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

Cable Pioneers
The men who started the cable industry
Daniel Huntington's painting of the meeting called by Cyrus Field in 1854
to organize the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company
1.Peter Cooper
4. Marshall O. Roberts 7. Moses Taylor
2. David D. Field 5. Samuel F.B. Morse
 (Vice President)
8. Cyrus W. Field
3. Chandler White
6. Daniel Huntington 9. Wilson G. Hunt

John W. Brett

The brothers Brett proposed in 1845 to establish a general system of telegraphic communication for Britain, and in 1847 obtained a concession from the French Government to establish a cable between England and France.

Additional information may be found in this comprehensive article on J.W. Brett by Steven Roberts.

Jacob Brett

The Bretts' Channel cable of 1850 failed almost immediately, but a second attempt between Dover and Calais in 1851 proved to be a lasting success: the world's first commercially viable submarine telegraph cable. See this 1857 talk by J.W. Brett.


Cyrus W. Field

The chief instigator of the Atlantic Cable project. After meeting Frederic N. Gisborne in 1854, Field established the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company. He crossed the Atlantic many times in pursuit of the enterprise before the final success of the Atlantic Cable in 1866.

Frederic N. Gisborne

Originator of the cross-Newfoundland telegraph line. Gisborne met with the Bretts in England in 1852, and laid North America's first submarine cable that year. He ran out of funds in 1854, and was introduced to Cyrus Field. Shut out of the Atlantic Cable project, Gisborne eventually became Superintendent of Government Telegraphs in Canada.

See also this detailed 1886 biography of Gisborne, and the full text of the 1851 journal of his St. John's-Cape Ray telegraph route survey.


Peter Cooper

A New York industrialist, financier, and philanthropist, Cooper was the first investor to join Cyrus Field in the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company.

Samuel F.B. Morse

Developer of the telegraph in the United States and an early proponent of the Atlantic Cable, Morse was recruited to the cable project by Cyrus Field to add name recognition and credibility to the enterprise.

George Elliot
(Photo by Henry Clifford, courtesy of Jacy Wall)

Born in 1815 in Gateshead, the son of a coal miner, George Elliot became a mining engineer and in 1840 a colliery owner. In partnership with Richard Glass he took over the wire rope manufacturer Kuper and Company at Morden Wharf, East Greenwich. The business was renamed Glass, Elliot and Company, and began producing submarine cables.

Click here for the 1879 Vanity Fair biography and Spy caricature of Sir George Elliot.

Richard Glass
Photo by Henry Clifford

Partner with George Elliot in the British cable-making firm of Glass, Elliot, which made the 1857 and 1858 Atlantic cables and many others. The company merged with the Gutta Percha Company in 1865 to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon), the contractor for the 1865 and 1866 Atlantic cables. He was knighted in 1866 for his part in laying the Atlantic cables, and died in 1873 at the early age of 53.
Line drawing of Glass.

John Pender

An early investor in the Atlantic Cable enterprise, Pender formed the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company by merging Glass, Elliot & Co. and the Gutta Percha Company, and became chairman of the new firm. The company laid the 1865/66 Atlantic cables and many subsequent cables, and Pender remained a major force in the industry until his death in 1896.

John Bright

A Manchester businessman, orator, and politician, Bright was an investor (1856) in the first Atlantic cable company.

Willoughby Smith

One of the first cable "electricians", Smith joined the Gutta Percha company in 1848 and worked on the 1850 Dover-Calais cable. He was head of the electrical department on the 1865 and 1866 Great Eastern expeditions. Involved in communications for most of his life, in 1891 Smith wrote the book "The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy".

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)

Scientific and engineering genius of the 19th century, Thomson made many contributions to the technology of submarine telegraphy, beginning with the early Atlantic cables, and became a wealthy man as a result. He sailed on all five of the Atlantic cable expeditions from 1857 to 1866.

Image scan courtesy of William Breeze

Charles Tilston Bright

A prolific inventor, Bright was appointed Engineer-in-Chief to the Atlantic Telegraph Company at the age of 24. Two years later he was responsible for the laying of the 1858 Atlantic Cable, for which he was knighted. Bright was also involved with the Mediterranean cables the telegraph to India, and many other cables.

Samuel Canning

An engineer with Glass, Elliot, Canning was consulted by Cyrus Field in 1856 during the planning of the first Atlantic cable. Canning also represented the contractors, the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (successors to Glass, Elliot), on the 1865 Great Eastern expedition.

Captain William L. Hudson

A seasoned veteran of the US Navy, having sailed with Charles Wilkes on the Exploring Expedition, Hudson was captain of the Niagara on the 1857 and 1858 cable expeditions.

James Anderson

One of the Cunard Company's top officers, Anderson captained the Great Eastern on the 1865 and 1866 cable expeditions.

Daniel Gooch

A leading railway engineer and associate of Brunel, Gooch headed the company which bought the Great Eastern to use as a cableship. He sailed on many of the Great Eastern cable expeditions.

William H. Russell

A veteran journalist and war correspondent for The Times, Russell sailed on the 1865 Great Eastern cable expedition and wrote the definitive book on the voyage.

Signature image courtesy of Bill Glover

Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse

"Wildman Whitehouse" 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.


Other notable figures

Thomas Allan by Steven Roberts

John W. Brett by Steven Roberts

Latimer Clark

John Conellan Deane by Steven Roberts

Captain Robert Halpin by Bill Glover

Nathaniel John Holmes by Steven Roberts

John Mullaly by David Fox

Captain William Rowett by Steven Roberts

Henry Saunders

George Saward by Steven Roberts

Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Stewart, R.E.

Cromwell F. Varley

Henry Weaver by Steven Roberts

Frederick C. Webb

Last revised: 13 December, 2023

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