The Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

Gillian Cookson


Gillian Cookson describes how the first physical link across the Atlantic was finally achieved.

IN 1858 A TELEGRAM of ninety-eight words from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan of the United States opened a new era in global communication. The Queen's message of congratulation took sixteen and a half hours to transmit through the new transatlantic telegraph cable. After White House staff had satisfied themselves that it was not a hoax, the President sent a reply of 143 words in a relatively rapid ten hours. Without the cable, a despatch in one direction alone would have taken perhaps twelve days by the speediest combination of inland telegraph and fast steamer.

The Atlantic crossing had been achieved only at the third attempt, and until the first messages passed on August 17th, 1858, it was by no means certain that the project was technically feasible. Once its success had become clear, as far as the public was concerned all doubts melted away, to be replaced by huge enthusiasm. The impact of the first telegraphic communication between Europe and America is hard to appreciate now. The Times enthused:

   More was done yesterday for the consolidation of our Empire than the wisdom
   of our statesmen, the liberality of our Legislature, or the loyalty of our
   colonists could ever have effected. Distance between Canada and England is

The United States celebrated its new closeness to Europe. City Hall in New York was alight with candles and fireworks. On September 1st, a procession filled Broadway and led to the largest ever fete in Union Square. On both sides of the ocean, songs were written, souvenir editions of newspapers published, sermons preached about the unity of mankind. Cyrus Field, the New York businessman whose vision had driven the project forward against great odds, became a national hero.

But even as the celebrations continued, the line was breaking down. In all, 271 messages, increasingly fragmentary and incomprehensible, passed down the cable before it finally failed on September 18th. The Atlantic Telegraph Company's total investment of around 500,000 [pounds sterling] on the three attempts was a complete loss. The failure was blamed on manufacturing faults in the copper core and insulation, and on poor electrical management. The company's chief electrician, Wildman Whitehouse, a former surgeon from Brighton, had hastened the cable's end by increasing the voltage as the cable deteriorated.

The sceptics, those who had criticised the Atlantic projectors for being over-ambitious and underqualified for such an enterprise, began to re-emerge. The criticisms had some justification. Yet although it is now clear that Whitehouse was incompetent, at the time there were few engineers with practical experience of electricity, fewer still with a sound understanding of the subject, and no easy means of telling who was best qualified to supervise such a project. Electrical science was in its infancy, and the associated technology for submarine telegraphs -- including cable construction, cable laying, and the design of instruments to send and receive signals -- was still in the process of development. Field trials were central to this, each expedition experimental, the Atlantic ocean a laboratory from which a new understanding of electricity was growing. Those who were to be leading practitioners of submarine telegraphy during the 1860s, including Charles Bright and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), learned their trade by experience through trial and error during the unsuccessful attempts on the Atlantic in 1857 and 1858.

In retrospect, the Atlantic expeditions during the 1850s do appear to have been over-ambitious. The scheme had been launched less than twenty years after Wheatstone's first experimental telegraph, which opened in 1837 between Euston and Camden. While overland telegraphs had become well-established by the 1850s, submarine lines were technically much more difficult. The first working submarine cable had been laid in 1851 between Dover and Calais. Its design formed the basis of future cables: a copper conductor, the cable's core, was insulated with gutta percha, a kind of latex from Malaya which had been found preferable to india rubber for underwater use. The cable was armoured with iron wire, thicker at the shore ends where extra protection from anchors and tidal chafing was needed. Although this basic technology was in place, there was a world of difference between a cross-Channel line of less than twenty-five miles and a cable capable of spanning the Atlantic, crossing the 1,660 nautical miles between Valentia, on the west coast of Ireland, and Newfoundland in depths of up to two miles. There were difficulties of scale, and also of electrical management. In long submarine cables, received signals were extremely feeble as there was no way of amplifying or relaying them in mid-ocean; there was also a phenomenon of `smearing', where the sharpness of transmitted signals was lost.

The scale of the enterprise brought more obvious problems. There was no ship in the world large enough to stow the full length of cable. An elaborate procedure had to be worked out to rendezvous and splice the line in mid-ocean, for while the cable-laying vessel could communicate with the shore; ships out of sight could not communicate with each other. Cables could be laid only during a short summer season, so that cable production was rushed. Quality control was inadequate and other preparations carried out in haste. And even in summer the Atlantic could be cruel. On the 1857 and 1858 expeditions, the ships used were naval sailing vessels. Contemporary engravings of HMS Agamemnon and the US frigate Niagara at work laying the cable show scenes which rather evoke Tudor sea battles than suggest the dawning of a new age of electrical engineering. The first, unsuccessful, expedition of 1858 almost ended in outright disaster when one of the worst storms ever recorded came close to wrecking the Agamemnon.

Given the complexity of the problems, it was a great achievement to have completed a working line in the 1850s, and hardly surprising that it soon failed. Once the cable had expired, many of the public, including some who had suffered large losses, turned against the scheme. It was even suggested that the whole episode had been a confidence trick designed to extract money from gullible investors. Yet while many saw it only as a financial disaster, those closer to events took confidence from the experience. The small group which could be described as fledgling electrical engineers saw that amidst all the faults and difficulties there was the basis of a viable project. These men -- such as Thomson, Bright, Fleeming Jenkin and Latimer Clark, who like the telegraph companies and most others involved, were British -- saw the expeditions as a glorious opportunity to experiment on evolving technology. Although the 1858 failure had shown that there were still fundamental electrical questions to be answered, the engineers' optimism was undimmed and their confidence actually increasing.

While the electricians had been heartened about the technical possibilities, there were others who continued to back the scheme for its potential to transform transatlantic relations. In its short life the cable had carried market information, official despatches, and news which, whatever its content, was exciting for its immediacy. The British government had had a stark lesson in how useful the telegraph could be in ruling its scattered empire. One of the messages passing through the 1858 cable told the 62nd Regiment in Nova Scotia that they were no longer needed to help subdue the Indian mutiny, countermanding previous i instructions to embark for London. This nine-word communication alone, it was said, had saved the British government 50,000 [pounds sterling], the expense of a needless mobilisation.

The government, though, was unwilling to offer any direct support for further attempts on the Atlantic. Their reluctance did not stem simply from a prevailing economic creed which frowned on public money supporting private enterprises. In fact both the British and United States governments had given significant help to the expeditions of 1857 and 1858, carrying out advance ocean surveys, and providing ships and personnel during the laying. Later, in 1868, all British inland cables were nationalised under Post Office control. So there was not an inflexible principle against public involvement in telegraphy. The real reason for the government's unwillingness to invest directly in a transatlantic cable lay in a calamity they had suffered with a projected telegraph to India.

The first British government venture into submarine cables had been encouraging. During the Crimean War in 1855 a temporary, unarmoured cable was laid between Bulgaria and Balaklava, financed, owned and operated by Britain. It served its purpose, functioning until the end of the war the following year. During the next major foreign crisis, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, an emergency request for reinforcements took forty days to reach London from the besieged British community in the city of Lucknow. As a direct consequence Lord Derby's government agreed to underwrite a privately promoted Red Sea cable. The existing arrangements, using an overland route across the Ottoman empire, were unsatisfactory even in times of peace. Telegraphers who did not understand English transcribed Morse code messages at far-flung relay stations, making so many errors that telegrams, delivered days or weeks late, were often impossible to decipher. There was additional anxiety about security when confidential messages passed over foreign territory. An advantage of submarine cables is that they are almost impossible to eavesdrop -- which is why they continued to be used in preference to radio for classified despatches during the Second World War. A Red Sea line would solve these problems of reliability and security. Derby's government entered the Red Sea agreement despite the failure of the 1858 Atlantic cable, for public opinion strongly supported a secure line to India under British control. In any case the government's role was to encourage investors by giving only a guarantee, that shareholders would receive a minimum 4.5 per cent return on their investment providing the line tested well for a month after laying. The theory was that if the line were a technical failure, there would be no call on public funds; if it worked, it should make at least some profit and the government would at worst be subsidising a cable which was of great strategic benefit to the British Empire. In fact the result was the greatest possible financial disaster for the government -- and it fell upon Derby's successor as prime minister, Palmerston, and Gladstone, his Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Red Sea cable, in six sections totalling 3,500 miles and connecting Egypt with the west coast of India, was completed in February 1860. No telegram ever passed its entire length, but crucially for the guarantors each section tested successfully before failing. The government was therefore bound to pay Red Sea investors 36,000 [pounds sterling] a year for fifty years, an eventual cost to the Exchequer of 1.8 million [pounds sterling]. After this there could be no further question of direct public support of long-distance cables.

The government still believed that there was a pressing need for long-distance deep-sea cables to link the outposts of the British Empire. Its next action was arguably of much greater value to the submarine telegraph industry than any number of financial guarantees. An inquiry into the technical aspects of long-distance telegraphy was set up, under the auspices of the Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The committee was chaired by a respected Board of Trade technical expert, Captain Douglas Galton. It met during 1859 and 1860, taking evidence from every significant electrical engineer with submarine cable experience. In this new industry, some of these experts were still in their twenties: Charles Bright had been chief engineer on the 1858 expedition at the age of twenty-six, Jenkin was a year younger. Thomson, already a towering figure in the field, was not yet forty.

Galton's report, published in 1861, included detailed recommendations on cable construction, laying and operating. His committee summarised best practice and also suggested further definition and standardisation of electrical units. A number of electrical engineers, most notably Thomson and Jenkin, were already working to develop much more delicate and sensitive instruments to send and receive messages, and for cable testing. The British Association quickly formed its own committee, under the direction of Fleeming Jenkin, to deal with the matter of electrical units. The work of Galton, and of those responding to his challenges, proved decisive in the future of long-distance submarine telegraphs.

The period between Galton's report and the next attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic, in 1865, coincides exactly with the duration of the Civil War in the United States. That is not to say that war directly delayed the project, although some of the US Navy officers who had been involved in the Atlantic cable scheme found themselves fighting on opposing sides. In fact the war strengthened the desire for a transatlantic cable. There was a clamour for news of a conflict whose effects were widely felt in Britain. The Reuter news agency even built its own telegraph line in 1863 covering the 80 miles from Cork to Crookhaven in the far south-west of Ireland, where incoming steamships from Newfoundland could be intercepted and the most urgent news from America despatched to London ahead of Reuters' rivals. The need for faster and more reliable communications was underlined by events during the war, particularly the Trent incident which almost drew the United Kingdom into the American conflict. Cyrus Field, an Anglophile and firm supporter of the Union, worked tirelessly to sustain the Atlantic project while the war raged around him. Appealing to meetings of American businessmen for funds, Field argued the cable's benefits to commerce while also emphasising it could improve international understanding.

Above all, it was problems attracting new funds which led to the delay after 1861. While each successive disappointment brought nearer the prospect of technical success, the public did not distinguish between degrees of failure, so that with each renewed attempt it became harder to raise money from increasingly sceptical investors. The Civil War may also have made potential backers in Britain wary of supporting an Anglo-American scheme. Some leading promotors of the 1850s cables had suffered heavy losses which made them unable or unwilling to continue, and they were replaced as directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company by a new breed of wealthy entrepreneur.

The financial arrangements and company structures in place for the next attempt on the Atlantic, in 1865, were every bit as innovative as the technology. There was a marked change in approach from the 1850s. It had been necessary to bring in city financiers and men with experience of large-scale business, in place of the regional merchants who had dominated the earlier company. Cyrus Field, his idealism and optimism intact, retained a central role. A distinctly more cynical group gathered around him, among them Daniel Gooch, best known for his work as engineer and manager of the Great Western Railway; Thomas Brassey, one of Britain's leading railway promoters, who invested 60,000 [pounds sterling] in the new project; and John Pender, with wealth founded in Manchester textiles and a long-standing interest in submarine telegraphs.

Even with Brassey and other substantial backers, there was a shortfall. The 700,000 [pounds sterling] required was raised partly through new fundraising devices, made possible by a change in company laws in 1856 and 1862. The introduction of limited liability allowed a restructuring of the cable-making and laying industry. By merging the main submarine cable contractors with the company which made cable cores, Pender created the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company Ltd. (Telcon) in 1864. Telcon subscribed half the capital required, partly through deferred payments and also by accepting telegraph company stock in place of cash. Control of the Atlantic Telegraph Company and of Telcon had fallen to a small and close-knit group of large-scale investors.

Along with this streamlined organisation and the technical improvements -- a cable manufactured with care in line with Galton's recommendations, improved instruments, more sensitive laying equipment, a profounder understanding of electricity -- the 1865 expedition enjoyed another great advantage over previous attempts: there was at last a ship large enough to store the entire cable. Brunel's Great Eastern, the biggest ship in the world, launched in 1860 as a passenger liner, had proved a white elephant and bankrupted previous owners. She was laid up in 1863 and offered at auction. Gooch bought her for a knock-down price, stripped out the fittings, converted the holds to cable tanks, and chartered the ship to Telcon. Weighing 19,000 tons and powered by 11,500 h.p. steam engines, the Great Eastern offered manoeuvrability as well as size. All seemed set fair for the 1865 expedition.

But like its predecessors, the attempt, which began off the west coast of Ireland in June 1865, ended in failure. After a number of minor problems had been overcome during the early stages, the Great Eastern had laid 1,200 miles of the line and was only two days away from its destination at Heart's Content, Newfoundland, when the cable again snapped. Usually it was possible to grapple for broken cables, splice them and continue, but this time the weather made retrieval impossible. The spot was marked with a buoy and the attempt abandoned.

Success had once again eluded the scheme's backers. There was frustration and disappointment, but tinged with a belief that the objective was close to being achieved. This had been a setback, not a catastrophe. The projectors immediately began to organise another attempt for the following summer. New problems had arisen. A major and sudden obstacle was the discovery that the Atlantic Telegraph Company, which had been established under an Act of Parliament in 1856, was acting outside its powers in trying to raise its capital by a further 600,000 [pounds sterling] to finance the 1866 expedition. There was no parliamentary time to amend the company's charter. To avoid another year's delay, Gooch and Pender established a new limited liability company, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company Ltd., to take over the project. Ultimately this solution led to other difficulties, for the relationship between the Anglo and Atlantic companies was troubled and ill-defined, and the arrangements led to further rifts between old and new investors. But for 1866, Gooch and Pender's actions saved the scheme. The balance of funds needed was secured through Telcon and the merchant bank of Morgan and Co., only days before a stock market crash which might have ended any hopes of laying a cable that summer.

The 1866 expedition achieved everything that had been hoped for. In July, the Great Eastern landed a new cable in Newfoundland only two weeks after embarking from Valentia. By the beginning of September the 1865 line had been retrieved and repaired, and two Atlantic cables were in operation. Queen Victoria again exchanged congratulations with her American counterpart, President Andrew Johnson. Gooch received a baronetcy, Thomson and others involved were knighted. The celebrations were muted in comparison with those of 1858, especially in the United States, where war had recently ended and the new Atlantic telegraph, much more than on previous expeditions, was seen as a product of British work and capital.

John Pender was vexed not to have been honoured. His contribution to the Atlantic venture, especially after 1862, had been substantial, and ultimately he risked everything he owned on the 1866 attempt. Experience with the Atlantic line had shown Pender that intercontinental cables were no longer a gamble, that technical improvements had reduced them to an acceptable risk. Moreover they could be exceptionally profitable. This encouraged him to continue promoting long-distance telegraphs, and the companies he launched during the following years laid cables to the Far East, Australasia and South America. Once a line was established, he followed a pattern of consolidating it into his parent company. Pender made another fortune, and was finally rewarded with his knighthood in 1888. The global communications empire which he had founded eventually became Cable & Wireless Ltd.

In contrast with Pender's hard-nosed pragmatism, Cyrus Field was driven by a higher vision. Yet Field was no innocent in business; he too had risked everything and then gained considerably from the Atlantic cable. His ideals were themselves business-oriented: world peace was advantageous to commerce. Whether the telegraph did improve international relations is questionable, for faster communications do not necessarily lead to better understanding. For Britain, the cable network certainly eased the task of ruling a far-flung empire. It also brought the benefits to commerce which Field had foreseen and transformed the financial markets of the world, bringing them into one global system. Not least, and perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new cable to the general public, was the novelty of fresh news from across the Atlantic, whetting an enduring appetite for more. It was here, rather than through diplomacy and politicians, that the cultures of two continents began to converge.

Although the successful cable of 1866 did not generate the same instant elation as the short-lived effort of 1858, its impact was far-reaching. Achieving the Atlantic crossing marked a turning point in long-distance telegraphy. Deep-sea cables, no longer an heroic struggle against the elements, had become instead a mature technology and a serious business.


Gillian Cookson and Colin A. Hempstead, A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and the Birth of Electrical Engineering (Ashgate, 2000); Hugh Barty-King, Girdle round the Earth: the story of Cable and Wireless (Heinemann, 1979); Charles Bright, Submarine Cables: their history, construction and working (Arno, New York, 1974 [1898]); B.S. Finn, Submarine Telegraphy: the Grand Victorian Technology (Science Museum, 1973); Daniel R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1991); Donald Read, The Power of News: the History of Reuters, 1849-1989 (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Dr Gillian Cookson, Editor of the Victoria County History of Durham, is based in the History Department, University of Durham. She is grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for supporting the research on which this article is based.

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