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

Letters from Samuel E. Phillips regarding
the failure of the 1858 Atlantic cable

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

As part of his campaign against the directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, following his dismissal by them on August 17th 1858, Whitehouse conducted an acrimonious correspondence in the pages of various British newspapers. On October 8th 1858, following the publication of a report by W.T. Henley on the failure of the 1858 cable after he visited to Valentia at the direction of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, Samuel Elkins Phillips, Whitehouse's associate, sent a letter to the Morning Post defending Whitehouse. Then on October 22nd the Morning Chronicle published the text of a letter from Phillips to the shareholders of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, together with an article reporting on the current state of the cable.

The letters and article are reproduced below.

--Bill Burns

The Morning Post, 8 October 1858



SIR,–I beg to offer the following analysis upon the report of Mr. Henley, published in your columns of to-day:‑

1. Mr. Henley accepts the Thomson and Varley estimate of 300 miles distance of fault, as learnt from “resistance” testing.

2. It is averred that the cable was faulty before laying, and ought to have been tested in water.

3. Mr. Henley very guardedly expresses an opinion that injury to the cable may have resulted from the Whitehouse coils.

I. As to the details of Mr. Varley’s report:–1st, it is badly and confusedly written; 2d, it is numerically false and mistaken; 3d, it has led to grossly false results; for the data and figures lead to a distance of 60 rather than 300 miles!

As to principles–The whole matter is a fundamental mistake.

“We repudiate this mode of testing, as absolutely illogical and illusory. It has not a peg of reason or common sense whereon to found any reference whatever as to distance.” Nor is it surprising that Mr. Varley himself has so strongly exemplified this in his official capacity on one of the North Sea cables, where, after looking in vain in the middle of the sea, as he directed, they worked their way backwards, again tested at 30 miles, and ultimately found the fault close into the shore. As the idea of testing by resistance originated with those who little understood the nature of the problem, so their nomenclature is on a par with all the rest–utterly absurd. Suppose, for illustration, we analogue the matter by “temperature,” there would be no harm in the phrase “testing by temperature;” but temperature being essentially relative it always bas reference to a “zero.” One class of effects take place by “heating,” and the opposite by “cooling.” But to say that we boil by temperature, and that we freeze by temperature, is to repeat the exact nonsense of those who achieve such wonderful feats by “resistance.”

If, with a certain battery-power, 2,000 miles of cable evince a certain resistance or conductivity, and we find, owing to a faulty place, or “dead earth,” on the line, that much more than the normal quantity of current flows, this must clearly be a case of greater conductivity rather than “resistance.”

Any effect whatever of resistance would give us proportionately less current, and yet, when these notable testers get more than the normal current, they speak of it as so much resistance, whereas it is so much increased conductivity.

To say we boil water by temperature is only ridiculously vague; but to say we boil it by cooling is plainly untrue–and this latter it is which is said by these literary electricians.

If, however, we forbear to inflict upon the public the scientific part of this demonstration, we might with propriety make the following declaration.

Let there be provided at the gutta-percha works 100 miles of covered wire, in the canal (a matter very frequently obtainable).

Let there be extemporised hereon faults in fair imitation of what has been imagined to exist on the Atlantic line, and let the managers of that enterprising establishment endorse the perfect fairness of all such arrangements; we thence affirm that Mr. Varley would be no more able to guess the distance of fault than the first idle boy one might impress out of the streets.

II. It has been an oft-disputed point whether cables should not be tested in water previous to laying.

1. Practical authorities state that every cable hitherto has tested better in the water than out of it.

2. The testing of the Atlantic cable has been more severe in the air surrounded by such a mass of iron than the same lengths tested as core in the canal at the gutta percha works.

3. The testing of the Atlantic cable as a whole, both at Keyham and since its submergence, has given satisfactory results; but I would emphatically urge that the rate of signalling is after all by far the best mode of testing, and on this point also the evidence would seem to justify Mr. Whitehouse in his estimate of the high value of the deep sea Atlantic cable. Three things hereon in greatest brevity:‑

1st. These attempts have been put forward under very suspicious circumstances.

2d. How long will they keep harping on this mares nest of a probable fault, revealed on submergence, to the dismay of Professor Thomson, who, with Mr. Varley, thinks it was in the Agamemnon, when Mr. Whitehouse has exposed the whole matter by a simple reference to logs, dates, observations, &c., which plainly indicate that the Niagara cut her cable to get out an injured piece?

3d. Why should Mr. Henley add his testimony to those who so industriously seek to ignore and put aside the plain evidences appealed to by Mr. Whitehouse? Mr. Henley describes the signals from the first as “so weak as to be scarcely sufficient to work a very delicate relay.”

I need not here go over the actual telegrams and statements of Mr. Whitehouse to the contrary of this. Mr. Cyrus Field’s diary proves that good signals were received at Newfoundland all the first day after landing, and although, from probable injury at the Valentia shore end during the five days occupied in getting the instruments from the Gorgon, fixing, &c., those signals were impaired, and in an increasing ratio afterwards, yet, as if to prove bow near that injury was to this side, we received their signals in comparatively excellent strength notwithstanding, and so thoroughly satisfactory were all the arrangements as a solid basis on which to improve that the rate of speaking was decidedly superior to the very best efforts realised at Keyham before cable was submerged

Have the directors ever read Mr. Whitehouse’s reply? Has Mr. Saward or Mr. Henley ever looked over those plain statements? It cannot be, or they would not persist in an untrue course, so truly suicidal to the undertaking, and se unwelcome to the public generally.

It is quite useless to par off the force of these facts by stating that a fault might not reveal itself on immediate submergence, but as the water soaked in it might do so, and even get worse, &c., &c.

The gutta percha might “have been melted by a stream of scalding water from an Atlantic Geyser,” and many other things might have happened; but the simple reply to all this is, what are the facts?

III.  As to the absurdities about electrotyping faults, and burning holes in gutta percha with coils, &c.

I would that the public should see that this is comparatively beside the great questions at issue:–Ought the shore ends to have been laid; and were the arrangements of the electrician successful?

The coils have been sorely competed with both at Keyham and elsewhere, and have behaved well; they have been more or less constantly employed on the cable for the last 12 months, and to raise a hue and cry against them now is positively childish. But the whole affair will be investigated morally and scientifically.

In conclusion–Mr. Saward announces that in consequence of further information, they are now taking steps to lay the shore end. Now, whence or how has this further information been obtained? They have been stoutly urging, by every means, direct and indirect, the injury of the cable at a distance from the shore, and even now Mr. Henley has no “hopes of the fault being found within 15 miles’ distance,” though he thinks it well to examine and test to that extent, as the operation would be so easy and inexpensive.

Not many days ago the whole of the shore end left at Plymouth (about 15 miles of length) arrived here in the fine steamer Bilboa, and now less than half that length seems grudgingly sent off in some miserable little sailing vessel.

There can be no question that the whole length ought to have been instantly despatched, even if more had to be made for the Newfoundland station, where circumstances do not seem so pressingly to call for it.–Yours truly,

Late Electrician’s Assistant to the
Atlantic Telegraph Company.
Bexley-place, Greenwich, Oct. 7, 1858.

The Morning Chronicle, 22 October 1858


We have received the following copy of a letter addressed to the shareholders of the Atlantic Telegraph Company:–

Gentlemen–Notwithstanding the eagerness to make public the temporary resumption of speech across the Atlantic, an item in itself joyfully and universally acceptable, yet I venture to assert that this announcement, when fairly understood, will prove one of the bitterest sarcasms on the present misdirection of the company’s affairs. I pass over their rejection of the “right man in the right place,” and the subsequent wavering and childish policy, so ruinous to the pecuniary interests of the company, to notice this last phase of their strange vacillation.

A messenger has been despatched to Newfoundland at great expense, to arrange and secure certain mutual efforts to overcome the difficulties of transmission, and Messrs. Thomson and Varley were instructed to determine the character of these efforts, the appointed time for these to commence was October 12th; but meanwhile those electricians have been treated but little better than Mr. Whitehouse, and in total defiance of all their arrangements, Valentia is peremptorily ordered to send none other than the magnetic currents of the Henley machine. It is pitifully amusing to observe these Director Electricians of Broad-street, seven hundred miles way from the seat of operations, sitting in judgment on the nature of “Battery power and its mode of application,” the nature and position of faults in the line, &c. It is true by so doing they save the salary of a bona fide Electrician, but in other respects the novelty is simply absurd.

I venture a priori to predict that this “extraordinary and peculiar battery power” will prove only so much bombast to mislead, and of a character like every other item in their tortuous policy. In other words, that Newfoundland has feebly spoken by adopting the very means which were patent to Mr. Whitehouse at the very outset of his critical troubles, and which alone enabled him to speak hence when the usual means would have failed. But enough of this pro tem., and, as introductory, my object in this communication is to recall attention to the profound judgment and high opinion of the Atlantic Cable, which Mr. Whitehouse has consistently and continuously formed.

In all human probability the expedition to Newfoundland, and all the other items of delay and expense, would have been avoided by trying the simple remedy proposed by Mr. Whitehouse; in fact, that gentleman had prepared an offer to the shareholders to raise and repair the cable at his own expense just as the announcement appeared in the Times of their intention to lay down the shore end. And yesterday I was consulted by a gentleman, as to his making an offer to underrun and make good the defective cable for a very moderate sum, in the event of the present slow and unfriendly efforts ending without success.

If the directors will persist in their sulky fit of expensive inaction and miserable forebodings, as if that were the charm which should bring down into their empty coffers another million of guaranteed means, I would they should know that others differently estimate the policy, or even sanity of such an attitude, and that there is no want of faith and enterprise, and of capital to, if these be not opposed and rejected in the interests of petty feeling, and personal intrigue.

If you are satisfied with the manner in which Mr. Whitehouse’s views are now at length being grudgingly, slowly,  and inefficiently tried, then let it be known that others stand by in pity and amazement.

Yours truly,

Late Electrician’s Assistant.
Bexley-place, Greenwich.

Article on the condition of the cable; The Morning Chronicle, 22 October 1858

Previous to the receipt of the message from Newfoundland, numerous signals had been exchanged between Valentia and St. John’s, Indeed, since the commencement of the present month the condition of the cable, as far as can judged from the repeated and distinct indications of signals from Newfoundland, seemed to be decidedly better than it was; but, not to give rise to delusive hopes, it may be as well to mention severally the occasions on which the supposed signals through the cable were observed. On the 3d of October, between twelve and one in the afternoon, as soon as a battery cell was put in connection with the wire, some very distinct signals were observed, which, of course, were not interrupted to make the usual electrical observations on the state of the fault. They appeared as if those in Newfoundland were sending letters by pauses which could be most distinctly observed, while the varying natural earth currents were not strong, but the message, whatever it was, was lost by the earth currents increasing in force, and as it were over-balancing the currents coming from the opposite shores of the Atlantic. These appearances were observed until three o’clock, when a message was sent to Newfoundland by Henley’s magnetic machine to send Vs for a quarter of an hour, if they understood. To this no answer was received, nor, indeed, did the galvanometer again show signs of activity until the 8th of October, when good and distinct reversals were received from eight in the evening till one on the morning of the 9th. Hoping to re-establish the communication, messages were sent–“Can you read us as we get your signals?” This intimation does not appear to have reached, for the needles again remained passive until nine o’clock on the morning of the 9th, when again some very decided though not intelligible signals appeared, continuing until two o’clock. At times during this period the currents were so good that if messages had been sent from the American terminus of the line they could have been read with the greatest ease. Signals were, of course, at once sent from Valentia to send words, as their reversals were very plainly read; but signals soon ceased, and, though again faintly observed at one and at eleven on the morning of the 11th, and at two o’clock on the morning of the 12th, nothing very distinct was observed until between three and four on the afternoon of the 14th. Again it was evident that words were being sent from Newfoundland, though what they were could not, owing to the interference of earth currents, be ascertained; but these indications again ceased, with the exception of some slight oscillations of the needle at midnight, until between three and four on the following afternoon, the 15th, when it was evident that words were coming through the line. But, as unfortunately was too often the case, the earth currents at the time happened to be particularly strong, and completely threw what was said into confusion. A silence of seven hours again succeeded, after which parts of letters and disjointed signals were observed, but nothing connected or intelligible could be made of them. Again, after twelve hours’ silence, namely, at noon on the 16th, the same unintelligible signals were observed, and again between five and six on the same afternoon. On the 17th, between one and two in the morning, signals and letters could be read, but nothing connected could be construed of them. These appearances lasted till four, and then the galvanometer, after remaining stationary till eleven, again showed signs of vitality. From this period, for many succeeding hours, the needle in Professor Thomson’s reflecting galvanometer connected with the line remained remarkably steady; even the earth currents, those never-failing sources of difficulty and annoyance on long lines of telegraphs, seemed for a time to rest from their continued agitation. Between three and four on the morning of the 18th the wind rose suddenly, and blew with considerable violence, and strangely, almost simultaneously the magnetic needles jumped and oscillated from end to end of the scale with most unaccountable violence and rapidity. As the wind continued to increase, which it did to a perfect gale before daylight, the oscillations and irregular motions of the needle became more rapid and violent, and strangely, this disturbance continued more or less while the force of the wind lasted. The extraordinary phenomena of magnetic needles becoming violently disturbed by the prevalence of storms, either of thunder and lightning and of wind, has been before remarked, and has been used as an argument to prove that the cause of all great atmospheric disturbances may be traced originally to electricity. The observations recorded above absolutely prove nothing definite with respect to the condition of the cable, except, perhaps, that it is not parted. The alternate appearance and disappearance of signals, which at times came so distinct that messages might be read from them and again vanish, leaving the wire as dead and inanimate as if it were absolutely gone altogether, tend rather to overthrow all theories respecting the nature of the injury than to support one. It is unfortunate that the preconcerted experiments at both ends of the line should have been postponed owing to the non-arrival of Mr. Lundy at the Newfoundland station, for now many days must necessarily elapse before any definite period can be named on which they are to take place. These experiments, when they do take place, will no doubt throw sufficient light on the true state of the wire to enable the electricians of the company at once to determine whether the line can ever be made available as a means of communication between the old and the new world. In the meantime circumstances have occurred lately which certainly cause matters to look a good (teal more promising than they did a few weeks ago. When Mr. Henley, in whom great confidence is placed as a practical man, first tried his large magneto-electric machine upon the cable at Valentia, the induction coils were advanced so as to produce electricity of very high intensity, which is known to be the worst kind of electric current for passing a fault in an insulated wire. After working for a few days the coils were changed for those constructed to produce a great quantity of electricity of comparatively low intensity, which experience has proved to be the best kind of current for signalling through a badly insulated line. But after a few days the intensity coils were again used, aid were not replaced by the quantity coils until few days ago.

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