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

De Profundis
William H. Russell

Introduction: In 1865 the complement of the Great Eastern Atlantic cable expedition included William Howard Russell, who was under contract with the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company to write a book about the voyage, with illustrations by Robert Dudley, to be published by Day & Son. Russell's manuscript diary of the expedition may be read here; its full text was published in The Times immediately on the return of the expedition to Britain.

Russell evidently did not much enjoy the cable expedition. Writing to Mowbray Morris, manager of The Times, on 24 July 1865, he asked: “Were you ever taking in an Atlantic cable at the rate of a mile an hour? No? Well then please not to consider anything on this earth disagreeable.” But after Russell's story was published in The Times on 18 August 1865, the paper’s editor, John Delane, told Russell: “Everyone I have met is delighted with it and considers it a miracle of lucidity, which on such a subject was not easy.”

Russell also wrote an article summarizing and analyzing the main events of the voyage, which was published in The Fortnightly Review later that year as “De Profundis”—literally “From the Depths”, but perhaps also a biblical reference to Psalm 130.

The text of the article is reproduced here.

—Bill Burns

De Profundis

Seven years ago a metal strand, enveloped in gutta percha, was laid in the bed of the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland. For a few weeks the obedient current, creeping feebly through its narrow viaduct, flickered from end to end, and moved the magnet to speak. But waning in force, and flowing out from unseen wounds into the night of waters, the electric fluid, which is the vital blood of telegraphy, died out altogether in mid ocean. The needle made no sign. How or why this came to pass no one can say. All that is known may be summed up in the fact that there was a fatal fault, or dead earth, in the insulating cover of the copper wires, and that the electricians detecting its influence on the escape of the current, endeavoured to stimulate the moribund body by augmenting the power of the batteries. We all know that lightning, as a general rule, takes the nearest course between two points, but the law is influenced by surrounding conditions. When a fault occurs in a cable, for instance, some of the current escapes into the sea, and some of it travels along the wire to the terminus. The force of the current is regulated by a well-defined law. When the fault is so great as to allow the copper to come in contact with a perfect conductor, all the electricity marches through the dead earth, and is lost. The operators in those days, seeing the indications of the needle weakened, thought they would make up for the consequences of the fault by increasing the force of the current. They multiplied their plates, and soon brought the disease to a climax, and aggravated the causes of death to rapid issue. The last word traced by the hand of the deceased cable was “Forward.” The message came from the New World to the Old, and it has been accepted as a legacy by the executors. Now that cable of 1858, though it had a short life, and not a very merry or useful one, was a great fact. It was a demonstration for ever of two matters concerning which men might otherwise have been contending fiercely—one was that a cable could be laid in the depths of the sea from Ireland to Newfoundland; the other, that messages could be sent with remunerative rapidity from one end of it to the other. The trial of 1807 failed so completely that but for the renewed effort and its successful issue in 1858 there would have been doubters up to this day whom the experiment, just concluded so abruptly, would not have converted to a sound belief as to the actual practicability of laying the cable. There arc people now who say they have a strong suspicion no message ever went through the cable of 18o8 at all. The interchange of civilities between the Queen and President Buchanan—the last of the Washington Doges—was, they aver, “a got-up thing.” There are hundreds of messages—copies and originals—to be seen; but the ductores dubitantum do not care to see them, and will go on shaking their heads till their tongues cease to wag. The cable failed then, and the anticipations of the great benefits to both countries from a rapid interchange of ideas and news were not realised. It is not possible to arrive at any conclusion respecting its uses had it survived to the days of the Trent embroglio.

But it is to be observed that newspapers and diplomatists are rather afraid of telegraphs, and the latter much mistrust an agency which gives a meaning to words and takes so much gilding off political gingerbread. Mr. Adams very recently expressed his gratification at the absence of an Atlantic cable, during the civil war in the United States. Perhaps he feared a Sewardism so pungent that it might any day be taken as a declaration of war. Lord Lyons certainly reciprocated the feeling of the American minister; and it is not to be denied that ambassadors and ministers would all cut their wires in secret if they could,—as surely as post-admirals or naval officers would do the same, for they have had no rest since the Admiralty got hold of electricity. But the commercial interests of the two countries would be sufficient, even if there were stronger opposing forces than mere dislike to such telegraphs in the abstract, to cause speculators, engineers, inventors, and telegraphers to renew attempts which had met with the encouragement afforded by temporary success. The United States, always ready to act as receiver of ideas,—or even of money, from the old world, and put her mark on them all, was prepared to welcome any number of cables from Europe.

It was ten or twelve years, however, after submarine cables had been in common use in European seas, that one was laid under water from one point of land to another of the American continent; and it was an Englishman, Mr. Gisborne, who gave the first impulse to the idea of an Atlantic cable, and who actually connected Newfoundland with the main by a submarine telegraph. The original project was to run a line of steamers from Galway to Newfoundland and to use the submarine line for the transmission of news to Boston, and New York. The legislatures of the British provinces encouraged it by extraordinary charters and privileges, which drew from the home government an intimation that they would not sanction similar monopolies. The promoters soon exhausted their money, and Mr. Gisborne repaired to New York to interest capitalists in the undertaking. There he met Mr. Cyrus Field, who, thinking over the subject, was led to inquire if it would not be possible to lay a cable between Ireland and America.

If one were to read the American accounts of the origin of the Atlantic Telegraph enterprise he might be led to suppose that Professor Morse was the only electrician, and Captain Maury the only navigator in the world. They even try to give to 'Mr. Everett the credit of inventing the paying-out apparatus, which was designed by several engineers, of whom he was one, at the establishment of Messrs. Easton and Amos. But saving and excepting the active part taken by Mr. Field in the conception and execution of the Submarine Telegraph, and the interest evinced in America, small assistance to these vast undertakings in money or material was rendered by the United States. Their government lent men of war at first, but on the last occasion they refused to do so, because the English Government had not rescinded the twenty-four hours' rule respecting the stay of American cruisers in British ports. After the break-down of 1858, the enterprise failed out of men's minds, but the Atlantic Telegraph Company still existed, and Mr. Field never ceased to agitate by every means in his power, the great question of his life. It was, however, British capital which furnished the means for the last expedition, just as it was British manufacturers who made the cable, and British ships, sailors, and engineers who were engaged in laying it. 'Well, it was a failure—that cannot be controverted; but it was one of those glorious failures which mark out the road to ultimate success. It marked out many places on the map of electrical discovery which were hazy and uncertain; it proved several most important propositions; and, above all, it has animated those who witnessed all its incidents with a conviction that the establishment of telegraphic intercourse between the two worlds is only a question of time—most of them believe of next year. All mischances that can occur seem now to have occurred, and therefore they will be prevented in future; but the events of last month warn us not to be too sanguine, or to insist on the impossibility of there being any further obstacles than those now foreseen or actually encountered. Mr. Stephenson, whose great mind was incredulous as to things not done, disbelieved in the Suez Canal, and in the Atlantic cable; but he lived to admit one was quite possible, and he would no doubt have accepted the recent attempt as a conclusive answer to his objections as to the other.

When the Great Eastern started, it was averred by the first authorities that want of success could only arise from some source then overlooked and unsuspected. Alarmist theories respecting the strength of the ship herself, and the wanton appetites of sharks and whales, were propounded without any foundation; but no one seemed to apprehend the least danger from the wire in the external coating of the cable, from which, eventually, all the mischief arose. Proper experiments might have warned the engineer of the danger from that cause, if it be true that all the faults were accidental. They would, therefore, have turned their attention in that case to the question of picking up, and some improvements might have been effected in the machinery ere the vessel sailed. But it is only fair to say that the cable had stood all tests in a manner which excited the greatest confidence in the quality of the work, and that it is yet doubtful to what the injuries in it are to be attributed. There are mysteries about these injuries. Among the men engaged in the work there was, we hear, a strange suspicion that “some gentlemen” on board were the authors or instigators of the wire stabs; and the gentlemen, on the contrary, had a strong idea that the malefactor was one of the cablemen. Might there be more than one? It is said that bets were made the cable would not be laid, and that persons in various places asserted it was never intended to be laid. But it is hard to see how any operation which could be effected by the assassin would ensure the destruction of the cable. In the first place it is not easy to drive a piece of wire, no matter how sharp or tough, through the outer coating and the gutta percha into the inner wire. It needs great force; it can scarcely be done without the use of an instrument. Then again, when could it be done? At all times, from the moment the coil was laid down in the tanks complete till the time of paying-out, the galvanometer was there to cry out “treason” or “murder,” and ensure detection almost the instant the crime was committed. Lights burned day and night; overseers and associates, who were not accomplices, were always at hand and would note the smallest action of a suspicious nature. The engineers of the Telegraphic Construction and Maintenance Company have satisfied themselves that on each occasion the injury was committed in the tank just before the coil, in which each occurred, went up to the paying-out machine. They arrive at that conclusion by examining the mile marks on the cable and comparing it with the lengths given by the indicator, and the time taken by the chronometer. If this be correct there can be no doubt of malice or mischief, and the question arises how a cable can be protected against either. The best answer would be the establishment of such perfection in the picking-up machinery, that the moment a fault was reported by the electricians—which, with our improved system of testing, founded on quicker interchanges of signalling between ship and shore, ought to be long before the injury was a mile astern—the cable could be arrested, and be taken on board once more for reparation.

There are a great many questions agitating the public mind which that cerebral organisation would be much better for letting alone, because the facts are either misconceived or are not properly presented to it. Thus there is a conglomeration of ideas concerning buoys, grapnels, faults, dead earths, grappling, and cable picking, which have no local settlement or fixity of tenure in the popular brain, and therefore it may be as well to say a few words about them. As to the buoys—these were let down for temporary purposes solely. It was never intended or hoped that they were to remain fixed in the ocean. They were anchored for the purpose of guiding the ship first to the line of the cable, secondly, to mark the place where the break of the grapnel line took place, in order to make another attempt on the line where the cable was known to be. No better illustration of the gross ignorance of people on such matters could be given than the suggestion of one wiseacre in the press, that a vessel should be despatched to watch by the buoy till the Great Eastern went out again, as if a ship could be moored in two miles and a half of water, or could remain by a floating mark night and day, fog and storm and current notwithstanding! It was only by the exercise of very great experience and the highest skill that Captain Anderson, Staff Commander Moriarty, and the master of the Terrible, could find the buoy the day after they lost it. As there are no swivels on the buoy ropes, they will soon, by constant turning of the buoys, be worn away, and no one is likely to see them near the place they were let go in a month from this time. Again: as to grappling, it may be remarked that no one on board ever expected to haul up the cable in the grapnel from a bight caught up on one of the flukes, so that it should come entire in on the deck of the ship. What the engineer did hope, was to break the cable after they had hauled up a good mile and a half or so of it, and then to let go a buoy to mark where the ends sank, in order that they might make a fresh grapple for the cable about a mile to the east of the buoy. Thus they would avail themselves of the slack created by the previous operation to diminish the strain on the cable and tackle in getting it up, and they would have a loose end of a mile long or more, which would twist round and round as it rose up in the water, and entwine itself with the landward curve of the cable hanging from the other side of the grapnel. The science of grappling has been immensely extended by these experiments, but the fishing up of cables from great depths is no new thing, and wherever the bottom is free from stones or rocks there is no reason why an arm of the grapnel should not always catch a cable in smooth water at very great depths. It is not easy to suggest an improvement on the present grapnels, as they have done their work very efficiently, but care should be taken to prevent the chain fouling a fluke when they are flung over, so as to save waste of time and labour. There are people who believe that the cable was not grappled at all—it was friction, catenary curves, and all the rest of it, which made the dynamometer rise, and it was a delusion on board to think there was anything but the grapnel at the end of the line. Some of the Lords of the Admiralty have expressed that opinion, and as they know, ex officio, whatever is going on at the bottom of the sea, their opinion carries weight with it. But not as much weight as the dynamometer. For observe that the grapnel, with 2,400 fathoms of line, came up easily when the fluke was fouled. Up to the time the grapnel line broke the strain had increased gradually, whereas if there was nothing on the grapnel the strain ought to have diminished just as the weight of line was lessened by the quantity of it got in on deck. Besides, the ship's head was turned sensibly round towards the line in which the cable lay, and the stress on the bow was developed in proportion to the indications given by the dynamometer. There were indeed some people, not Lords of the Admiralty, who said we might have caught sea-weed. What have you to say to that? Nothing, except that it was as likely to be moonbeams or rays of sunlight from submarine cucumbers.

Now it made a very long story in the papers—all that was done and was suffered. Put it into the nutshell of a page, it is this:—First fault discovered on 24th July when we were in 400 fathoms water; more than six hours elapsed before the cable was cut; two hours more before the end so cut was hauled in over the bows; twenty-four hours (9.30 a.m. on July 25th) before the fault came on board; in five hours more the cable was let run out astern again. Now in all these operations the strain never exceeded 35 cwt. at paying-out machine and 36 cwt. in picking up. This great result gave all on board a ruinous confidence. To pick up the cable so easily was to reduce the operation to a facillimum. Then on July 29th, when the second great impediment took place, not much more than two hours elapsed between the electricians' warning and the cutting of the cable; but twelve hours rolled on before the end was got in over the bows, and nearly six hours more were spent in picking up till the fault (dead earth) came on board. More than eleven hours were devoted to preparing the cable for its next committal astern to the deep. During the second operation the strain at the stern dynamometer, or paying-out apparatus, was the same as it was on the occasion of the first fault, and it did not exceed 50 cwt. at the dynamometer in the bows whilst the picking-up was going on. Third and fatal fault, August 2nd; not more than two hours elapsed between discovery of fault and cutting of cable, and in an hour and a half the end was over the bows and picking-up commenced; but owing to the lie of the ship and the drift of the wind, and possibly of the current, the strain rose up to 50 cwt. and then to 64 cwt. In about five hours 2.04 miles nautical had been picked up, and then the cable parted and sank in profundis. Now the breaking strain of the cable is 7.75 tons, so that unless there was an exceeding violence in a pick or considerable deterioration from chafing there was no reason why it should have parted in the course of picking-up. Subsequently the grappling experiments afforded satisfactory evidence that the depth of water under the ship was somewhat less than two nautical miles when the cable broke. At that time there were 1,082 miles of cable left on board, and the ship had receded about two miles towards the east. Just 1,180 miles of cable were out in a straight line, and the distance from Valentia was 1,063 miles and from Heart's Content 603 miles. The public who are not shareholders were probably more interested in the attempts to pick up the cable than in the proceedings connected with laying down and recovering it. When the grapnel was let go there was little expectation that it would catch anything; the greatest strain denoted while paying out the line 2,500 feet long was 80 cwt., which was indicated at 10.20 p.m. of August 2nd, but at 6.45 a.m. next morning, as they were hauling it in, the strain rose to 85 cwt., and when soon afterwards it increased to 90 cwt. the spur wheel of the machine broke. That strain was due to the rapid motion of the picking-up drum and the great friction; because when the capstan was used in lieu of the machinery and engines, the dynamometer index fell to 60 cwt., and finally the swivel bolt failed, and down went 1,400 fathoms of wire buoy rope and the grapnel and cable held by it. On the 7th, after another grapnel with 2,400 feet of rope had been down more than five hours, the strain began to rise from 50 cwt. to 58 cwt., and finally to 66 cwt., and the ship's head came round to the wind. In an hour after we began to heave up, but the strain did not increase materially for a couple of hours, when it rose to 67 cwt., and soon afterwards to 75 cwt. It stood for more than two hours at 75 cwt., then ran up to 78 cwt., finally to 80 cwt., and then the swivel of a shackle broke on the capstan, and another grapnel and mass of wire rope were lost. This occurred about four and a half miles from the end of the cable in lat. 51° 25' long. 38° 56', bearing S. 14 E. When the fouled grapnel was over with 2,460 feet, on August 10th, the highest strain as the ship drifted was 56 cwt.; and it never increased in the picking up beyond 70 cwt., from which it fell in eight hours to 35 cwt. till the grapnel was hauled in. On the last attempt the strain was at 65 cwt. when picking-up began, and ran up to 90 cwt. in two hours and a half, and in half an hour more was at 100 cwt., when the last rope broke.

An attentive examination of the records of the dynamometer may lead to very useful deductions for future guidance. But without proper rope and machinery, it will be useless to attempt any recovery of the cable by direct purchase, or by breaking it and grappling the end. So far science has been promoted by this remarkable exhibition of determination, and by the seamanship which rendered it possible.

The course on which the ship was kept was an arch of the great circle passing through Valentia and Heart's Content, which is only some 16 miles shorter than the line on Mercator's projection. It possesses the advantage, however, of running over known soundings, along the course of what is called the Atlantic plateau, which presents a surface of ooze beneath a depth of water varying from 1,700 fathoms to 2,400 fathoms. The deepest part, therefore, is about two and a-half nautical miles (2,000 yards each) deep. No one knows anything very positively about the ocean at these great depths. It is urged that there must be utter darkness there, but then star-fish with traces of colour have been taken up by sounding apparatus; and if they come up from the bottom, it is inferred there must be some rays of light penetrating there, or the colours would not exist The pressure of the water itself is very much exaggerated, but it may be fairly assumed that it is very obscure down there, and that if anything can exist at all it must be very dull living. When the substance called ooze came up on the grapnel line of the Great Eastern, from a depth of nearly two miles, it was simply a light-coloured mud, like that which a heavy shower makes in the streets of London. Mr. Ward, surgeon of the vessel, got a very small shellfish, just visible to the naked eye, from the grapnel line, which on examination under a feeble microscope looked like a young barnacle, and gave signs of life, but we had no savans among us. Whether he came up direct de profundis, or was a young truant wandering from his numerous family on the ship's bottom is questionable, but the weight of opinion was in favour of the latter supposition. The ooze, as it is called, under the same scrutiny presented none of the shells of which microscopists say it is altogether composed. Nay, they pretend to have found the fish in them still preserved by the natural pickle of the sea, which has made an ingenious gentleman advance the horrible theory that all the dead men who have been thrown overboard in their shotted hammocks, are standing bolt upright and perfectly fresh at the bottom of the sea, like an army waiting for the order to march. What seemed to us all sand or gravel, was to Ehrenberg and other microscopists ferraminiferae and distomaceae—shells of exquisite fineness, showing conclusively by their perfection of outline that no currents or agitation of water exists in the place whence they come. But it is further contended that these creatures, when alive, could not have inhabited these depths because the pressure would have been too great, and then one is launched on a sea of conjectures to decide how they were ever brought there, and how they floated in myriads of millions—which no words or formula) can express—on the surface waters, and sank down to form slabs of organic remains of impenetrable depth and unknown extent beneath. Not a trace of any mineral substance can be found, it is averred, in these illimitable submarine prairies. The cable may then rest undisturbed here if these be all there is to fear, for there is no current and no teredo to warp its course and eat through the hempen covering of the wire, which suffers much in other seas. But as a mite would in all probability never have been seen but for the invention of cheese, so it may be that there is some undeveloped creation waiting perdu for the first piece of gutta percha which comes down to arouse his faculty and fulfil his functions of life—a gutta percha boring and eating teredo, who has been waiting for his meal since the beginning of the world. As to sharks, the only remark one can make is that no instance has yet occurred of a cable being injured by a fish of any kind. Porpoises, grampuses, black fish, and whales fly from it, so that the cable under water is much better off than the wire on land in India and other places, where the monkeys are persuaded the poles and lines are erected for their special benefit, and elephants use the fence as scratching posts.

W.H. Russell.



“De Profundis”: The Fortnightly Review, edited by George Henry Lewes. Vol. II, August 15 to November 1, 1865, pages 329-336.

Mowbray Morris quote in the Introduction: “Man of wars: William Howard Russell of The Times” by Alan Hankinson, 1982.

John Delane quote in the Introduction: “The Life of Sir William Howard Russell, the First Special Correspondent” by John Black Atkins. 2 volumes, Murray, 1911.


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