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

Cable Projectors - Tal Shaffner

The winners write the history books, so there is very little information about the other companies which planned to girdle the earth with telegraph cables in the 1850s.

One of them was the Western Union Telegraph Company which proposed to connect San Francisco with Moscow by constructing a line overland from Vancouver, British Columbia, through Russian America (Alaska ), beneath the Bering Strait, then overland again through Russia and on into Moscow.   John Casale has an interesting website with the story of Franklin Pope, a major figure in 19th century telegraphy, who worked on the Western Union project surveying the route from Vancouver to the Yukon River.

Another competitor  was Colonel Taliaferro P(reston) Shaffner of Kentucky (1818 - 1881), an early telegraph promoter:

"By an act of the Missouri legislature approved March 3, 1851, Tal P. Shaffner of Kentucky, Isaac M. Vietch, and their associates, were granted letters of incorporation under the name and style of the "St. Louis and Missouri River Telegraph Company" for erecting and managing a telegraph line from St. Louis through Jefferson City, Boonville, Lexington, Independence, and Weston, to St. Joseph, Missouri. The stock was to be issued as fast as the line was completed, and was to be non-taxable until a dividend was declared. Because of this, the telegraph line was built through Franklin County along the St. Louis and Jefferson City road the following season. However, few poles were used as the wire was fastened on the trees, which were plentiful along the entire road in those days. This line was used regularly until after the Missouri Pacific Railroad was completed through the state."
[from the website: Historical Assessment of Franklin County - now defunct, but archived here.]

Shaffner was the editor of the American Telegraphic Magazine, and produced Shaffner's Telegraph Companion; he also wrote "The Telegraph Manual" (1859) and other books such as "International Exhibition, 1862. The Illustrated Record of the International Exhibition of the Industrial Arts and Manufactures, and the Fine Arts, of All Nations, in 1862" and "History of the United States of America: from the earliest period to the present time".

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Shaffner's Telegraph Manual, 1859
Images courtesy of Bob Voss

The Library of Congress describes Shaffner as "Inventor, associate in the introduction of the telegraph and north Atlantic cable; telegraph company official; author and historian" and has a daguerreotype of him created between 1844 and 1860.

Image credit: Daguerreotype Collection Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4159.  Taliaferro Preston Shaffner, full-length portrait, three-quarters to the right, head front, standing, holding a tall hat. On the left is a chair and on the right a small table covered with tablecloth.

By 1857, Congress had approved funding for Cyrus Field's Atlantic Telegraph Company. Shaffner, proposed to run a cable from America to Europe via Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, and presented his case to the Senate in a 46 page memorial.  The Senate printed the document in the records of the 35th Congress, 1st Session, as Mis. Doc No. 263; history, of course, tells us that Shaffner was unsuccessful in his project.

1865: 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.

The document makes interesting reading, outlining the shortcomings of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, its owners, investors, and engineering staff while promoting Shaffner's altruistic wish to create a telegraph line for the benefit of the "United States and the citizens thereof for all time".

Click here to see the full text (226 KBytes) of the





An amendment of the act of Congress approved March 3, 1857,
entitled "An act to expedite telegraphic communication for the
uses of the government in its foreign intercourse," so that
the subsidy granted by the said act shall be general in
its application to all Atlantic ocean telegraph lines.

See also Steve Roberts' story of Tal Shaffner and the Northern Line.

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Last revised: 6 November, 2007

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