Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

The Atlantic Telegraph
by Cyrus W. Field

Introduction: This prospectus was issued in England on 1 November 1856 by Cyrus Field as Vice President of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company.

—Bill Burns


FIFTEEN years have barely elapsed since the success of the first line of electric telegraph demonstrated the immense practical importance of that invention.

Its rapid adoption by almost every civilised nation already gives promise of even greater things than it has yet accomplished in the furtherance of social and commercial intercourse.

It is, however, only within the last five years that practical men have wrought out successfully the application of the same principles to the still later problem of submarine telegraphy.

Surrounded by every species of difficulty which besets a new and untried path, Mr. Brett, with the aid of a few associates, achieved in 1851 his first success in the electric union of France and England.

The result of this decisive experiment, favourable alike in its national, commercial, social, and, though last not least, in its remunerative aspects, has been such as to disarm all prejudice, and to encourage a desire for the utmost possible extension of similar undertakings.

England is now united by six distinct submarine cables to adjacent coasts, and other countries have not been slow to catch her spirit of enterprise in this important application of science to the wants of man.

America alone, the greatest and most progressive of all the nations with whom we have intercourse, has hitherto been debarred from participating with us in the advantages of electric intercommunication, while the daily increasing requirements of the two nations render such an institution more than ever necessary to the well-being of both.

The genius of science and the spirit of commerce alike demand that the obstacles of geographical position and distance alone shall no longer prevent the accomplishment of such an union.

Under the influence of these considerations, the subject of establishing a telegraph to America has been largely and anxiously studied on both sides of the Atlantic.

The careful and elaborate investigations of Lieutenant Maury, of the U.S. Navy, into the physical geography of the sea, threw a new light upon what had been supposed to constitute the chief engineering difficulties of such an enterprise. His clear and accurate definition of the currents of the ocean, and the soundings of the Atlantic deeps,—imperfectly known previous to his researches,—have developed an extraordinary, and, to speak with reverence, a providential fact. The two conditions to be chiefly desired for the successful submersion of a telegraphic cable are, 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 for its subsequent security and preservation. These conditions, though first elucidated for philosophic objects other than those of telegraphic science, have been shown to exist in a remarkable degree throughout a plain extending between the coasts of Ireland and Newfoundland which possesses the additional advantage of being the shortest possible route between the shores of the Old and New World. So marked, indeed, are those features, and so favourable is their bearing on the great project, that they seemed to the discoverer at the time so providential, as to justify his designation of it as the Telegraph-Plateau.

The mighty current which takes its rise in the Gulf of Mexico, and flows northward as far as the banks of Newfoundland, washes the eastern shores of the United States with great force; and the precipitous hollows existing in its course would render a route to the south of the banks impracticable for telegraphic purposes. Immediately to the north of the great banks these abysses cease to exist. Stretching away in a direct line from St. John's, Newfoundland, to the bay of Valentia, on the Irish coast, lies the vast sub-oceanic plain already referred to, which is situated in the line of nearly absolute rest of the waters of the Atlantic, the bed of which has been shown, by the specimens obtained on sounding, to consist throughout of the most minute microscopic shells, which, from their delicate organism and the perfect state in which they are found, prove the utter absence of all motion in the water surrounding them. To use the words of the highest authority on the subject, [Maury's Physical Geography of the Sea, p. 256.]—" this plateau is not too deep for the cable to sink down and rest upon, and yet not so shallow that currents or icebergs or any abrading force can derange the wire after it is once lodged upon it."

In April, 1854, a company was incorporated by act of the Colonial Legislature of Newfoundland for the purpose of establishing a line of telegraphic communication between America and Europe. That Government evinced the warmest interest in the undertaking, and in order to mark substantially their sense of its importance, and their desire to give to it all the aid and encouragement in their power, they conferred upon it, in addition to important privileges of grants of land and subsidy, the sole and exclusive right of landing a telegraphic line on the shores within their jurisdiction, comprising, in addition to those of Newfoundland, the whole Atlantic coast of Labrador from the entrance of Hudson's Straits to the Straits of Belle Isle. This act of the Colonial Legislature was subsequently ratified and confirmed by Her Majesty's Government at home. The Company also obtained in May, 1854, an exclusive charter from the government of Prince Edward's Island, and afterwards from the State of Maine, and a charter for telegraphic operations in Canada.

The exclusive rights absolutely necessary for the encouragement of an undertaking of this nature having thus been secured along the only seaboard eligible for the western terminus of an European and American cable, the Company in the first instance commenced operations by proceeding to connect St. John's, Newfoundland, with the widely ramified telegraph system of the British North American provinces and the United States. This has been recently completed by the submersion of two cables in connection with their land lines: one, eighty-five miles in length, under the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, from Cape Ray Cove, Newfoundland, to Ashpee Bay, Cape Breton; the other, of thirteen miles, across the Straits of Northumberland, connecting Prince Edward's Island with New Brunswick. Electric communication is thus established direct from Newfoundland to all the British American Colonies and the United States.

On the Irish side, lines of telegraph have been for some time in operation throughout the country, and are connected with England and the Continent by submarine cables. The only remaining link in this electric chain, required to connect the two hemispheres by telegraph, is the Atlantic cable.

The New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company being desirous that this great undertaking should be established on a broad and national basis uniting the interests of the telegraph world on both sides of the Atlantic, have entered into alliance with persons of importance and influence in the telegraphic affairs of Great Britain and in order at the same time to obtain the fullest possible information before entering upon the crowning effort of their labours, they have endeavoured to concentrate upon the various departments of the undertaking the energies of men of the highest acknowledged standing in their profession, and of others eminently fitted for the work, who were known to have devoted much time and attention to the subject.

The route between the two shores had already been minutely surveyed by Lieut. Maury, whose name alone amongst nautical men is a sufficient guarantee for the accuracy of the results obtained, and whose personal counsel and co-operation the promoters are authorised to say will be given to the undertaking in bringing it to completion. The data obtained by him have received the most ample corroboration in the recent special soundings taken by order of the United States government, at the instance of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company by Lieutenant Berryman, U.S.S. "Arctic," whose valuable and able assistance the Company wish to acknowledge.

It is with the highest satisfaction that the Company are able to refer to the aid which her Majesty's Government are inclined to give to their labours. A line of soundings taken at spots intermediate between those effected by Lieut. Berryman, have been ordered by the Lords of the Admiralty to be made forthwith; and the readiness and cordiality with which every suggestion on the part of the promoters has been met by their Lordships, and by those at the head of the several departments, call for the warmest thanks of all concerned in the undertaking.

In the engineering department, advantage will again be taken of Lieut. Maury's invaluable advice in connection with the machinery employed in paying out the cable, and of the co-operation of others who have carried out the submersion of the submarine lines already laid. The soundings of the ocean along the plateau, which gradually increase from 1000 fathoms to 2070 fathoms at the middle and deepest part, present no obstacle in depositing a cable with regularity along a soft and almost level plain of such a nature, - and the question of submerging a cable in depths almost equal, and under less favourable conditions, has been already surmounted without difficulty.

In order to determine various points connected with the electrical department of the undertaking, a continued investigation of all the phenomena connected with the use of long submarine circuits has been carried on during the last two years; and Professor Morse, who has recently visited England, has, for many days consecutively, gone into a rigid series of demonstrations on this subject in connection with those gentlemen who have devoted so much energy and patience to this department of the work. He declares his conviction that the problem is conclusively solved, and that the attainment of full commercial success is no longer doubtful.

It may be mentioned here, that the possibility of readily and rapidly transmitting telegraphic signals beyond a certain distance by submarine wires, had been thrown into some doubt by the discovery of certain phenomena of induction and retardation, described by Professor Faraday.

In the year 1854, at the instance of Mr. Brett, Mr. Wildman Whitehouse first took up the subject, of the effects of induction in long submarine conductors, in its relation to practical telegraphy, by commencing a series of preliminary experiments upon a cable containing 660 miles of submarine wire. In the following year, when the great project of Transatlantic communication came more prominently into view, these experiments were continued more fully on 1125 miles of similar wire, the results being obtained and recorded with the utmost care and accuracy, by means of apparatus contrived for the purpose, and new both in character and principle. Several facts of the highest importance to electrical science and of the most encouraging nature as regards the undertaking were thus determined; and in a still more extended series of experiments this year on 1020 miles, conducted conjointly by Mr. Whitehouse and Mr. Bright, Engineer to the Magnetic Telegraph Company, these two gentlemen have been enabled to realise and amplify every previous encouraging result, and at the same time to perfect instruments suitable for practical telegraphic use and capable of working through almost unlimited lengths of submarine wire. The size of the conducting wire required for such distant operations has formed the subject of special inquiry with these gentlemen. They have finally established a claim to the foremost position in the scientific department of the undertaking, by practically demonstrating to Professor Morse and others, on an unbroken length of over 2000 miles of subterranean wire, the fact of telegraphic operations carried on with an amount of accuracy and at a speed which determines at once the certainty of full commercial success.

Nothing can be more satisfactory than the result of these experimental demonstrations, which have been verified by Professor Morse,—proving, as they do—First, that telegraphic signals can be transmitted without difficulty through the required distance; Secondly, that a large conducting wire is not required for the purpose; and Thirdly, that the communication can be effected at a thoroughly satisfactory speed.

All the points having a direct practical bearing on any part of the undertaking have thus been subjected to a close and rigid scrutiny; the result of this examination proving to be in every respect of the most favourable character, it remained only that those possessing the required power should take the initiative.

The New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, possessing, in virtue of their charter, all the necessary powers, deputed their Vice-president to visit England in the summer of the present year; and they gave him full authority to make on their behalf such arrangements as should seem to him best fitted to carry forward the great work.

The outline of the formation of the " Atlantic Telegraph Company," which will be found in the Appendix, will sufficiently explain the nature of these arrangements.

The expenditure to be incurred in carrying out the undertaking is small, compared with the magnitude and the national importance of the work.

The Projectors confidently anticipate having the cable completed in time to lay it in the summer of 1857, and, under any circumstances, not later than the spring of 1858. It is proposed to employ two steam-ships in the submersion, each laden with half the cable, and that they shall proceed together to a point half way between the two coasts. The two ends of the cable having been carefully joined together, the vessels will start in opposite directions, one towards Ireland and the other towards Newfoundland, uncoiling the cable and exchanging signals through it from ship to ship as they proceed. By this means, the period ordinarily required for traversing the distance between the two coasts will be lessened by one-half; each vessel having only to cover 820 nautical miles in order to finish the task assigned to it. It is expected that the operation of laying the cable will be completed in about eight days from the time of its commencement.

It is no less fortunate than remarkable that the greatest depth and difficulty will thus be encountered first; hence, should any accident occur, it can only involve the loss of a very few miles of cable; this part safely accomplished, the progress of the vessels in the process of submersion will be hourly attended with less and less difficulty and risk.

The very grandeur of the undertaking constitutes a sufficient guarantee for its commercial success when carried out; as, in addition to the great use of the cable by the governments on each side of the Atlantic, and in ordinary social intercourse, it will constitute the chief medium through which all the important business transactions between the Old and New World will be effected. The transmission of intelligence for the press in both Continents will also form a most important feature of its usefulness.

It will readily be admitted that the number of messages at present passed along the wires to or from a single capital like London,* where the rapidity of rail way transit renders the Post-Office 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 civilised Continents, and 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, amounting to not less than 100,000 miles, will act as feeders. A very limited number of commercial messages forwarded from each side daily, occupying the cable but a few hours, will, without any other sources of revenue, produce a large return on the entire capital.

* Not less than 3000 messages are transmitted in and out of London, and a larger number in and out of New York, daily.

The difference of longitude between the two Continents presents another important consideration connected with the advantageous working of the line; for, owing to the time in America being nearly five hours later than in Europe, the whole of the business messages of the day transmitted from this side between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. will have arrived in America by the time the mercantile community in the various cities and towns throughout the New World have commenced business, and the cable be thus perfectly clear for the return flow of messages to Europe.

Whilst, however, the revenue of such a line must, on the lowest estimate, be exceedingly remunerative, the working expenses, being limited to the two terminal stations, will necessarily be very small. Under such circumstances, it appears difficult to over-estimate the commercial returns that will accrue from this undertaking.

(Signed)      CYRUS W. FIELD,

Vice-President of the New York, Newfoundland,
and London Telegraph Company.

November 1st, 1856.


May 30th, 1856.


I gave myself up last night to the practical details of paying the Telegraphic Cable across the Atlantic.

It can be done without fail.

I have hit upon a plan, as to the practicability and success of which I am willing to risk my reputation.

It can be done by one steamer, and in case of accident while running, the cable may be recovered.

I see no difficulty in the way whatever; still, to be on sure and tried ground, there are two points which I should like to test by actual experiment before I go further or say more.

When I say a single ship, of course I mean one large enough to carry the cable and coal.

The cable need not be large. No time for details; but, you may rely upon it, in my judgment there need be no difficulty in laying the cable across.

      Yours truly,
      (Signed) M. F. MAURY.

New York.


October 3, Five o'clock, A. M.


As the electrician of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, it is with the highest gratification that I have to apprise you of the result of our experiments of this morning upon a single continuous conductor of more than 2000 miles in extent, a distance you will perceive sufficient to cross the Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to Ireland.

The admirable arrangements made at the Magnetic Telegraph Office in Old Broad Street, for connecting ten subterranean gutta-percha insulated conductors, of over 200 miles each, so as to give one continuous length of more than 2000 miles during the hours of the night, when the Telegraph is not commercially employed, furnished us the means of conclusively settling, by actual experiment, the question of the practicability as well as the practicality of telegraphing through our proposed Atlantic cable.           

This result had been thrown into some doubt by the discovery, more than two years since, of certain phenomena upon subterranean and submarine conductors, and had attracted the attention of electricians - particularly of that most eminent philosopher Professor Faraday, and that clear-sighted investigator of electrical phenomena Dr. Whitehouse; and one of these phenomena, to wit, the perceptible retardation of the electric current, threatened to perplex our operations and required careful investigation before we could pronounce with certainty the commercial practicability of the Ocean Telegraph.       

I am most happy to inform you that, as a crowning result of a long series of experimental investigation and inductive reasoning upon this subject, the experiments under the direction of Dr. Whitehouse and Mr. Bright, which I witnessed this morning,—in which the induction coils and receiving magnets, as modified by these gentlemen, were made to actuate one of my recording instruments,—have most satisfactorily resolved_ all doubts of the practicability as well as practicality of operating the telegraph from Newfoundland to Ireland.      
Although we telegraphed signals at the rate of 210-241, and according to the count at one time even of 270 per minute upon my telegraphic register (which speed you will perceive is at a rate commercially advantageous), these results were accomplished, notwithstanding many disadvantages, in our arrangements, of a temporary and local character—disadvantages which will not occur in the use of our submarine cable.           

Having passed the whole night with my active and agreeable collaborators, Dr. Whitehouse and Mr. Bright, without sleep, you will excuse the hurried and brief character of this note, which I could not refrain from sending you, since our experiments this morning, settle the scientific and commercial points of our enterprise satisfactorily.        

With respect and esteem, your obedient Servant,
(Signed)      SAML. F. B. MORSE.           

To CYRUS W. FIELD, Esq.,           
Vice-President of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company,
37, Jermyn-street, St. James's-street.          


London, Oct. 10, 1856.        

MY DEAR SIR,           

After having given the deepest consideration to the subject of our successful experiments the other night, when we signalled clearly and rapidly through an unbroken circuit of subterranean conducting wire, over 2000 miles in length, I sit down to give you the result of my reflections and calculations.          

There can be no question but that with a cable containing a single conducting wire, of a size not exceeding that through which we worked, and with equal insulation, it would be easy to telegraph from Ireland to Newfoundland at a speed of at least from eight to ten words per minute; nay, more: the varying rates of speed at which we worked, depending as they did upon differences in the arrangement of the apparatus employed, do of themselves prove that even a higher rate than this is attainable. Take it, however, at ten words in the minute, and allowing ten words for name and address, we can safely calculate upon the transmission of a twenty word message in three minutes;
Twenty such messages in the hour;
Four hundred and eighty in the 24 hours, or 14,400 words per day.

Such are the capabilities of a single wire cable fairly and moderately computed.

It is, however, evident to me, that by improvements in the arrangement of the signals themselves, aided by the adoption of a code or system constructed upon the principles of the best nautical code, as suggested by Dr. Whitehouse, we may at least double the speed in the transmission of our messages.

As to the structure of the cable itself, the last specimen which I examined with you seemed to combine so admirably the necessary qualities of strength, flexibility, and lightness, with perfect insulation, that I can no longer have any misgivings about the ease and safety with which it will be submerged.

In one word, the doubts are resolved, the difficulties overcome, success is within our reach, and the great feat of the century must shortly be accomplished.

I would urge you, if the manufacture can be completed within the time (and all things are possible now), to press forward the good work, and not to lose the chance of laying it during the ensuing summer.

Before the close of the present month, I hope to be again landed safely on the other side of the water, and I full well know, that on all hands the enquiries of most interest with which I shall be met, will be about the Ocean Telegraph.

Much as I have enjoyed my European trip this year, it would enhance the gratification which I have derived from it more than I can describe to you, if on my return to America I could be the first bearer to my friends of the welcome intelligence that the great work had been begun, by the commencement of the manufacture of the cable to connect Ireland with the line of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, now so successfully completed to St. John's.

Respectfully, your obedient Servant,

Vice -President of the New York, Newfoundland,
and London Telegraph Company.





For connecting the Continents of Europe and America by a Submarine Electric Cable, to be laid down from England or Ireland to Newfoundland, uniting the entire American system of Telegraphs with that of Europe.

CAPITAL £350,000, in Shares of £1000 each.

IT is purposed at once to commence the great undertaking of establishing Electro-Telegraphic communication between America and Europe.

The favourable nature of the soundings of the Atlantic which have been so liberally made for this object by the United States Government, at the instance of MR. CYRUS W. FIELD, the proof that great depths are no impediment to the enterprise, as demonstrated by the recent efforts of MR. JOHN W. BRETT in the Mediterranean,—and the conclusive experiments recently made by Messrs. WHITEHOUSE AND BRIGHT, in conjunction with PROFESSOR MORSE, on a length of over 2000 miles of subterranean wire,—establish beyond doubt the practicability of laying the cable, and of working efficiently through it when submerged.

PROFESSOR MORSE, the inventor of the American system of Telegraphs, and LIEUT. MAURY, U.S.N., who is well known for his investigations of ocean depths and currents, are active supporters of the undertaking, and are confident of its successful accomplishment; indeed, the latter writing upon the subject says,—"As to its practicability and success, I am willing to risk my reputation. I see no difficulty in the way whatever." The same opinion is shared by all the officers who have been engaged in making the soundings.

A Charter, conferring the exclusive right, for fifty years, of landing Telegraph Cables on the shores of Newfoundland and other parts of North America, has been obtained by the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. This privilege, as well as all concessions bearing on this undertaking which may hereafter be obtained, together with the patent rights of MESSRS. WHITEHOUSE AND BRIGHT, which give the most perfect mode at present known of practically working instruments in submarine circuits of so great a length, will, with other advantages, be made over to the Company.

Responsible parties offer to manufacture the whole cable for a sum so far within the limits of the proposed Capital as to leave an ample margin to cover the expense of submerging, as well as incidental expenses; and it is determined to complete and have the Telegraph in operation during the ensuing summer.

In order that the Capital subscribed may be wholly applied to the immediate object of the undertaking, the Projectors, MESSRS. BRETT AND FIELD, in conjunction with MESSRS. WHITEHOUSE AND BRIGHT, (whose services in the cause it is desired to acknowledge and retain,) propose that their compensation for the privileges they assign, and for past and future services, shall entirely depend on the successful result of the enterprise. With this view the remuneration of the Projectors has been made wholly dependent upon, and subsequent to, the profits of the Shareholders. After paying a half-yearly dividend at the rate of 10 per cent. per annum on the Capital, one-half of the surplus profit will be assigned to these Gentlemen, and the other half will belong to the Company.

To testify still further their confidence in the undertaking, the promoters and their friends have subscribed upwards of £100,000 of the Capital required.

The Projectors do not deem it necessary to resort to any other means of raising the Capital than that of making their wants known by the present communication ; feeling satisfied that the remaining amount required will be readily subscribed without the occasion for further publicity.

It has been their ambition, and would be their pride, to see this truly great enterprise undertaken and carried out by a few individuals, each subscribing £25,000; but in order to avoid the appearance of exclusiveness, and to give a wider and more national character to the undertaking, they propose to divide the Capital into Shares of £1000 each, and they invite subscriptions from those who are willing to participate in the honour of accomplishing the object sought to be attained.

It is considered that little requires to be said in favour of the undertaking.

The benefits which it will confer upon all classes are too obvious to need mention, and its proved practicability renders its accomplishment a duty.

Upon a very moderate computation of the probable amount of traffic, and a consideration of the comparatively small working expenses, (which are necessarily limited to those of the terminal stations,) the net receipts will yield an annual return exceeding 40 per cent. upon the Capital.

The Company is incorporated under the Joint Stock Companies' Act, 1856, with limited liability, and the Directors will be chosen at an early date.

An instalment of 20 per cent. of the Capital will be payable on Allotment, and the remainder by eight monthly instalments of 10 per cent. each.

Due notice will be given of the Allotment, and when and where the payments will have to be made.

It is requested that all communications may be addressed to The Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company (Limited), at 117, Bishopsgate Street Within.

LONDON, November 1st, 1856.



Return to the Atlantic Cables index page

Last revised: 17 September, 2021

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: