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

Wildman Whitehouse and William Thomson: A Meeting of Minds?
by Allan Green

A Meeting of Minds?
Dr E.O. Wildman Whitehouse, Electrician to The Atlantic Telegraph Company, and his relationship with Professor William Thomson during the development and construction of the first transatlantic telegraph cable 1857/8

by Allan Green

Abstract: After many setbacks the first telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic in August 1858 and in that monumental project men of widely differing disciplines and personalities were brought together. Popular historical accounts invariably portray Dr Wildman Whitehouse, the Electrician on the project, as inept using excessively high voltages which brought about the failure of the cable. On the other hand the brilliant academic Professor William Thomson became heralded one of the heroes of the project. With his scientific approach and ingenious inventions he emerged the technical saviour of transatlantic telegraphy. Whitehouse became the dishonoured amateur while Thomson was universally acclaimed, rewarded with a knighthood and accrued significant wealth from his patents.

Most historians have Thomson and Whitehouse as antagonists. While a true meeting of minds between the two was perhaps never likely yet for a short period both were 'in the same team': the Atlantic Telegraph Company headed by the extraordinarily driven American entrepreneur Cyrus Field. Pressure on both men for the project to succeed was immense. This paper builds on existing published histories, most significantly through the introduction of recently discovered archive documents. These bring new perspectives on the relationship between Whitehouse and Thomson and between themselves and the Board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company.


By the end of  December 1856 Dr E.O. Wildman Whitehouse (1816-1890), a surgeon by profession and one of the four ‘projectors’ of the Atlantic Telegraph cable, had been appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and had been carrying out experimental work on submarine cables for more than two years. Professor William Thomson (1824-1907), Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, had just become a shareholder and director of the company. The two had met and debated technical aspects of submarine telegraphy in 1855. They were now to be ‘in the same team’ with a common desire to ensure success for the Atlantic telegraph cable project which, one suspects, they both regarded at least to some degree as a great experiment.

Figure 1. Dr Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse.
Photographic studio portrait by Maull and Polyblank, London, probably taken around 1860.
Science Museum Inv. 1980-2/50
Science & Society Library 10401581

Figure 2. Professor William Thomson FRS.
Photographed in 1852 just before he became involved with submarine telegraphy. He was knighted in 1866 for his work on the Atlantic telegraph cable and elevated to the peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892.
Science & Society Library 10296236

The Atlantic Telegraph Company had been formed with a provisional Board on 29th October 1856 and in less than 6 weeks, driven forward at breakneck pace by American entrepreneur Cyrus Field, they had settled on the form of cable to be laid and placed orders for the manufacture of 2200 nautical miles ‘to be finished and loaded on board by 31st May 1857’! [1]

For the Board this was no experiment; the Company’s capital of £350,000 had been rapidly and readily subscribed but within a very few weeks £250,000 had been committed for the purchase of the cable and the eyes of the world were upon the enterprise.

For both Whitehouse and Thomson such a commercially driven Company with its ‘it just can’t wait’ approach was certainly never going to be a comfortable one. They perhaps didn’t agree on some important aspects of submarine telegraphy but both must have shared the same serious concerns about the manner in which the Board had so hastily ordered the cable which for neither of them was the optimum choice but it was certainly un fait accompli [2]

Both men were involved with the same submarine telegraph issues for but a very short period of their working lives. Less than four years passed between Whitehouse challenging Thomson’s ‘law of squares’ theory in 1855 and the severance of his activities with Atlantic cable affairs in September 1858. During this period their relationship most certainly had its ups and downs. With new research this paper looks at how both protagonists coped with their commitments to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and how they interacted during their working relationship, which in some histories has been described as  ‘openly confrontational’ or worse.

When the Atlantic cable failed completely at the end of 1858 the Board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company needed to guarantee as far as possible that the reputation of the Board, the confidence of investors and the credibility of any future Atlantic telegraph project would not suffer. They needed a scapegoat. Whitehouse became that scapegoat. He was to be blamed for the failure of the cable and has from that time been portrayed by most historians as the bumbling villain of the piece. Set against this, the character of the renowned Professor William Thomson has been built as the diligent scientist who, had it not been for Whitehouse’s meddling, might well have saved the Atlantic cable and that he and his mirror galvanometer were to ensure success for future submarine cable enterprises.


Neither of the men with their totally different approach to work was really confident about all aspects of the new electric telegraphic art albeit both were ready to voice strong opinions. In particular there were the uncertainties with regard to signalling through the proposed Atlantic cable which was almost 10 times longer than any submarine cable so far laid.

William Thomson’s approach to cable issues and particularly the phenomenon of signal attenuation, which had become known as retardation, in long underground and submarine cables was purely mathematical. As a student at Cambridge one of his early study books was Fourier’s work in which he had established equations to define the movement of heat through and between bodies. In 1855 Thomson put forward his theory that the movement of an electrical signal down an underwater cable was analogous to the movement of heat along a metal rod and set out in a paper his development of Fourier series equations to prove it.[3]

At that time it is unlikely that there would have been more than a handful of scientists in the country who would have been able to discuss, let alone dispute his reasoning and Wildman Whitehouse was surely not one of them. On the contrary, with his surgeon’s chutzpah he would have laid much greater trust in that which he was able to handle and to measure in experiments using his own tools, and he challenged Thomson’s ‘law of squares’ head on. This started with Whitehouse presenting a paper [4] and then moved on to exchanges of lengthy letters between the two in the Athenaeum. Between August and November 1856 they expressed their views openly and Thomson patiently explained that Whitehouse’s measurements were in fact not at variance with his theory. It would seem unlikely that Whitehouse grasped the full significance of this; however, the exchanges did expose weaknesses in both of their positions. This scenario is admirably set out by David Lindley [5]

Responding again in the Athenaeum, Whitehouse seized on Thomson’s admission that the applicability of the law of squares “depends on the nature of the electric operation performed at one end of the wire, and on the nature of the test applied at the other extremity” and argued that the practical issue was to get a useful signal down the wire, not to operate according to some theoretical ideal! This was a fair point. Although Whitehouse clearly didn’t understand Thomson’s theorizing, it was also true that Thomson had not fully thought through the implications of his theory for practical telegraphy.

His analysis of the telegraph illuminated both the strengths and the weaknesses of Thomson’s intellectual style. He began with a handful of basic empirical propositions about electricity, used them to formulate a simple model of the properties of an insulated submarine cable, and proceeded to write down a differential equation that captured the desired solution. In his first reply to Whitehouse he had expressed his confidence in this approach by saying that his theory, “like every theory, is merely a combination of established truths.” One does not have to be a deep philosopher to perceive the narrowness of this view. There must be more to theorizing than simply combining old knowledge in new ways, else where would new ideas come from?

The lengthy exchanges between the two in the Athenaeum has been broadly interpreted by most historians as Whitehouse, the rather inept dabbler in telegraphy, being corrected and at the same time chided by the scholarly professor Thomson.


There are very few contemporary accounts of Thomson’s actual thoughts on his exchanges with Whitehouse. However, in a little-cited and lengthy letter sent by him to Auguste de la Rive (1801-1873) in Geneva dated 17th December 1856 on quite a different topic ( ‘The Thomson Effect’ or thermoelectric effects in metals) he added a final paragraph intended as an update for de la Rive on his activities on submarine cables. This is quite revealing about his feelings following a meeting he had with Whitehouse. Endeavouring to present a balanced perspective on the Thomson/Whitehouse relationship I have included the text in full:   

I enclose a short and very imperfect article which I sent to the Athenaeum [6] some time ago in reply to objections which Mr. Wildman Whitehouse had raised against my theory of the propagation of electricity in submarine telegraph wires. More recently, by conversation with Mr. Whitehouse, by seeing some of his experiments, and by going through, along with him, the results of long and careful investigations which he had made with a view to testing various questions, theoretical and practical, on the subject, I have found all that was wanting for a complete explanation of the apparent discrepancies. Nothing can be more perfect than the agreement of these experimental results, with the theory; and they will afford many very remarkable illustrations of some of the mathematical expressions given in my first paper on the subject, Proceedings Royal Society of London, May 24th, 1855.

 What I have thus learned from Mr. Whitehouse has also convinced me that the method he has invented for telegraphing through great lengths of submarine wire is likely to be most successful and convenient in all cases, and to give a sufficient rapidity of signaling to make the Atlantic Telegraph a highly advantageous undertaking. It is hoped that a cable, establishing electric communication between Valentia in Ireland and Trinity Bay near St. John’s New-foundland (1900 British miles distance) will be laid below the Atlantic before the end of June next — If it is successfully laid, I have no doubt but that it will work successfully.’ [7]

It is hard to imagine that such comments could have been intended as anything but a warm endorsement of Thomson’s genuine interest in and satisfaction with the work being undertaken by Whitehouse. He saw it as serious and worthwhile experimental work which, importantly for him, supported his own theoretical approach.

Strongly supporting this hypothesis we also find that within a couple of weeks of his last letter on the subject to the Athenaeum, Thomson had written to his old friend G G Stokes (George Gabriel Stokes 1819-1903), ‘I should be glad to have the opportunity of proposing Whitehouse to be FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) but I do not know what forms have first to be gone through.’ [8] Stokes’ response to this is lost but Whitehouse never became a Fellow.


During the cable laying expeditions of 1857-8 Thomson had replaced Whitehouse as electrician on board HMS Agamemnon on each of the occasions when Whitehouse had declined the opportunity on grounds of ill health. In the eyes of the Board and no doubt other collaborators too, this would have enhanced the prestige and standing of Thomson as a practical man as well as a scientist and done nothing to augment their confidence in Whitehouse. Whether he was driven by a fear of the sea or sea sickness we may never know, but for the first expedition, leaving from Ireland in 1857, an alternative explanation is likely. Whitehouse had been extremely anxious to be present at the cable station as the cable was being laid and this was in order that he would be very much in charge of his instruments on site and that he might be in daily communication with the Board in London.

In 1857 the first expedition to lay the cable ended in failure on 11th August when the cable broke and left more than 300 miles of cable irretrievable at the bottom of the Atlantic. The cable remaining on board the two ships was insufficient to start again and cross the Atlantic so it was taken to Keyham docks at Plymouth to be stored until more cable could be manufactured and a new expedition launched.

Albeit no one had expressed doubts about Whitehouse’s instruments, a letter signed both by him, Professor Thomson and Samuel Morse was published in the Times ten days after the cable failure expressing confidence in the instruments and the project.

Between the end of August 1857 and April 1858, when loading of cable started for the next attempt, Whitehouse moved home from London to Devon and spent all his days at Keyham checking cable and carrying out further experiments using different types of instrument and batteries as well as his fabled large induction coils.

During the same period Thomson had been giving serious thought to submarine cable telegraphy, and in November 1856 gave a paper to the Royal Society outlining a rather complex system of signalling based upon precisely regulating the time during which the battery was connected to the cable and using a modified Helmholtz galvanometer as the receiving instrument. Although, in the words of his biographer; ‘This method was soon abandoned’ [9] Thomson had nevertheless realised during this exercise, the potential value of using a sensitive galvanometer and the reflecting surface of a suspended magnet. This was to be the inspiration for his development of his own mirror galvanometer.

Curiously, and at around the same time, he had continued to give thought to the equipment being proposed by Whitehouse for signalling on the Atlantic cable. As we have seen he was clearly impressed, and as if to bolster the Whitehouse approach read a paper about it at the British Association meeting in Dublin in August/September 1857. He first of all praised the characteristics of Whitehouse’s induction coils, ‘which fit them remarkably for the purpose for which they are adapted’ and then went on to acclaim the construction of the Whitehouse relay which he described as, ‘an electrical hair-trigger’ which indeed it was.

Thomson’s biographer referring to the Dublin presentation of the paper says:

That Thomson should sink his amour-propre in the interests of the Atlantic Telegraph Company by thus associating himself with Whitehouse’s apparatus, is a surprising but characteristic action. [10]

Such comment almost suggests that Thomson was actually perjuring himself, presenting and praising the Whitehouse equipment knowing full well that it was inadequate in some way simply to avoid rocking the Atlantic Telegraph Company boat. This would have been totally out of character yet one can agree that it was surely a ‘characteristic action’ on the part of Thomson to support his associate  whose work and equipment he had so openly praised in his letter to de la Rive but a few months earlier.

For the biographer writing fifty years after the Board had discredited Whitehouse it was clearly not easy to explain why anyone should, at any stage, have sought to praise him or his methods.


Following the failure to lay the cable in 1857 the Board, and in particular the Company Engineer Charles Bright, were very much preoccupied by work to develop and manufacture a more satisfactory form of the shipboard cable paying-out machine, specifically its braking system, which had been blamed for the cable snapping.  Whether prompted by this system failure or for other reasons they were clearly very nervous and anxious about the future of the project, and in what appears to have been an act of desperation, proposed a form of competition. Announced in the Times following a Board meeting on September 10th 1857 the following was minuted:

Resolved…..that a premium of five hundred pounds sterling be offered for the best and most suitable form of Telegraphic instrument for working through the Atlantic Cable and that Professor Thomson and the Electrician be requested to settle the terms and conditions upon which the competition is to be conducted.

The confidence of both Thomson, who had been present at the meeting and Whitehouse, must have been severely shaken by the Board’s suggestion.

Although Thomson himself was a Director, it would appear that he and Whitehouse chose to close ranks against the idea. Possibly a complex decision for him, having in mind his own partially developed mirror galvanometer, [11] Thomson nevertheless declined to get involved with the Board’s proposed scheme. He gave them his response in a letter dated 5th October which was entered into the minutes. It offered no reason for his decision but he took the opportunity to remind the Board about important matters scientific, which was for them to look to ensuring the quality of the copper in the replacement cable which was being manufactured.


Thomson and Whitehouse met again on 5th August 1858 as the cable, successfully laid, was landed at Valentia. The account of operations at the Valentia cable station at this time, based on current research, particularly on the journals of James Burn Russell [12] (1837-1904) and John Lecky [13] (1845-1929), is the subject of another paper (in preparation). Suffice to say that on the subject of the relationship between Thomson and Whitehouse during the few days that they were together on Valentia it would appear to have been amicable. Whitehouse was no doubt interested to witness Thomson, on this occasion clearly the practical man, setting up his own equipment, in particular his mirror galvanometer, in parallel with Whitehouse’s own instruments.

On August 17th 1858 after less than two weeks of the cable being landed and with but few transatlantic messages exchanged, Whitehouse was recalled to London to be disciplined by the Board and have his contract terminated. [14] On the same day they authorised Thomson to take over the electrical apparatus and activities at Valentia. He duly returned and just what he found on arriving back on 21st August is set out in a report he addressed to the Directors on the same day.[15]

It is evident from the report that Thomson had been present at the Board Meeting in London on Tuesday the 17th August and heard the grounds for the proposed dismissal of Whitehouse, and may even have voted on the motion.

The two main reasons the Board put forward for sacking Whitehouse were firstly that he had gone against their specific request not to under-run the cable in the harbour, i.e. to lift it to inspect for what he believed to be damage; and secondly that he had been discourteous to a Mr France, a telegraph engineer who the Board had requested to go to Valentia to help Whitehouse.


It is likely that Thomson understood but did not entirely agree with the Board’s arguments for Whitehouse’s dismissal; however there was also a technical issue which in his mind probably cast a more serious doubt upon Whitehouse’s competence and handling of matters.

His hitherto unpublished report of August 21st throws much more light on the situation. He clearly set to work very quickly:

Immediately on my arrival here at 9 o’clock I proceeded to the telegraph station and took all the means afforded by the signal book and the evidence of the operators on duty, to learn the true state of affairs. This I found as you were appraised by my telegram much more satisfactory than we expected.

Thomson goes on to explain that he had been under the impression that Whitehouse was using his own patented relays for reception and fault location calculations, and his surprise came when he discovered that almost since the day he had left Valentia (he had returned to Glasgow on 6th August) Whitehouse had abandoned his relays and was using the Thomson mirror galvanometer. In view of this he stated that ‘I saw that my reasoning must be inverted’. What Whitehouse had been saying about faults in the cable and their possible location now made sense to Thomson and he readily retracted his condemnation of the actions and admitted that they, the Board, had been hasty in dismissing him:

With the actual arrangements here, of which we in London were not cognizant, it was therefore right to look for the cause of the weakness of currents complained of on the other side in the manner in which Mr Whitehouse did look for it.  I think in the vexation of hearing of the cable being under-run, we were all too hasty in coming to the conclusion that a mistake had been committed. 

Thomson goes on to express further support for Whitehouse and to give explanations for the way in which he had acted. He had persuaded the Newfoundland station to use his galvanometer in place of the Whitehouse relays whereupon they were able to receive without difficulty. This he sets out with a certain degree of self satisfaction:

I have thus ascertained that all they had to do to remove the difficulty they felt in reading our messages was, to receive in the same way as Mr Whitehouse and I had arranged at this end for receiving theirs.  I mention this at present, not because of the gratification I feel that my own instrument should have been the first on each side by which Transatlantic messages have been read with continuous accuracy; but because I think it only an act of justice to Mr Whitehouse, to remove the erroneous impression that it was to superior skill on the other side that the successful conveyance of messages in one direction were due. 

Thomson concludes the report with a plea that he cannot now support the decision to dismiss Whitehouse and praises the man and the work which he has been undertaking ‘under very difficult circumstances’ on Valentia:

  In the meantime when a great result has been achieved, and when one of our most devoted officers, conducting his own proper business in a thoroughly sufficient and successful manner under the most harassing circumstances that can be conceived, falls into some errors of judgement, as regards the responsibility of his office, and the authority he is bound to obey, it would be a very ungracious act on our part to carry into execution so severe a judgement  as that which was adopted last Tuesday under circumstances of considerable irritation. For my own part I must now altogether withdraw the consent I most reluctantly gave, and I do so as an act to which I am compelled by a sense of justice.

Unfortunately for Whitehouse Thomson’s appeal went unheeded. The Board replied to Thomson’s report on the 25th August suggesting that ‘his own benevolent and kindly feelings must have obscured his more reflective judgment.’[16]


Whitehouse’s reaction to his dismissal took the form of a series of letters to the Times addressed to the Directors culminating in his ‘Reply to the Statement of the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company’ dated September 27th 1858. It ran to almost nine thousand words lashing out vehemently against the Directors including William Thomson and defending himself against all the charges levelled by the Board. He opened the letter by expressing his surprise at his dismissal and ended with:

A great responsibility rests upon those who have in any way contributed to the failure of this enterprise; but for my own part, I can safely say, that neither zeal, labour, caution, nor anxiety, was wanting upon the part of Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse

This paper does not seek to explore further the wide ranging content of Whitehouse’s letter, suffice to say it was an outburst perhaps typical of the man, the surgeon, who having struggled with a particularly difficult operation had the patient (already in very poor health) die on the table and then found himself not only pilloried by the management but also dismissed from his post.

Thomson had been hurt by personal comments in the letters and wrote privately to Whitehouse, [17] ‘Your letter to the Times has given me more pain than any one of the many painful incidents of the last three weeks’.

In his outburst Whitehouse had not only made his attacks personal but had in Thomson’s view been dishonest about the results achieved on the Atlantic cable; ‘How could you possibly have allowed yourself to forget the facts as to say that the President’s reply [Reply from the President of USA to the message from Queen Victoria] had been received and recorded here under your patents’?

However, Thomson continued with typical generosity and patience adding:

You will, I hope, believe me, that I say all this in no unfriendly spirit, but in self justification. There would be a want of sincerity now in concealing from you the views which I cannot longer conceal from others without a violation of the truth. I cannot forget the regard and esteem I have felt for you, nor the pleasure which intercourse with you has given me; and although I cannot understand the course you are now taking, I hope that we shall meet again without allowing anything that may come before the public to alter the kindly relations between us.

Although Whitehouse’s reply is unknown it is probable that he made a further sharp and defensive response which prompted Thomson to reply with a further letter [18] dated September 27th in which he stated ‘ It is not now a difference of opinion, but of truth and honour that has arisen’. The fact that Whitehouse should, even in his despair and anger have resorted to dishonesty and continued to deny facts known by Thomson to be true was clearly painful for him to accept yet he continued to extend to Whitehouse the opportunity to reconsider his outburst and ended his letter:

Three weeks ago I could not have believed it possible that under any circumstances you could act as you have done, and a most painful feeling of disappointment would be removed, if it could still be proved that I was not thus mistaken.


On 9th October 1858 George Saward, the Secretary of the Company, wrote to Thomson seeking his support in what amounted to collusion with the Board over their plans for the condemnation of Whitehouse:

They [a Committee of the Company] say that they think the Directors as a body had better not have anything further to do with Whitehouse as he will not be convinced by anything they may say and that their collective statement upon a scientific subject would not be regarded. They however think that it would be perfectly correct on your part to disabuse the public upon the scientific errors into which Whitehouse has fallen if you do not object to the trouble. Your exalted position in science would give force and effect to what you thought proper to say — which would not be the case if the observations emanated from any other Person in the company.[19]

 To further ensure that Thomson had a clear understanding of the Board’s standpoint they sent him a further lengthy letter on 22nd October 1858. The letter spelled out very clearly their anxiety and anger, calling Whitehouse ‘a man so inefficient, selfish & unscrupulous’. [20]

What response Thomson made to these requests is unknown but it is difficult to imagine that he would have taken any action ‘to disabuse the public’ by condemning Whitehouse’s ‘scientific errors’. However, for the Board there was no going back. Their letters to Thomson were possibly the first written evidence that if, as now seemed certain, the cable was not going to perform as promised, then the Board were making quite certain that it would be Whitehouse alone who would be carrying the blame. They were very anxious to ensure that the breakdown of the cable and the first telegraph communications across the Atlantic would not be seen as a failure of the Atlantic Telegraph Company or as a failed technology but that the problems were due solely to their failed Electrician who, as they were ready to point out had not been appointed by the current Board.


Witnessing Whitehouse’s experimental work on cables in 1856 had prompted Thomson’s enthusiastic comments about the man and his methods, primarily because they confirmed the findings of his own theoretical work. However it was this same meeting which in all probability opened the eyes of the professor to a much wider range of technical challenges as well as business opportunities presented by long distance submarine telegraphy.

It was evident that they also both shared a common interest, in addition to the technical challenge of the Atlantic cable project, and that was the opportunity to benefit financially from the technology they were developing, and both had started early to seek patent cover for their inventions.

Thomson’s activity in this field is best known through his patents on his Mirror Galvanometer and later his Siphon Recorder which made him a rich man. However he had registered his very first patent (No 2547) in December 1854, together with Rankine and John Thomson, for what appears to have been the basic construction of the 1857/8 Atlantic cable. His eye to turning this to financial profit is evident from a letter to his brother James:

[Speaking of the patent they had registered] In a few days I expect it will be secured to us: in the meantime don’t say even as much as I have said to you on the subject I am not very hopeful of making anything of it but it is possible that it may be profitable. [21]

Thomson appears to have continued with a quite avaricious approach to patenting related to the Atlantic cable project. By way of illustration: Rankine and John Thomson (not related to William Thomson) had registered a Patent (No 401) in June 1855 covering their proposals for a shipboard cable laying and braking system. It would appear that the machines on board Agamemnon and Niagara for the 1857 expedition had been built by the contractor to the specification of the Atlantic Telegraph Company evading the terms of this patent, but in the event the machines were inefficient and were blamed for the cable breakages which occurred. After the 1857 mishap William Thomson was invited to advise the Atlantic Telegraph Company (Engineer Charles Bright) on the re-design & construction of the machinery and in particular its braking system. This he did, but then within weeks he had registered, not in the name of the Company but in his own, a Patent (No 437) 4th March 1858 for such improvements to a braking system.


Most historians suggest that the relationship between Whitehouse and Thomson was less than harmonious. They refer to the heated exchange of letters in the Athenaeum in 1855 and the fact that Whitehouse simply did not understand Thomson’s theoretical approach; that he was an ignoramus [22] and jealous of Thomson’s reputation [23]  and consequently infer that the feelings between them must have been, to say the least, unfriendly.

As communications through the cable began to fail in August 1858, and it was reported that the Whitehouse relays and induction coils had been set aside in Valentia and replaced by Thomson’s Daniel cells and his mirror galvanometer, the alleged animosity between the two protagonists was deemed to have grown to the point where they were seen as ‘feuding’ [24] or as ‘arch rivals’ [25].This research has been unable to find evidence to support these suggestions.

Upon the formation of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in November 1856, and with 2500 statute miles of cable already ordered for delivery at the end of May 1857, it would no doubt have been evident to both Whitehouse and Thomson they were to be working in an unfamiliar, high-pressure commercial enterprise. Cyrus Field’s leadership style was fast and furious and could not have sat easily with either man, but probably brought them together insofar as when the cable was laid, the all important successful and potentially profitable signalling aspect was in their hands.

In 1856 Whitehouse’s experiments, coupled with his confidence and the support received from Samuel Morse, had initially gone quite a long way to convincing the Board and Thomson of the overall viability of an Atlantic cable. However, the Board (excluding Thomson) were at all times demonstratively nervous, and events such as the proposed ‘competition’ of September 1857 would have brought Thomson the Director closer to Whitehouse than to the rest of the Board.  Such a relationship would appear to have prevailed right to the end of the time they worked together.

This closeness and Thomson’s support for Whitehouse against the Board is further evidenced in another comment in his August 21st report from Valentia [26] where he ‘suggest[s] a Committee should be appointed to enquire into the circumstances which have been before us’ and goes further, confirming his confidence in Whitehouse, by stating, ‘and that in the meantime Mr Whitehouse be requested to cooperate with me in carrying out the business of the electrical department’. 

Not only did Thomson voice his support for Whitehouse to the Board but the same day advised his colleague of the fact, sending him two personal telegrams,[27] which read:

Telegraphed Directors to reconsider Tuesday’s decision. Promised good reason by post. Give your reasons in writing, if not already done. [And]

Whether you resign or not, claim investigation of all facts connected with reports before Board at recent meeting.

Whitehouse took his advice and wrote to the Board[28] requesting ‘a full and complete investigation of all circumstances which have occurred since the laying of the cable, and upon which the Directors have thought fit to found my summary dismissal’.

No evidence has been found of a response from the Board to these pleas for an enquiry and one can only imagine that for them there was no going back and they were determined to use this opportunity to rid themselves of Whitehouse. They had their scapegoat.

As different as they were, both in personality and in their approach to the problems of  submarine telegraphy, it  seems certain that both Thomson and Whitehouse had for most of the period a respect for the other’s work. The impatience and lack of coherent leadership of the Board of the Atlantic Telegraph Co troubled them both and almost certainly brought them together into  a much closer working relationship than had hitherto been imagined.

The experiment of the first Atlantic Telegraph Cable was theirs. As with many of the great engineering projects of the Victorian era, the work to link the telegraph systems of the Old and New Worlds had its disasters and disappointments. By the time the Report of the Joint Committee which inquired into the failures of this and other submarine cables was published in 1861 the experiment was virtually ended, and by 1866 the job was complete. Two new cables crossed the Atlantic and communications traffic flowed.

Together both Whitehouse and Thomson had made significant contributions, and although it is still held by many that it was Whitehouse and his ‘gigantic induction coils’ generating ‘a massive 2000 volts’ which destroyed the cable, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the  badly manufactured and damaged cable would, in any case have failed within weeks. Interestingly the conclusions drawn in the lengthy and detailed Report of 1861 makes no reference to  the ‘massive 2000 volts’ and how it may have damaged the cable.


My research into the life and work of Wildman Whitehouse has provided me with a wealth of material; however, some aspects remain to be researched and it is my intention to continue this work and supplement this paper [see note below] with others, in order to present a more complete re-appraisal of Whitehouse’s work.

 I am most grateful for the award of the Fellowship in 2008 which has given me the opportunity to carry out this research. Thanks then firstly to Dr Peter Morris of the Science Museum and to David Hay of BT Heritage for the award.

Much of my research has been on objects in the Science Museum and the preparation of most of my papers has been guided by John Liffen, Curator of Communications at the museum. For his interest, support and guidance I would like to offer my most grateful appreciation.

I have been delighted to receive information about the ancestry, family artefacts and photographs from Richard Orange-Bromehead, a direct descendent of Dr Whitehouse.

I want to thank Libby Buckley and Alan Renton at Porthcurno, Alison Taubman and John Burnett in Edinburgh, Neil Brown (Science Museum, now retired), Gill Cookson, Donard de Cogan, Graeme Gooday and Bruce Hunt, who have at various times been both guiding hands and friendly support for several years.

Libraries and archives in London (IET, BT and the National Archives), Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum), Glasgow (Glasgow University and City Archives, The Mitchell Library), Cambridge University, Reading University, St Andrews University and Sussex County Archives have without exception provided me with excellent service. I must however pass on special thanks to the staff at the Science Museum Library and Archives at Wroughton and at Kensington.

Finally my warm thanks to Bill Burns in New York, who together with Steven Roberts has compiled many comprehensive and informative web pages about Whitehouse which may be seen on Bill’s very valuable web-site

Note: Prior to the publication of this paper two others relating to Whitehouse have already been published:

1.  Allan Green. Dr Wildman Whitehouse and his ‘Iron Oscillograph’; Electrical measurements relating to the first trans-Atlantic cable. Int. J. for the History of Eng. & Tech., Vol. 82 No. 1, January, 2012, 68–92.

2. Donard de Cogan and Allan Green. Numerical analysis of some measurements on the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. IET Sci. Meas. Technol., July 2011, Vol.5, Iss. 4, 117-124


1. This was part of the contractual conditions specified by the Company for the two cable manufacturers.
Atlantic Telegraph Company (Limited), Minute Book, October 1856 to April 1858 held as part of the BICC archive at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool. Reference: BICC 1/2/7.

2. This research has shown that contrary to popular belief Whitehouse did not design or select the cable type to be ordered, he was placed in a position where he was obliged to accept it but also wrote to the Board on November 8th 1856 giving his reasons for his preference for an alternative design. The relevant extract from the Atlantic Telegraph Company's Minute Book is reproduced in Appendix A below.

3. William Thomson, ‘On the theory of the electric telegraph’, Proc. RS,1855, 7; 382- 99

4. Wildman Whitehouse, ‘The law of the squares-is it applicable or not to the transmission of signals in submarine circuits?British Association Report, 1856, pp 21-3.

5. David Lindley. ‘Degrees Kelvin’ 2004. pp 126-7 (John Henry Press)

6. This would have been his letter ‘Telegraph to America’ from Invercloy, Isle of Arran dated October 24th 1856 and published in the Athenaeum No1514 of November 1st 1338- 9

7. Paul Tunbridge, 1992, ‘Lord Kelvin: His influence on Electrical Measurements and Units’ 97, also cited and quoted (briefly) by Bruce Hunt, 1996. ‘Scientists, engineers and Wildman Whitehouse: measurement and credibility in early cable telegraphy’. BJHS, 1996, 29, pp 161-162.

8.  George Gabriel Stokes, William Thomson,  Ed. David B Wilson, 1990’The Correspondence between Sir George Gabriel Stokes and Sir William Thomson 1846-1869, p226.’

9. Silvanus P Thompson, 1910, ‘The Life of Lord Kelvin’ 1. p333.

10. Silvanus P Thompson, 1910, op.cit (9) p344.

11. In April 1858 Thomson wrote to the Directors seeking 2000 pounds to cover the cost of constructing his ‘signalling instruments’ (Mirror galvanometers) for the forthcoming expedition. They refused but eventually agreed to 500 pounds.

12. Russell was one of William Thomson’s research students at Glasgow University. Aged 21 he was invited by Thomson to accompany him as his assistant on HMS Agamemnon for the laying of the 1857 and 1858 cables. He kept an extraordinarily detailed journal from May to the end of September 1858, which is held at Glasgow City Archives (TD1434/1).
Based on his journal, Russell wrote a magazine article which was published in three parts later in 1858. The full text of the article may be read here.

13. John Lecky wrote of his life on Valentia in a diary now held at the Dublin library of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland

14. In fact Whitehouse’s contract in respect of his salary was worded: ‘Not to be extended beyond the time when the cable shall have been laid down’ (Minute Book of the Atlantic Telegraph Co Jan 21st 1857)

15. William Thomson 1858. ‘Letter from William Thomson in Valencia to the Board dated August 21st 1858. Alcatel Archive item 74/1 held at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.

16. Silvanus P Thompson, 1910, op.cit (9) p370

17. Silvanus P Thompson, 1910, op.cit (9)  p375

18. Ibid.  p376

19. Letter from George Saward to William Thomson, 9th October 1858. Cambridge University Library, Ref A109.

20. Letter from C.M. Lampson to William Thomson 22nd October 1858.  Cambridge University Library, Ref L9.

21. Cambridge University Library, Kelvin Collection Ref T442

22. Bernard Crossland and Andrew Whitaker: Kelvin and Industry in Ireland, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 158 (2009)

23. Ioan James. 2004. ‘Remarkable Physicists from Galileo to Yukawa’. p147 (Cambridge University Press)

24. Samuel Carter III, 1968, ‘Cyrus Field-Man of Two Worlds,’ p146. Also Chester G Hearn, 2004, ‘Circuits in the Sea’, p135.

25. Tom Standage, 1998, ‘The Victorian Internet’, 82. On the same page Whitehouse is incorrectly described as the ‘Atlantic cable’s designer’

26. William Thomson 1858. ‘Letter from William Thomson in Valencia to the Board dated August 21st 1858. Alcatel Archive item 74/1 held at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.  

27. Whitehouse, E. O.W, 1858, ‘Recent Correspondence between Mr Wildman Whitehouse and the Atlantic Telegraph Company: with an appendix containing every telegram and letter for reference.’ (Bradbury & Evans)

28. The actual letter has not been traced, however, a telegram from Whitehouse to the Board dated  August 25th 1858 confirms that he had placed the letter in their hands ‘ on Monday’  (August 23rd) and that he awaited their response (Ibid 27)


Atlantic Telegraph Company (Limited), extract from minutes.

At a meeting held on Monday the 10th November [1856] at noon 117 Bishopsgate St. Within.

G.B. Carr Esqre (Chairman)
J.W. Brett Esqre
Cyrus W. Field Esqre
J.S. Walker Esqre
C.W. Tupper Esqre
S. Statham Esqre
J.A.M. Pinniger Esqre [Solicitor to the Company]

W. de la More Secretary.

Mr Walker having been requested to take the Chair during the temporary absence of the Chairman, the minutes of the last meeting were read and confirmed.

The Committee on the Cable appointed by the Board on the 31st of October laid their report before the Board, and the same having been read by Mr Tupper, it was moved by Mr Walker seconded by Mr Statham and


That the said report be received and entered into the minutes.

London Nov. 10th 1856.
The Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Co. (Limited)
117 Bishopsgate St Within.


In accordance with the Resolution of the Board of the 31st ult appointing us a Committee to report on the description of Cble to be adopted for the Atlantic Telegraph, we beg to state our unanimous opinion to be, that a cable composed of (as regards the Core) a copper wire strand formed of No. 22 gauge copper wires, seven in number insulated in Gutta Percha of the best quality, treble covered up to 3/8 of an inch in diameter, the core served with jute yarn saturated with a composition of Tar, Pitch, boiled oil and common beeswax – the whole covered with eighteen strands, seven wires each, of No. 22 gauge, Best Charcoal Iron bright wire, according to the sample testd on the 6th Inst. – will be the most suitable for the purpose.

We beg to remain,
Yours faithfully.

  |  John W. Brett
signed  |  Cyrus W. Field
  |  C.W. Tupper


A letter and report from Mr Whitehouse on the same subject having been read

It was Resolved,

That the same be received and entered into the minutes.

Saturday Night
Nov. 8th 1856.

My dear Sir,

In sending in my report upon the Cable to be laid before the Committee at their meeting on Monday I wish it to be distinctly [known?] that I in no way oppose the adoption of the bright iron specimen, but I think it right to place on record succinctly the reasons for my preference of the other form.

I am, My dear Sir,
Very truly Yours,
Wildman Whitehouse.

De la More Esqre
Secretary Atlantic Tel. Cy.

Electricians Report.

November 5th 1856.

After the most careful examination and consideration of the subject it is my opinion that either of the specimens of Cable last selected consisting of the 3/8 core covered with bright strand wire are well adapted for the purpose: but that a Cable consisting of a 7/16th core covered with Wright’s compound cords and weighing one ton to the mile, is preferable and on the following grounds.

1st. That tested in the usual way it sustains at least an equal length of its own weight to the others, and altho’ its flexibility is less it is admitted to be sufficient for all practical purposed.

2nd. That from its light specific gravity more than half of its weight is borne by the water even when the vessel is motionless, hence it will sustain in water more than double the length deducible from the tables of its breaking strain.

3rd. That in the act of submersion, a greater proportion of its weight will be supported by the friction of the water in the descent of the Cable than would be the case with either of the others.

4th. That in consequence of the greater thickness of the Gutta Percha it will certainly have less induction and retardation, and hence admit of the attainment of higher working speed than the others, and at the same time it will have (if possible) more perfect insulation.

5th. I give it as my opinion unhesitatingly that as the natural consequence of the foregoing considerations there will be less chance of losing this cable during the process of submersion than the others, and in the event of a loss from accident there would be a much greater probability of raising it in a fit condition to be used.

Lastly. That with these advantages it will not (if I am rightly informed) cost more than either of the others, and can be made in the same space of time.

Nov. 5th 1856
/signd./ Wildman Whitehouse


It was proposed by Mr Walker seconded by Mr Cyrus W Field that the report of the Committee just read be adopted and,


That the Cable therein recommended be the one to be used. Mr Tupper laid before the Board a letter and tender from Messrs. Newall & Co. and also a tender from Messrs. Wilkins & Weatherly. After a lengthened discussion in reference to these tenders, Mr Tupper was requested to communicate to Messrs. Newall & Co., Messrs. Kuper & Co. and Messrs. Wilkins & Weatherly the specification of the Cable as agreed, and also the terms of payment and to desire them to send in tenders accompanied by samples stating the breaking strain, addressed to the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company (Limited) on or before Friday next the 14th Inst at noon, when the Directors will meet to decide on ordering the Cable.

Dr Wildman Whitehouse in later life (probably around 70 years of age)
Photograph by courtesy of Mr Richard Orange-Bromehead


Sir William Thomson (taken around 1890) He was elevated to the peerage as Lord Kelvin in 1892

Samples of some of the cable types manufactured for the 1857/8 transatlantic telegraph cable.
Photograph, Allan Green

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