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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 Northern Line – The Arctic Cables
by Steven Roberts

The Northern Line – The Arctic Cables

There was another Atlantic Cable, and it was planned as the very first intercontinental cable in the year 1852. It persisted in the imagination of many people in Britain and America for over fifteen years. It had nothing to do with the Bretts, or Field, or Bright, or Whitehouse, or Morse. Thought of as a wild speculation for many years its sponsors fought for subsidies for its construction in London and Washington, eventually obtaining not one but two Acts of the British Parliament, and even one in Canada to enable it to proceed. Yet its history is almost unrecorded...

Instead of taking the shortest route across the Atlantic Ocean, from Western Ireland to Newfoundland off Canada, in one immense length of underwater cable, it was intended to run in a chain of relatively short submarine circuits connected by land lines across the wintry North Atlantic from Caithness in Northern Scotland to the Orkney Islands, to the Shetland Islands, to the Faroe Islands, to Iceland, to Greenland, to Labrador on the Canadian mainland and hence to the United States.

It came to be called the “Northern Line”, and was promoted for several good reasons: the depth and sea-bed of the Atlantic Ocean was, literally, unfathomable. There was no reputable survey of the ocean floor in existence in the early 1850s its immense depth and mountainous undulations could only be guessed at by hydrographers. There was no single vessel existing or anticipated that could carry the requisite tonnage of iron-bound insulated cable needed to span the Atlantic. The longest submarine cable, between England and France, was 24 miles in length; even connecting Wales and Ireland by telegraph, about 60 miles, was thought improbable.

The “Northern Line” is inextricably linked with the name of Taliaferro Preston Shaffner. Shaffner was a telegraphic “heavy”, first employed by the owners of the Morse patents in 1851 to break the telegraph business of Henry O’Rielly (often spelled O'Reilly) in his home state of Kentucky by building a competitive line. He was president and engineer to several Morse lines in the American middle-west. Having made a 1,400 yard long cable across the Ohio river in 1852 “Tal” Shaffner styled himself America’s expert in submarine telegraphy. In May 1853 he became the first president of the “American Telegraph Confederation” and editor-in-chief of its monthly magazine, the Telegraph Companion. The “Confederation” was a thinly-disguised attempt by the Morse patent-owners to unite its licensees against the competitive patents of Alexander Bain and Royal House. The sub-title of the Companion, “devoted to the science and art of the Morse American telegraph” sums up its unbiased editorial stance. It was contemptuous of British technology in telegraphy and cable-construction. The competition to the Companion, the Telegraph Review, it should be said, had been less than flattering of the achievements of Professor Morse.

Later in his writing career, during 1859, Shaffner complied and published the “Telegraph Manual”, an excellent history of the world-wide industry at that time.

However, back to the depths of the Atlantic…

The Ocean Telegraph Company
The first proposal for connecting Europe and America electrically was that of the Ocean Telegraph Company, projected in London in July 1852 by C W and J J Harrison of Larkfield Lodge, Richmond, Surrey in England, whose “exertions, too, by negotiation with the Danish and Canadian Governments, and by consulting all authorities on Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, with reference to the permanent security of the land sections of the line through those countries, have imparted to the whole project an aspect of promise” It had a capital of £500,000 and proposed an elaborate route using a series of cables from Britain to North America. Its prospectus showed that it intended to lay a cable from (spelling as given) Caithness in Scotland to Kirkwall on the Orkneys, another to Lerwick on the Shetlands, then to Shorshaven on the Faroes, to Reikiavik on Iceland with a land-line to Sneefelds, a cable to Graah’s Island in Kioge Bay in Greenland, a land-line to Juliana’s Hope, crossing the Davis Straits from there to Byron’s Bay in Labrador, with a long land-line across Quebec and Lower Canada to the United States. The appalling terrain of route suggests the use of an atlas in its planning rather than survey on the ground. It was to have a total circuit of 2,500 miles of which from 1,400 to 1,600 were to be submarine. A cable branch was proposed from the Shetlands to Bergen in Norway with a land-line Christiania, Stockholm, Gothenburg and a short cable to Copenhagen. The Ocean Telegraph Company intended to acquire a Royal Charter to protect its shareholders, but although it was periodically mentioned in London and Washington until 1856, when it sought the same subsidy as the Atlantic Telegraph Company, it did not proceed beyond publicity.

In 1852 there appeared a “little book in which the promoters of this Company detail the nature of the work, and discuss its practicability, (it) is replete with instruction on every point of the undertaking, and shows most satisfactorily that the project has not been launched crudely upon the world without preliminary and extensive research, and without having first used a proper amount of effort to obtain the co-operation and assistance of all the Governments with whom it would be necessary to negotiate.”

This was in 1851 when even the county of Caithness in Scotland, let alone the wildernesses of Iceland, Greenland and Labrador, had not a single mile of telegraph line - or even the hope of a railway line. The nearest wire was to arrive in neighbouring Aberdeen four years later.

However, the utilitarian Mechanics’ Magazine in London of 1852 gave a substantial review of the project. And it wasn’t just a London or New York stock promotion; De Bow’s Review, the economic magazine of the South, in New Orleans picked up the Ocean Telegraph scheme.

The project was taken up by James Wyld, MP and Geographer to the Queen. Wyld was a curious figure, being successor to his father of the same name as a cartographer and map-publisher of West Strand, London. He was Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall from 1847 until 1852, and again between 1857 and 1868. He is most famous for erecting the sixty foot diameter “Great Globe” in Leicester Square in London as part of the Great Exhibition of 1851. During 1852 Wyld travelled privately to Copenhagen, Denmark, and obtained formal permission of the Danish government to land telegraph cables on their territories of the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland.  He was unable to find capital for the project and his concession lapsed. 

At some point in time the Northern Line was taken up by Tal Shaffner in New York.

The Transatlantic Telegraph Company
In the first issue of his magazine, the Telegraph Companion, in January 1854 Shaffner noted with approval the article on the Ocean telegraph in De Bow’s Review. He was clearly impressed with their plan and dwelt upon the route in later issues of the journal.

During the latter part of 1854 he toured Europe. He returned to New York in February 1855 to announce a grant of Letters Patent by His Majesty Frederick VII, King of Denmark, on the 16th August 1854, for the exclusive right to lay a line over Greenland, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands to Denmark for 100 years. The line was to be complete in ten years, or have at least £10,000 sterling expended upon it, within three years, under a penalty of either forfeiting the concession, or paying a fine equal to the said sum.

Shaffner immediately enlisted Dr Horace Badger Tebbetts, a wealthy planter, to provide finance and to manage its affairs in New York. Like Shaffner H B Tebbetts had several telegraphic irons in the fire; in 1856 he organised the first telegraphs in Florida. He then formed the Cuba Telegraph Company, with the intention of working cables initially from Havana to Key West. The Cuba Telegraph Company had grand designs, it soon planned telegraphs from Havana to Cape Antonio and Yucatan in Mexico, with land lines to Mexico City across the continent to Tehuantepec on the Pacific coast and by cable down the south coast of Latin America. These Latin dreams quickly faded away, the Spanish authorities in Havana were not disposed to accept unasked-for Yanqui intervention in the island’s economy.

Tebbetts had also promoted the Newfoundland Telegraph Company in 1854, for a cable between Canada and that island, the first small step across the water towards Europe. But he and his company were soon displaced in Canada by a combination of American and English investors, led by Cyrus Field.

In the same month of February 1855 Shaffner announced his promotion of the Transatlantic Telegraph Company, with H B Tebbetts as Agent, at 111, Broadway, New York, and S R Croskey, the American consul, as Agent for the British Transatlantic Telegraph Company at 84, King William Street, London.  

The Transatlantic route he publicised was from Labrador to Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes to Norway; hence to Copenhagen in Denmark and to Stockholm in Sweden. He anticipated a line continuing east to St Petersburg in Russia. There were several reasons for this route, which conspicuously avoided any connection with Britain; Shaffner’s visit to London had been less than successful, his opinions of British telegraphy had preceded him and his connection with the Morse patentees was well-known. Expecting the ‘red carpet’ he was disappointed, only one of the telegraph companies in Britain would receive him. And there was a war on between Britain and Russia in the Crimea; Shaffner chose to visit St Petersburg before London, so the government also ignored his importuning of support. Neither was English capital forthcoming in 1855.

Whilst in England Shaffner did manage to recruit the name, if not the body, of John Watkins Brett to be joint ‘gérant’ with him of the Transatlantic company. It is not clear why Brett’s title of ‘manager’ was rendered in French; other than his being the ‘gérant’ in London of the Submarine Telegraph Company between France and England. Brett chose to be silent about the scheme in Britain; probably because in London, in 1855 or 1856, he was promoting the European & American Submarine Telegraph Company, reviving his Atlantic Ocean cable of 1845, without Shaffner’s assistance. This soon evolved, with the support of other Americans such as Cyrus Field, into the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company, as history tells us, raised the money for the Newfoundland to Ireland cable in 1857, and constructed its long circuit. Sadly it lasted only a few weeks.

But every cloud has a silver lining:

In De Bow’s Review in 1858 Shaffner was to write: “The subject of an ocean telegraph was presented by me, in 1854 and 1855, prominently before the people of America and Europe, as an enterprise worthy of the most liberal consideration, and one that was destined to produce results wonderful. Trade and commerce would be accelerated, and it would serve as a means of arresting strife, and for the promotion of peace and good will among men. The ideas thus promulgated throughout the world, met with a cheerful response from all nations. At this time speculation came forward and seized it with an unparalleled ferocity. Mystification was thrown over the enterprise, and by the force of money and a combination of circumstances, the public was led on to confide in the purity and integrity of the undertaking for a line from Newfoundland to Ireland. Practical telegraphers did all they could to warn the public of the scheme of folly; but it availed nothing. Now that this speculation is near its end, the better judgment begins to realize the true state of the case, and a conviction seems to be universal that the whole affair was a scheme of the most reckless and adventuresome speculation. The consequence resulting from the failure of this stupendous bubble, will be injurious to honest and practicable enterprises. This is to be expected, but it is also to be hoped that a discriminating public, on both continents, will at once free practicable and experienced telegraphers from any responsibility in the creation or management of the attempts to lay the cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. No practical telegrapher is engaged in that enterprise: no Faraday, Lardner, Wheatstone, Jacobi, Steinheil, Henry, or any profound electric philosopher can be found engaged m it. Those who have had charge of the scientific department either have some invention to sell, or they are labourers for their hire.”

The North Atlantic Telegraph Company
And so the failure of the Newfoundland cable gave new life to Shaffner’s Northern Line; in New York and London the Transatlantic Telegraph was revived as the North Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1858.

Shaffner listed the advantages of the northern route over the direct line from Ireland:

1] The strength of the transatlantic telegraph cable, being about one-fourth the length of the Atlantic telegraph cable, can be greatly increased over the cable of the latter without exceeding the tonnage per vessel.

2] The Atlantic telegraph cable can have but one electric wire or means of communication, owing to its great length and tonnage. The Transatlantic cable can have five electric wires, and then not exceed the tonnage of the cable employed per vessel by the Atlantic company.

3] The electric circuits of the transatlantic line being short, there will be but little retardation of electric currents, and in this respect has pre-eminent advantages over any other ocean route.

4] With five wires, and other things being equal, the transatlantic line can transmit five times more intelligence than can be sent by or over any other ocean route.

5] As the submarine sections of the transatlantic telegraph are short, any one section may fail without destroying the remainder of the line. Any part of the Atlantic line failing, the whole line is forever lost – “deep in the bosom of the ocean buried.”

He now carefully outlined the distances involved from New York to London: from Canada across the Davis’ Straits to Greenland 460 miles, from Greenland to Iceland 390 miles, from Iceland to the Faroe Isles, 270 miles, from the Faroe Isles to Scotland 190 miles, totalling 1,310 miles of submarine cable, plus land lines from New York to the coast of Labrador, via Montreal, Quebec, 1,190 miles, across Greenland, subterranean, 210 miles, across Iceland 300 miles, across Faroe Isles, 30 miles, “Scotland” to London, 720 miles, totalling 2,430 miles of land line.

Map Shewing the Atlantic Telegraph and other Submarine
Cables in Europe and America from The Atlantic Telegraph.
Note the route of Tal Shaffner's proposed cable.

Shaffner commenced to take another important step in the execution of his project, that of personally exploring the intended route by Greenland and Iceland. Hitherto he had been arguing the suitability of the Northern Line from the data furnished by travellers and seamen, whose observations were not, of course, immediately directed to the object he had in view.

He chartered a small sailing bark, the Wiman of 197 tons, embarked his wife and all his household goods; and set out from Boston, on August 29 1859, to sail over the course of the North Atlantic cables. He reached London without difficulty in November 1859. From there he travelled to Copenhagen where, on the December 20, 1859, he, pointed out that he had, in accord with his concession, spent more than the £11,000 within the three first years, and offered a further sum of 100,000 Danish dollars by March 20, 1860. The Danish government further agreed on  February 16, 1860 that if a full survey of the route proved it impracticable it would refund Shaffner’s bond; a year being allowed for the survey. Obstacles such as volcanoes, ice-fields, auroras, and the nature of the bottom of the North Atlantic were cited.

The Danish agreement of February 16, 1860 permitted a variation in the western terminal; instead of the original line from the Faroes to Norway and Sweden for Copenhagen, it was to run from the Faroes to Scotland, by way of the Shetlands or the Orkneys, with the condition that it would continue to Jutland in Denmark. “The line from the Faroe Isles to Scotland to be only used for correspondence between North America on the one side, and Great Britain and Ireland on the other side; consequently, not for the correspondence between North America and the continent of Europe, that correspondence being exclusively reserved to the line conducted to Denmark”.

The North Atlantic Telegraph Company established its chief office at 61 Moorgate Street in the City of London during 1859.

The Glasgow Herald reported on November 28 1859 that Shaffner was recruiting support in the Merchants’ Hall in their great city.

In Scotland’s second city, Shaffner started off by stating that he was “perfectly convinced that a telegraph cable between Newfoundland and Ireland was impracticable for commercial purposes”. He then detailed to the assembled Glaswegians his explorations of the fjords of Greenland, and declaimed the surprising mildness of the climate. He outlined the soundings that he had made of the near ocean, to Iceland, and the maximum depth of between 800 and 1,00o fathoms that he recorded between there, the Faroes and to Cape Wrath in Sutherlandshire, Scotland. He finished by showing a number of Esquimaux curiosities.

Within a year money was found to have powers granted by the British Parliament for the British & Canadian Telegraph Company in 1859 to make the series of cables; and in the Assembly of Canada for the Canadian & British Telegraph Company, to build the land line across Labrador to Quebec and Montreal and into the United States. These may or may not have been connected with Shaffner’s enterprise as the North Atlantic company continued in existence in both London and New York.

On May 14, 1860 Tal Shaffner was in London presenting the case for the North Atlantic Telegraph to a large gathering of the great and the good at the Royal Geographic Society. He went into some detail on the easy geography and clement climate of potential sites for landing cables in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. He identified specific places for cable landing and for telegraph stations; Thorshaven, on Stromoë Island in the Faroes; Westermanshaven, on the west side of Stromoë; Reijkiavik, Iceland; a bay near Julianshaab, Greenland; and Hamilton’s Inlet, in Labrador, on continental Canada.

The presidents, Earl de Grey and Sir Roderick Murchison, and the secretary, Dr Norton Shaw, of the Royal Geographical Society promptly lobbied for the North Atlantic Telegraph.

In May 1860 a monster deputation consisting of five Members of Parliament, the Postmaster-General of Canada, five Arctic explorers, representatives of the Admiralty and the Anglo-American mercantile and banking communities called upon the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, to demonstrate the case for the North Atlantic Telegraph. The deputation had Tal Shaffer make its case and call for a government survey and soundings of the Northern Line.

Lord Palmerston’s government in London was sufficiently interested to support Shaffner, by now divorced from J W Brett – if they were ever betrothed, and the Admiralty sponsored a “British North Atlantic Telegraph Expedition”, led by the Arctic explorer, Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, in HMS Bulldog, to officially survey Scotland, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador for the cables. The expedition set off from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, with Shaffner on board, in July 1860, and undertook their work successfully.

Captain McClintock reported that “The contour of the sea bottom, and the depth of the ocean throughout, is decidedly favourable, and the soundings very regular.” He was reassuring about any threats from ice or of the strong coast tide on the exposed islands. Iceland, for example, he noted had only been visited by drift ice seven or eight times in every century, and only on two or three occasions did it reach the south coast. “True icebergs are never seen”.

In the United States, the Scientific American magazine in July 1860, enthusing on the need for an Atlantic circuit, wrote positively of the North Atlantic Telegraph. It stated that its short cables could be easily laid and operated as there were now cables in Europe of equal length to it segments. “All persons should wish it success.”

In the same article of July 14, 1860 the Scientific American after noting that, to be successful, the competitive Newfoundland to Ireland cable ought to be laid in one length remarked that the “Floating City”, the mighty steamer Great Eastern, had just docked in New York. As it said, “The Great Eastern appears to have been designed for just such a splendid operation.”

But there was an insurmountable legal problem; the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, the company which had displaced Shaffner’s co-promoter H B Tebbetts in April 1854, had secured, and passed over to the Atlantic Telegraph Company, the sole and exclusive right, for fifty years, to work telegraphs on all the shores of Newfoundland, its dependencies, and all the coast of Labrador and adjacent isles. It declared in 1860 that no cable could land on their concession in Canada without their approval. There was then a continuing argument as to the undefined borders of Labrador.

The Civil War in America commenced in 1861, just after the McClintock expedition returned to Britain from Greenland, and effectively curtailed investment in transatlantic projects. Shaffner went home to fight for the Union and his North Atlantic Telegraph Company maintained a shadowy existence in Moorgate Street for another four years.

Then in late 1865, after Shaffner’s concession with Denmark had run out and the second Newfoundland and Ireland cable had been lost James Wyld, MP, reappeared on the scene after a twelve year absence. He once again descended on the Danes, who enthusiastically reinstituted his rights to access Iceland and Greenland for cables – without any financial deposit that they had demanded of Shaffner and without the need for a collateral line to Copenhagen for European traffic that they had insisted on in 1860. Wyld took control of the moribund North Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1865 and commissioned the experienced cable engineer and telegraph promoter, Nathaniel John Holmes, to prepare the works. Wyld and Holmes were to be busy for several months presenting the case, once again, for the Northern Line to potential investors.

But the North Atlantic cables made only a brief reappearance in 1866. As well as Wyld’s revived enterprise another British & Canadian Telegraph (Northern Line) Act was passed by the British Parliament to maintain their legal existence. All of this activity was done in the brief interim between the two great cable laying exploits of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1865 and 1866 which resulted in the final success of the intercontinental cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. The Northern Line was a second-best solution for the intercontinental connection that, although perfectly viable and well-researched by the 1860s, would never be adopted unless the great cable between Ireland and Newfoundland failed. By 1866 there was overwhelming confidence in the direct route; confidence that was speedily fulfilled in that year. No more was heard of the Northern Line.

It is a relief to note that Tal Shaffner survived the Civil War; he devoted the rest of his life to promoting the use of “blasting oil”, otherwise known as nitro-glycerine, in mining and demolitions. He, of course, advocated the use of electric exploders in his new business.


To read Steve Roberts' story of the Northern Line in context with British telegraph companies of the time, see his Distant Writing website.


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