History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
The Atlantic Cable Medal of 1866
The Atlantic Cable Medal of 1866
The completion of the Transatlantic Cable in 1866 is an important milestone in history, especially the history of communication. The cable made it possible for North America and Europe to be connected telegraphically for comparatively instant communication, news could henceforth be transmitted between continents in a matter of a few minutes instead of 10 days each way for transatlantic ship passage. The year 2006 marks the 140th anniversary of the successful laying of the cable. The subject medal was presented in 1867 to show appreciation for the efforts spent and risks taken to complete the task.
The transatlantic cable was the dream of more than a single person, but no one person stands out more than Cyrus Field as the driving force behind the project to develop and install the transatlantic cable. In 19th century parlance, Field is referred to as the "projector" of the cable. In this article we only touch on the history of the project as our interest is primarily about a commemorative medal issued for it. For history of the transatlantic cable see the bibliography for suggested reading.
The 1857 & 1858 Cables
The first attempt at a transatlantic cable was in 1857 as a joint enterprise between England and the United States. Twenty five hundred nautical miles of cable was designed, manufactured and loaded upon two ships, as no single ship was able to handle such a great load. The engineers / scientists among the expedition included Charles Bright, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Edward Whitehouse and Samuel Morse. Starting from Valentia Bay Ireland, they laid four hundred miles of cable before it broke and vanished under the sea. Cyrus Field signaled the ships of the expedition to meet, to discuss the matter, review what had been learned so far and do experiments; afterwards they returned to England. The cost of the failed expedition was ₤225,000 (about ₤14,000,000 today), but Field was not deterred.
In 1858 the second expedition commenced, the chief engineer was William Everett, who designed a new "paying out" machine for laying the cable; they had determined the original machine had caused the first failure by braking two hard causing the cable to break in two. The other engineers were Charles Bright, Samuel Canning, William Thomson and C.V. de Sauty. Cyrus Field again led the expedition and this year two ships each carrying half the cable met in the mid north Atlantic, spliced the cable ends and laid cable in both directions simultaneously. As the cable was laid, an electrician aboard ship on each end tested the cable. A terrific storm buffeted the fleet and nearly sank the Agamemnon, pushing her off course by 200 miles. After the storm was over, the fleet met and reviewed damages. It was decided to abandon the cable so far laid and lost, and start over, figuring there was sufficient cable left to complete the project.
After laying approximately 150 miles in each direction, the cable broke and was lost again. A review showed the cable failed at a place where it had been damaged in the storm (from sliding and crashing on deck). Still undaunted, Field returned to London to get supplies to restart the cable laying again, albeit some of the directors gave up hope and resigned from the company. On July 29th, 1858 the ships met and spliced the cable in the mid Atlantic, again. Through much effort and many trials, the cable was successfully landed in Trinity Bay Newfoundland on August 5th, 1858.
The cable did not function very well and it was until August 16th that the first official message was transmitted, a letter of congratulations from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan, within a month however, the cable had failed completely.
The Great Eastern
Before another attempt to lay a cable could be made, the US Civil War erupted putting the project on hold, it would be 1865 before another expedition was started. In the meantime the world’s largest ship was completed in 1858 and put into service, the Leviathan, renamed the Great Eastern. She was the largest ship ever built until that time, dwarfing every other ship afloat. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to be the greatest ship ever made, it proved to be too far ahead of its time to be a commercial success, and was converted from a passenger/mail liner to a "cable ship." "She was six times larger than any previous ship. Nearly 700 feet (213 m) long and 82 feet (25 m) broad, she would carry 4,000 passengers (or 10,000 soldiers as a troopship) and 6,000 tons of cargo." It would take 40 more years before ship designers would surpass her in size, two notables of the later large ships; the Lusitania, built in 1906, was 762 ft and the Titanic, built in 1912, was 883 ft.
The following two images are of the Great Eastern during the 1865 expedition, drawn by Robert Dudley and included in William Russell’s book The Atlantic Telegraph, published in (1865). Provided here courtesy of Bill Burns, who operates the Web site History of the Atlantic Cable & Submarine Telegraphy (accessed 1 July 2005).
The 1865 Cable
For the 1865 expedition the cable was redesigned, both the copper core and the insulation. The new cable weighed 3,750 lb per mile whereas the 1857 cable had weighed 2,000 lb per mile. Cyrus Field again led the expedition, as well as coordinating the funding for it. Captain James Anderson was on loan from the Cunard shipping line to command the Great Eastern. The electricians that year were C.V. de Sauty, William Thomson and Cromwell Varley, the chief engineer was Samuel Canning.
With the European end of the cable landed in Ireland, the Great Eastern began laying out cable on July 23rd, 1865. The cable laying operation went much smoother than before and the principal difficulties were with the cable itself. From time to time faults were detected, with each fault detected the cable was cut, retrieved back on board, repaired and spliced before resuming the paying out of the cable. When the expedition was within 600 miles of Newfoundland, another fault was detected, during the retrieval of the cable it broke and vanished, again, under the sea.
Chief engineer Canning determined to retrieve the broken cable by using lengths of wire rope connected together with shackles and terminated with a grappling hook. Captain Anderson navigated the ship to the east and south of where the cable lay, Canning lowered the hook to the bottom of the sea, the ship steamed northward until the cable was hooked. The cable was raised until a shackle broke; sending the cable and a length of the wire rope to the ocean floor. The process was repeated with some adjustments in the technique, each attempt failing, until they were out of wire rope. There was not enough cable left to start over, so the expedition returned to England, a failure, yet again.
The 1866 Cable
Learning from the 1865 expedition, changes were made in the cable design, to the cable paying out machine and to the Great Eastern itself. With these changes the crew could retrieve the cable by running the paying-out machine in reverse without snagging the cable in the ship’s propeller.
With the shore end of the cable landed in Ireland, the Great Eastern started out on the inauspicious day of July 13th 1866, a Friday. The chief engineer was Samuel Canning, the chief electrician Willoughby Smith and consultant William Thomson. By Tuesday the 24th of July, the Great Eastern had passed the point where the 1865 cable had broken; traveling 60 miles to the south of it, for the expedition had plans to retrieve the 1865 cable and did not want the two cables close to each other for the grappling procedure. On July 27th, 1866 the cable was spliced with the shore-end at Heart’s Content Newfoundland, the cable was laid. Cyrus Field sent the following report to New York, "Heart’s Content, July 27 – we arrived here at nine o’clock this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid, and is in perfect working order. Cyrus W Field." [Field, Henry M. 1893. "The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph." p. 344.]
The expedition now turned to the task of retrieving and splicing the 1865 cable, some 600 miles to the east. Two of the ships in the cable fleet, the Albany and the Terrible, departed Heart's Content on August 1st, 1866. The Great Eastern and Medway followed on August 9th. For more than three weeks and with much difficulty, the ships fished the ocean floor for the cable. Success finally achieved on the 30th attempt, the cable was spliced on September 2nd. They were able to do this through an ingenious technique of lifting the cable only part way up off the ocean floor, greatly reducing the load on the grappling ropes as well as on the cable itself. This they did at multiple points along the cable, each rope connected to a buoy supporting only part of the load of the sea cable. Then they intentionally broke the end of the cable so the main length of cable could be raised completely and spliced. After the splice was made at sea, the Great Eastern laid cable westward to Heart's Content and landed the second cable on September 7th, 1866.
The successful completion of the cable was met which much celebration and recognition in England and the United States. One of the celebrations was the awarding of a gold medal, in Liverpool, the subject of this article.
The primary source is the minute books of the American Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool. The Chamber was founded in the year 1801, in Liverpool, as an English association to promote trade between England and the USA. The association was dissolved in 1908. A survey of the minutes tells that cotton was the primary trading commodity. As the telegraph cable project overlapped the US Civil War, the minute books are an interesting read from the cotton trade aspect as well as the subject medal.
The Chronology of the Medal
The 1866 cable was landed at Heart's Content Newfoundland on July 27th 1866. The 1865 cable was retrieved from the ocean floor, spliced and tested on the 2nd of September 1866. The main company of the expedition arrived back in England the same month; this is when the history of the medal commences.
[Note: The chronology of the medal published in this version is abridged; the full version includes transcriptions of complete sections from the Minute Books of the American Chamber of Commerce Liverpool; the sections related to the Atlantic Cable Medal and banquet. If the lector would find tracing the medal's origin step by step interesting, please seek out the full version (see below). (ed.)]
Laying of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable
This Chamber was invited by the Chamber of Commerce to cooperate with that Body in a banquet to be given to the principal gentlemen connected with the successful completion of the Atlantic Cable but it was not deemed expedient that this Chamber as an associated Body should take part in the proposed entertainment. It was however considered proper that the Chamber as the oldest Mercantile Association in Liverpool and as representing in a special manner the American trade should in some way make its sense of the great importance of the completion of this undertaking and of the skill and perseverance of those by whom it has been accomplished. It was therefore resolved after full consideration that handsome gold medals commemorative of the event should be presented by the Chamber to the Chiefs of the Departments engaged in the work, viz. To Captain Sir James Anderson, Sir Samuel Canning, Mr. Willoughby Smith and Mr. Cyrus W. Field. The Medals have been struck by Messrs Wyon of London from designs submitted by them and approved by the Chamber and it remains for the Chamber to decide how they shall be presented.
Liverpool January 1867
Resolved That the Report be received and adopted.
[The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce invited the American Chamber of Commerce Liverpool; these were two distinct organizations. (author)].
Monday 18th February 1867
Atlantic Cable, Presentation of Medals
The President was requested to write to Sir James Anderson, Sir Samuel Canning, Mr. Willoughby Smith and Mr. Cyrus W. Field to intimate that the Chamber had resolved to present a Gold Medal to each of them to commemorate the successful laying of the Cable and to enquire whether Thursday the 14th of March would suit them to be present at a Banquet when they would be presented.
[From Mr. Willoughby Smith’s book, a transcription of the letter of invitation from the American Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool.]
On the 19th February, 1867, I received the following letter:
American Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool, February 18th, 1867.
Dear Sir,—The American Chamber of Commerce of Liverpool being desirous of commemorating the successful completion of the Atlantic Cable between England and America, resolved in September last to present Gold Medals to yourself, Sir Samuel Canning, Sir James Anderson, and Mr. Cyrus W. Field, as representing the enterprise.
The Medals are now ready, and it is proposed that they should be presented at a banquet to be given by the Chamber at Liverpool on the 14th of March next.
I have ascertained that this day will suit the convenience of Captain Sir James Anderson and Mr. Cyrus W. Field, and I shall be obliged if you will let me know as early as possible whether you will be able to honour the Chamber with your presence at the time proposed, or if not, what other day in that week will suit you, as Sir James Anderson and Mr. Field leave England in the following week.
WILLOUGHBY SMITH, Esq.,
THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS
No. 1419 – Vol. L. SATURDAY, MARCH 30, 1867. With a supplement, FIVE PENCE
ATLANTIC TELEGRAPH MEDAL GIVEN BY THE
The American Chamber of Commerce at Liverpool resolved some months ago that a gold medal should be made and presented by the Chamber to Sir Samuel Canning, chief engineer; Mr. Cyrus W. Field, of New York, the original projector of the Atlantic Telegraph; Sir James Anderson, the Commander of the Great Eastern steamship; and Mr. Willoughby Smith, the electrician, in commemoration of the successful laying of the Atlantic Telegraph cable.
It should be observed that the American Chamber of Commerce is the oldest commercial association in Liverpool, having been founded in the year 1801, principally through the instrumentality of the late Mr. William Rathbone. The Chamber consists of the principal firms in Liverpool, English and American, engaged in the American trade, which as many of our readers are aware, is the most important branch of commerce in Liverpool. It has also, on several occasions been instrumental in effecting improvements of the mercantile law of this country. The Merchants and Factors Act, of 1842, which effected, in that branch of the law probably one of the greatest improvements of modern time, was originated and finally carried mainly by efforts of this Chamber. The Bill of Lading Act, of 1855, another public measure, by which the remedy of consignees of cargo for damage to goods on shipboard was greatly facilitated, was likewise obtained by the American Chamber of Liverpool.
The medal, of which we give an Illustration, was designed and manufactured by Mr. Wyon. It is of solid gold, weighing more than three quarters of a pound. On one side is represented the Great Eastern steam-ship, in full sail upon the ocean, encircled by the words "Atlantic Telegraph Cable," with the heraldic arms and legends of the kingdom of Great Britain and of the United States of America beneath the ship. On the reverse side is engraved in a scroll cut specially for each of the four gold medals the name of the gentleman to whom it is given, below which are the arms and legend of the town of Liverpool.
MEDAL PRESENTED BY THE AMERICAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AT LIVERPOOL TO THOSE ENGAGED IN LAYING THE ATLANTIC TELEGRAPH.
The presentation took place, on the 14th ult., at a banquet given by the Chamber to the four gentlemen we have named and to the Hon. C.F. Adams, the Minister of the United States in this country. The entertainment was sumptuously and elegantly prepared in the Law Association Rooms, Cook-street. Mr. William Rathbone, jun. (grandson of the late Mr. William Rathbone, who founded the Chamber) occupied the chair on this occasion; but Mr. Gair, being at the present time the president of the Chamber; also took part in the proceedings. Sir Samuel Canning was, unfortunately, not able to come; but Mr. Cyrus Field, Captain Sir James Anderson, and Mr. Willoughby Smith were seated on the Chairman’s right hand, while the American Minister sat on his left. The Mayor of Liverpool, the United States Consul (Mr. T.H. Dudley) and the Vice-Consul, the Hon. C. Fisher, Attorney-General of New Brunswick; Major-General Sir John Garvock; Captain Prowse, R.N.; the Venerable Archdeacon Jones; Mr. Ralph Brocklebank, chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board; Mr. Malcom Ross, president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce; and Mr. Hugh Mason, chairman of the Lancashire Cotton-Spinners’ Association, were among the guests, and had the occasion to speak in their turns. Mr. Rathbone, who performed the honours of the table with much grace, proposed the health of the "Projector of the Atlantic Telegraph and his Assistants at Laying the Cable," at the same time handing a medal to each of the three gentlemen present, Mr. Cyrus Field, Sir James Anderson, and Mr. Willoughby Smith, who were entitled to receive it. These gentlemen returned thanks, and several other toasts were proposed and acknowledged. A telegram was sent from the dinner-table to President Johnson and received in less than half an hour in Newfoundland.
[end of newspaper article]
The Atlantic Medal
The four gold Atlantic Cable medals were made by the firm J.S. and A.B. Wyon of 287 Regent St. London. This is the address noted in the correspondence; the address imprinted inside the medal case is "2 Lanham Chambers, London, W." Joseph Shepherd Wyon and Alfred Benjamin Wyon were brothers, members of the famous Wyon family of medallists and engravers.
A first hand examination of the medal shows it to be bronze with a heavy gold plating, gilt, not solid gold. The medal is 76 mm in diameter, which is 3 inches. The edge is plain and the alignment is what is referred to as "medal alignment" in the US, if rotated on 12 to 6 o’clock axis, both the obverse and reverse are upright. The medal weighs 206.8 grams, (7.29 oz avoirdupois, 6.50 oz troy). If the same size medal were of 22k gold it would weigh approximately 432 grams (15.4 oz avoirdupois, 13.9 ounces troy) using relative density of bronze 8600 kg/cubic meter and gold at 19320 kg/cubic meter. There is no apparent correlation of the medal’s weight with the Illustrated London News account, curiously however, the medal with case weighs 12 ounces avoirdupois, which is three quarters of a pound.
In addition to the four gold medals recorded in the documentation there is a silvered medal, without engraved name on reverse, possibly a trial strike, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich England. The medal is cataloged as number MEC1293 and illustrated on the museum’s Web site. An image of the medal is on the Maritime Museum Web site (accessed 3 April 2013).
The medal is mentioned, but not assigned a catalog number in Spink’s Catalog of British Commemorative Medals 1558 to the Present Day with Valuations by Daniel Fearon, 1984. The listed item, #317.3, is a 26 mm bronze medal dated 1866, the subject medal is mentioned under this entry as "A much larger medal (79 mm) was made by J.S. and A.B. Wyon for presentation by the American Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool." Laurence Brown lists the medal, without illustration, as catalog number 2867 in his book, "British Historical Medals" volume 2. Known in silver and in bronze, 76 mm. Additionally Brown cites catalog number N/20 in "British and Foreign medals relating to naval and maritime affairs" by the Rht Hon. the Earl of Sandwich, 2nd edition, London, 1950.
Acknowledgements: Liverpool Central Library, Youngstown State University Maag Library, Ohio State University Thompson Library, and Bill Burns who provided important information and most of the images in this article.
References used, some cited.
American Chamber of Commerce Liverpool. Minutes of the American Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool, 1801-1908. Transcription from original courtesy of Liverpool Central Library.
Brown, Laurence. A Catalog of British Historical Medals 1837-1901, The Reign of Queen Victoria (Vol. 2). London: B.A. Seaby Ltd, 1987.
Burns, Bill. History of the Atlantic Cable & Submarine Telegraphy [online]. Available on internet 3-July-2005: (https://atlantic-cable.com).
Fearon, Daniel. Spink’s Catalogue of British Commemorative Medals 1558 to the Present Day with Valuations. Exeter England: Webb & Bower, 1984.
Field, Henry M. The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893.
Forrer, Leonard. The Wyons. (Reprinted from the Biographical Dictionary of Medalists, Vol. VI.) London: Spink & Son Ltd, 1917.
Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean, The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.
Illustrated London News, "Atlantic Telegraph Medal Given by the American Chamber of Commerce at Liverpool.", Saturday March 30, 1867. No. 1419. – Vol. L.
National Maritime Museum, London. "Trade and Empire/ Trading Nations / Steam: A New Era." The Leviathan. (accessed 1-July-2005).
Russell, W. H. The Atlantic Telegraph. London: Day & Son, (1865).
Smith, Willoughby. The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy. London: J.S. Virtue & Co., 1891.
This article, with an additional 23 pages of appendices,
Article text and medal images copyright © 2006 Herman Blanton.
Last revised: 21 December, 2019