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

Atlantic Cables - Mortimer O’Connell 1903

Introduction: This little history of the cables was written by Mortimer O’Connell in 1903. Mortimer was born in 1856 in Beginish Island in Valentia Harbour, Co. Kerry. The family was later evicted from there. He worked in the postal service in Cahersiveen, where he was spotted because of his excellent handwriting, and was offered a job in Ballinskelligs Cable Station in 1879. He is variously referred to in records and reports as ‘operator’, ‘telegraphist’ or ‘supervisor’. He retired on pension in December, 1915, and died in 1929.

His son, also named Mortimer, fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, which he survived, and went on to become Clerk of the Dáil in the new Irish state. The manuscript was found by Mortimer Junior’s grandchildren and was kindly donated to Heritage Iveragh by Eileen Burns on behalf of Mortimer’s great grandchildren.

—Tom Horgan
Editor’s note: In copy-editing the original handwritten manuscript I have endeavoured to maintain the author’s system of capitalisation of certain words and his original spelling, which is a mixture of UK and US English, as well as the use of hyphens in place of the more modern full stop.
—Donard de Cogan

Atlantic Cables

Among the many noteworthy Engineering feats of the past half Century not the least remarkable has been the triumph of the Submarine Cable.

This marvellous and mighty achievement is transcendentally the greatest and most serviceable to mankind, annihilating time and abolishing geographical distance -

The successful laying and working of the Dover-Calais Cable in 1859, gave the inspiration to the project of the transatlantic Submarine Communication -

The required Capital was raised, Contracts were signed, Expeditions were sent out to sound the Atlantic, and a plateau was marked on the charts over which the Cable was to be laid between Valentia Ireland and Newfoundland - The Cable was shipped and the laying of it was commenced in 1857, but failed - The project was renewed in 1858 - This was successful. August 5th 1858 the mightiest achievement of modern times was brought to a grand completion - The old and the new worlds were now joined -

Joy bells were ringing and cannon firing in every town and Country reached by telegraph -
Congratulatory messages were exchanged between both Continents - These messages occupied seventy minutes in transmission which can now be done in five - -

The Cable was opened for Commercial business on the 13th August 1858, but its vitality steadily declined until the 1st of September following when its life went out and is now stretched across the bed of the Atlantic representing a huge loss to its enterprising projectors - Great Credit is given and very properly so to the Gentlemen who invested their money in this enterprise and are justly looked upon as the pioneers in Submarine Cable laying -

The disastrous failure of this Cable, accompanied as it was by financial loss, naturally checked the enterprize for a time-

Seven years later, in 1865 the projectors were successful in securing financial aid for a third attempt -

On the 23rd July 1865 the Great Eastern commenced the laying of a third cable from Valentia Island Co Kerry - Misfortune however still dogged the steps of this great enterprise - the Cable parted in mid-atlantic 1062 miles being laid, the Great Eastern returning home with the balance-

The practicability of laying deep sea Cables was nevertheless so far demonstrated -
On the 13 July 1866 the Great Eastern was again chartered to lay a fourth (afterwards called the 1866 Cable) and also to pick up and complete the abandoned 1865 Cable-
The first part of her task she triumphantly succeeded in carrying out, landing the New Cable in safety on the 27th July 1866, since which time the old and the new worlds have enjoyed uninterrupted cable communication -

The Great Eastern now turned her attention to the picking up of the abandoned ’65 Cable which owing to the electrical tests no difficulty was experienced in locating the exact spot-
In this expedition she was again successful, grappling the cable at a depth of 2400 fathoms of water and completing the laying of the remaining portion-

The Atlantic Ocean was now bridged by two Cables and their success has been followed by the present vast system of submerged wires -

It may be here mentioned that to Sir Wm Thomson (now Lord Kelvin) in an especial manner is due the successful working of long ocean Cables by his invention of the Mirror, which flashed the signals to the eye by a ray of light -

This ingenious and sensitive apparatus conferred an inestimable boon upon mankind and made ocean telegraphy a Commercial Success.

In the meantime Sir Wm Thomson’s active brain was at work and in 1870 patented his Siphon Recorder by which signals are electrically recorded on a slip of paper about three-fourths of an inch in width - This instrument can be worked by a low battery power, thus giving a longer life to the cable, and is universally adopted on all long ocean Cables, the working speed being considerably increased. The Duplex method is applied to all Ocean Cables, by which two messages are sent at the same time, in opposite directions, which nearly doubles the carrying power of each cable -

There are now stretched across the bed of the Atlantic fifteen Cables in actual operation, capital about £20,000,000, owned and controlled by the following Companies:-

The Anglo American Cable Co (pioneer Co) four Cables, Direct United States Cable Co one, and the Commercial Cable Co - four all of which are laid from the Coast of Kerry -
From the South west of England at Penzance two cables start across the Atlantic belonging to an American Co, the Western Union Telegraph Co -
From the Coast of France near Brest two other cables belonging to the French-Atlantic Co. cross the Atlantic, one to the Island of St Pierre, thence by short Cable to the United States - The other being laid direct to the States landing at Cape Cod Massachusetts -
The remaining two are owned by the German Atlantic Cable Co., starting from Emden Germany to the Azores Islands, thence by shorter Cables to New York -
The enormous business done by the Atlantic Cable Cos is almost incredible, being transmitted with surprising accuracy -

The Commercial mode of transacting business between the old & the New worlds is now revolutioned - It is an everyday Occurrence to receive replies inside of ten minutes and that in the ordinary course of business -

Speedy Communication to the uttermost ends of the earth is an accomplished fact-
Merchants can now transact business in a few hours or minutes where formerly many weeks or months were occupied -
On the occasion of the American horse Iroquois winning the Derby, the result was known in New York, in the remarkably short space of fifteen seconds - The Cable was clear for the event - A direct wire was laid to Epsom and the names of the horses abbreviated -

This surprising feat is not an unusual occurrence as the results of the Derby, Oxford and Cambridge boat-race and other events are invariably transmitted from London to New York in less than a minute -

The news of the old world is now as fresh on the table of the New Yorker as the Londoner - Distant countries are brought nearer to each others shores - Cables bear directly on the art of war as that of peace - The fortune of the field can now be followed by people of distant Countries as if they themselves were on the spot watching the Combatants at work -

On Dec 7th 1902, the Eastern and Western spheres were joined together by the Vancouver – Australian cable -

This completes the telegraphic Girdle of the Globe and every station is now able to send messages two ways, East and West -

M. O’Connell
Cable Station
Co Kerry
Nov 23 ‘03

Last revised: 26 September, 2022

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