by the Directors. We have, therefore, realised absolutely more than in that report I ventured to promise,—though I have unjustly been taunted with failure.

This might have been “the present” of our Company, had not the cable been silenced.

Much more may be the “future,” if we be but earnest and early at our work. I say earnest and early, for I cannot, if I could, conceal the fact, that there are others at work, who, profiting by what we have learned at such cost, are ready to take advantage of our halting, and mount the breach which we have made.

Waiting as if to give us time to recover the blow under which we at present stagger, they are ready to advance if we fail to do so. Advancing, too, unencumbered by a load of sunken capital, they will shortly, without waiting for a Government guarantee, shoot far ahead of us, unless we vigorously strike to maintain the advantage with which we started.

While, therefore, there has been ample cause for disappointment, there yet is much to cheer and to encourage us. Through dangers and difficulties of every sort, the first success of our great work has been actually accomplished: the certainty of its commercial, no less than its electrical, success demonstrated.

The enterprise is now merely for a while in abeyance; a cloud hangs over the undertaking; but it is one which the indomitable spirit of the British nation will find means shortly to remove.

With our present knowledge we work not upon chance, but upon a basis of clearly ascertained facts. A new cable of less weight, and of better construction, can be made for far less money than the present one, and laid—I say advisedly—almost certainly, without risk, for a sum not exceeding £200,000. Upon this point, I hope to have a proposal to make, for the benefit of the Company, the details of which I am now engaged in maturing.

Let no half-hearted men, however, take part in the work.

 Let none join it who are not in some sort moved by the selfsame spirit which gained for us the day at Alma. Let us feel that our national character, our prestige, our honour are at stake; and the work will be done,—done well, and quickly.

Let there be no jealousies, no self-seeking in the work; emulation if you please, aye, and honourable rivalry, but let it be as to who shall labour hardest, and who shall sacrifice most for the cause: above all, let there be no baneful and jealous secrecy in the movements of the Company. Let the scientific departments throw wide their doors; and from the first invite, as I had always personally wished to do, the friendly criticism and co-operation of men of science and of experience. Let the knowledge to be gained during the progress of such a work belong to the world, and in no niggard spirit be withheld; but be largely and liberally given out, that fellow-labourers in other fields may reap the advantage. Let us do so, satisfied that whether we see the immediate benefit thereof or no, we at least shall be fulfilling our mission in maturing, aiding, and realising, as far as in us lies, the latest and most noble gift of science; and in cementing by its means in peaceful union the scattered families of the human race.

Finally, let me confess to a feeling of deep humiliation, when I contemplate the present financial condition of the Company, and contrast it with what it might, and, I believe, ought to have been (in spite of our disasters), after such a success. I have reason to believe, that had the management of our Company been such as to inspire confidence, we might now, without asking for Government guarantee, have had the command of any amount of capital.

I am,
  My dear Sir,
    Yours truly,


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Last revised: 10 February, 2012

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