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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 Atlantic Telegraph - 1857
by Cyrus W. Field

Introduction: In June 1857, having returned to New York from England with the plans in place to make the first attempt to lay an Atlantic cable during the summer of that year, Cyrus Field published a broadside to answer questions from those in the USA interested in the Atlantic Telegraph. The text was also printed in Canadian Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review, Wm. Weir & Co., Front Street, Toronto, with this introduction:

Cyrus W. Field, of New York, has published a very interesting letter on this subject, which we think of sufficient importance to present to our readers without abridgement.

The broadside also includes a letter to Cyrus Field from the Secretary of the Treasury of the British Government, James Wilson, and this is transcribed here after the main text.

—Bill Burns


Since my return from Europe, numerous letters have been addressed to me, and frequent personal applications have been made, by individuals feeling an interest in the Atlantic Telegraph, for information in reference to that subject.

Of the various inquiries made, some relate to the progress of the construction of the telegraphic cable, and its suitableness for the intended purpose; others to the practicability of safely submerging it, as well as of telegraphing through such a length of wire; all of them to the remunerative prospects of the undertaking.

Constant business occupations having prevented my replying to many of the letters addressed to me on these points, and to any of them in detail, I take this occasion to state some particulars in relation to each of the several heads of inquiry, which may serve as a general reply to all.

The project of uniting Europe and America by a submarine telegraphic cable was undertaken early in the year 1854, by the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, who for this purpose, determined first to connect St. Johns, Newfoundland, the most Eastern port of America, (and lying nearer to Europe than New-York by about eleven hundred miles in a direct line,) with the systems of telegraphs in operation on this continent. This part of the undertaking has been accomplished by means of a submarine cable eighty-five miles in length, across the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, connecting the islands of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, and by long overland lines running across both the islands.

The careful and elaborate investigations of Lieut. Maury, U. S. Navy, into the physical geography of the sea, though instituted for scientific objects rather than for telegraphic purposes, had already resulted in the discovery of a sub-oceanic plan, extending from St. Johns to the west coast of Ireland—the shortest possible route between the shores of the Old and the New World. This plan, which has been justly designated the “Telegraphic Plateau,” was found to possess, in a remarkable degree, two conditions chiefly to be desired for the successful submersion of a telegraphic cable, namely, the absence of currents interfering with the steady descent of the line; and a level bottom, with a stratum likely to remain undisturbed, and adapted to its reception as well as subsequent security and preservation.

A special survey and soundings of this route, made last year, under the orders of the United States Government by Lieut. Berryman, of the United States steamship "Arctic," amply corroborated the data previously obtained by Lieutenant Maury.

The British and American Governments having signified their readiness to encourage the prosecution of the enterprise, and the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company being desirous that this great undertaking should be established on a broad international basis, entered into an alliance with persons of long experience in the telegraphic affairs of Europe, which resulted in the formation, last autumn, in England, of the Atlantic Telegraphic Company, composed of bankers, merchants, and other gentlemen of wealth and high respectability; and comprising, with numerous scientific persons, very many who have been heretofore engaged or interested in submarine telegraphic enterprises. Among the directors are Mr. George Peabody, Mr. William Brown, M.P., of Liverpool, Mr. Gurney, of the house of Overend, Gurney, & Co., Mr. C.S. Lampson, Mr. T.H. Brooking, and others, well known on both sides of the Atlantic.

The capital stock consists of £350,000 stg., in shares of £1000 sterling, each. Three-fourths of the stock were immediately subscribed for in England, (indeed there was an excess of applications for it,) and the remaining fourth was taken for distribution in America. Contracts were at once made with the most eminent manufacturers for the construction of the cable to connect Valentia, Ireland, with St. Johns, Newfoundland, and at a cost much below the previous estimate of the Company. The distance between these two points is 1,640 nautical, or 1,900 statute miles, but the entire length of the cable when manufactured will be nearly twenty-six hundred statute miles, affording a surplus of about seven hundred miles to meet any exigency. Of this cable more than two thousand miles have been already completed and satisfactorily tested, and the whole will be on ship-board and ready for submersion in the course of the next month.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company has been formed in alliance with the New-York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, on the basis of an agreement by which they mutually bind themselves to connect the wires and cables exclusively for a period of fifty years. An act of the Newfoundland Legislature has lately been passed permitting the consolidation of the two companies, whenever they shall see it for their mutual interest; and an act is also now being obtained from the Imperial Parliament for the special incorporation of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and providing, among other things, for the increase of its Capital to one million pounds sterling, with a view to future more extended operations.

With these prefatory observations on the origin and past history of the undertaking, I will now refer more particularly to the heads of inquiry addressed to me.


No particular connected with this great project has been the subject of so much comment through the press as the form and structure of the telegraph cable; but knowing the interested motives with which the writers of several of these communications have put forth their peculiar views, I deem it unnecessary to enter into any special controversy with them on this subject. It may be well believed that the directors have not decided upon a matter so all-important to success, without availing themselves of the most eminent talent and experience which could be commanded. The practical history of submarine telegraphs dates from the successful submersion of the cable between Dover and Calais in 1851, and advantage has been taken of whatever instruction this history could furnish or suggest.

Of the sub-marine cables heretofore laid down, without enumerating others, it. may be interesting to mention that the one between Dover and Calais weighs six tons to the mile; that between Spezzia and Corsica, eight tons to the mile; the wire laid from Varna to Balaclava, and used during the late war, less than three hundred weight to the mile; while the weight of the cable decided on for the Atlantic telegraph is between nineteen hundred weight and one ton to the mile. This cable, to use the words of Dr. Whitehouse, “is the result of many months of thought, experiment and trial. Hundreds of specimens have been made, comprising every variety of form, size, and structure, and most severely tested as to their powers and capabilities; and the result has been the adoption of this, which we know to possess all the properties required, and these in a far higher degree than any cable that has yet been laid. Its flexibility is such as to make it as manageable as a small line; and its strength such that it will bear, in water, over six miles of its own weight suspended vertically.” The conducting medium consists not of one single straight copper wire, but of seven wires of copper of the best quality, twisted around each other spirally, and capable of undergoing great tension without injury. This conductor is then enveloped in three separate coverings of gutta percha of the best quality, forming the core of the cable, round which tarred hemp is wrapped, and over this the outside covering, consisting of eighteen strands of the best quality of iron wire; each strand composed of seven distinct wires, twisted spirally in the most approved manner by machinery adapted to the purpose. The attempt to insulate more than one conducting wire or medium would not only have increased the chances of failure of all of them, but would have necessitated the adoption of a proportionably heavier and more cumbrous cable. The tensile power of the outer or wire covering of the cable being very much less than that of the conductor within it, the latter is consequently protected from any such strain as can possibly rupture it or endanger its insulation without an entire fracture of the cable.

The construction of this cable is being superintended with the closest vigilance by Dr. Whitehouse, who stands in the first rank of men eminent in the science of electricity, and by Mr. Bright, the Chief Engineer of the Company, who has had great practical experience in Electric Telegraphs. With these gentlemen, under whom several trusty Superintendents are employed day and night, Professor Morse and Professor Thomson of Glasgow, for some time past have been in constant communication, affording a further guarantee of the faithful performance of the work.


The submersion of the cable will be effected about the end of July or early in August, that period of the year which the uniform experience of ship masters (as shown in the valuable Storm and Rain Charts, recently published by Lieut. Maury, embracing the observations of 265,292 days,) proves the North Atlantic to be in its quietest mood. Two large steamships will each of them take on board one-half, or about thirteen hundred miles of the cable, and accompanied by steamers for the purpose of piloting and assisting, will proceed to a point in the ocean, midway between Ireland and Newfoundland, and there joining the two ends of the cable, and testing the security of the junction, will commence the process of submersion; one part of the expedition proceeding toward Valentia Bay, Ireland, and the other toward Trinity Bay, in Newfoundland; meanwhile constantly communicating with each other through. the entire length of the cable.

It has been assumed that there will be a great strain on the cable in paying it out. To obviate the possibility of any injurious strain, and in order to pay out the cable in a ratio of speed greater than that of the ship, machinery peculiarly fitted for the purpose has been provided, with appliances for measuring the relative speed of the ship and cable, and for indicating, with precision, at all times, the force of the strain. The large size of the ships to be employed and the comparative freedom from agitation to which smaller vessels would be subjected; the peculiar strength and flexibility of the cable, the coiling of it on board so as to prevent twisting and kinking in paying out; with other appliances, to which I need not here particularly refer, leave little room for doubt in the minds of those best entitled to form an opinion on the subject, that the cable can and will be laid down without fracture or injury.

Then as to the practicability of telegraphing through such a length of wire, this has been so conclusively demonstrated in a long series of experiments undertaken for the purpose, that I need say nothing further on the subject than to refer to the letters of Professor Morse, Dr. Whitehouse and Mr. Bright, in relation to some of these experiments which have already been made public through the press.


In reply to inquiries upon this head, it is right that I should mention in the first place, that the alliance formed between the Atlantic and the Newfoundland Companies makes the privileges granted to either company mutually beneficial to both. In entering upon an undertaking of this magnitude, the results of which must confer great benefits on the whole civilized world, the projectors were justified in expecting the aid of the Governments of those countries more directly interested in its success. These expectations have been liberally met, and the enterprise has accordingly been aided and encouraged in various ways by seven different Governments, viz.: Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the State of Maine.

It may be not amiss to enumerate here the different aids granted to one or other of the companies by these respective Governments, as follows:

Great Britain.

1. Annual subsidy of £14,000 sterling, until the net profit of the Company reaches six per cent. per annum, on the whole capital of £350,000 sterling, the grant to be then reduced to Ten Thousand Pounds sterling per annum for a period of twenty-five years.

2. The aid of two of the largest steamships in the English navy to lay the cable, the “Agamemnon” and the “St. Jean D’Acre.”

3. A government steamship to take any further needful soundings, and verify those already taken. (Her Majesty’s steamship, "Cyclops,” has been already detailed for this service.)

United States.—

4. Annual subsidy of Seventy Thousand Dollars until the net profits yield six per cent per annum, then to be reduced to fifty thousand dollars per annum for a period of twenty-five years, subject to the termination of contract by Congress after ten years, on giving one year’s notice.

5. The United-States steamship “Arctic” to take and verify soundings last year.

6. Steamships “Niagara” and “Susquehanna” to assist in laying the cable.

7. A government steamer to make further soundings on the coast of Newfoundland this year.


8. Exclusive privilege for fifty years of landing cables on Newfoundland, Labrador and their dependencies.

9. Grant of fifty square miles of land on completion of telegraph to Cape Breton.

10. Similar concession of additional fifty square miles when the cable shall have been laid between Ireland and Newfoundland.

11. Guarantee of interest for twenty years at five per cent on Fifty Thousand Pounds Sterling.

12. Grant of Five Thousand Pounds Sterling in money toward building road along the line of the telegraph.

13. Remission of duties on importation of all wires and materials for the use of the Company.

Prince-Edward Island.—

14. Exclusive privilege for fifty years of landing cables.

15. Free grant of one thousand acres of land.

16. A Grant of £300 currency per annum for ten years.


17. Act authorizing the building of telegraph lines throughout the Province.

18. Remission of duties on wires and materials imported for the use of the Company.

Nova Scotia.—

19. Grant of exclusive privilege for twenty-five years of landing telegraphic cables from Europe on the shores of this Province.

State of Maine.—

20. Similar grant of exclusive privilege for like period of twenty-five years.

The exclusive right of landing submarine cables and wires which these companies possess, embraces a coast line extending from the entrance of Hudson’s Straits, southwardly and westwardly along the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and the State of Maine, and their respective dependencies.

The pecuniary aid granted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States would, of itself, return a fair per centage on the investment; but a moderate computation of the probable amount of traffic, and a consideration of the comparatively small working expenses, must easily convince any one making the calculation, that the net receipts will yield a very large annual return.

With a view to such calculation, the following facts must be borne in mind: There are now in active operation on this continent, telegraph lines with not less than 40,000 miles of wire. In the United Kingdom and on the continent of Europe, not less than 100,000 miles of wire are in like operation. Every day is witnessing the extension of these systems of intercommunication. In this hemisphere, a few years at most will elapse before the telegraphic wires shall have been conducted through the West India Islands to Demerara, and across this continent to California. In the Old World, beside yearly extensions in Europe, efforts are making, which will soon be successful, for connecting Calcutta with London. Between London and Liverpool alone there are at present sixteen different telegraphic wires; between New York and Philadelphia nine; and between New York and Boston seven distinct wires, which are required for the transaction of the business between these respective places. The number of messages transmitted in and out of New York daily is not less than three thousand. It will readily be admitted that the number of messages at present passed along the wires to or from such cities as London and New York, in the vicinity of which the rapidity of railway transit furnishes a powerful competitor, will scarcely constitute any criterion of the probable amount of traffic through a cable affording the only rapid means of communication between two vast and civilized continents—which in its operation, will shorten the period of an interchange of correspondence almost from a month to an hour, and to which the whole of both networks of telegraph lines already established throughout Europe and America will act as feeders.

The number of messages from passengers arriving daily on each side of the Atlantic, or for business purposes, in regard to vessels, insurance, purchase and sale of stocks, cotton, &c., can hardly be estimated. Out of the whole of the annual receipts on account of the Atlantic cable between Ireland and Newfoundland, after paying all expenses, the shareholders are first to receive a yearly dividend of ten per cent, the excess, by agreement entered into on the formation of the company, is to be equally divided between the shareholders and the original promoters of the undertaking.

It has been demonstrated by Professor Morse, that on a moderate computation, as many as 14,400 words can be telegraphed over the Atlantic cable in every 24 hours; and improvements have lately been made, and satisfactorily tested, which it is confidently believed, will render it practicable to transmit at least 30,000 words in the same time. From the difference in longitude of the centres of commerce of the two Hemispheres, as well as from the amount of business confidently anticipated, it will be necessary to keep the Telegraph in constant operation day and night. Now assuming 300 working days within the year, this would at the price charged per word from London to New-York, yield, after making all reasonable deductions and allowances to other lines, a net profit sufficient to satisfy the most sanguine expectations. .

Owing to the skill and experience brought to bear on the enterprise, and the confidence entertained in the practical men under whose supervision it is being carried out, Insurance Companies of high standing are willing to insure the laying of the cable. That the enterprise will be persevered in until successfully accomplished, there can be no question; for the exclusive privileges and guarantees themselves, which the companies have obtained, are, in the opinion of those most competent to judge, of more value than the whole capital required to manufacture the cable and to submerge it in the Sea.

I cannot conclude without gratefully referring to the warm interest which both the United States and British Governments have taken in the promotion of the success of the enterprise; and, more particularly in addition to the liberal pecuniary and other encouragement extended to it, the placing at the service of the Company the best Steamships in the Navies of the two countries, for the laying down of the cable.

Cyrus W. Field
New-York, June 13th, 1857.




Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury.
Treasury chambers, Nov. 20.

Sir,—Having laid before the Lords Commissioners of her Majesty’s Treasury your letter of the 13th ult., addressed to the Earl of Clarendon, requesting on behalf of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, certain privileges and protection in regard to the line of telegraph which it is proposed to establish between Newfoundland and Ireland, I am directed by their Lordships to acquaint you that they are prepared to enter into a contract with the said Telegraph Company, based upon the following conditions, viz:—

1. It is understood that the capital required to lay down the line will be 350,000l.

2. Her Majesty’s Government engage to furnish the aid of ships to take what soundings may still be considered needful, or to verify those already taken; and favorably to consider any request that may be made to furnish aid by their vessels in laying down the cable.

3. The British Government, from the time of the completion of the line, and so long as it shall continue in working order, undertakes to pay at the rate of 14,000l. a year, being at the rate of 4 per cent. on the assumed capital, as a fixed remuneration for the work done on behalf of the Government in the conveyance outward and homeward of their messages. This payment to continue until the net profits of the company are equal to a dividend of 6l. per cent, when the payment shall be reduced to 10,000l. a year for a period of twenty-five years. It is, however, understood that if the Government messages in any year shall, at the usual tariff rate charged to the public, amount to a larger sum, such additional payment shall be made as is equivalent thereto.

4. That the British Government shall have a priority in the conveyance of their messages over all others, subject to the exception only of the Government of the United States, in the event of their entering into an arrangement with the Telegraph Company, similar in principle to that of the British Government; in which case the messages of the two Governments shall have priority in the order in which they arrive at the stations.

5. That the tariff of charges shall be fixed with the consent of the Treasury, and shall not be increased without such consent being obtained, so long as this contract lasts.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

Cyrus W. Field, Esq., 37, Jermyn-street.

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