On August 16, 1858, Great Britain sent an inaugural message to the United States via a transatlantic telegraph cable. In it, Queen Victoria congratulated President James Buchanan on their countries’ mutual success in building the very cable she was using to speak to him. Newspapers covered the event as a significant and exciting technological achievement with enormous potential. The news would spread faster. Nations would communicate and coordinate more quickly around changing world events. Business and commerce would accelerate.
So it was a little disheartening when, a few weeks later, the cable stopped working.
American and British ships had already struggled to figure out how to lay the cable in the first place, and it took them a few attempts before they could successfully install it. Once the cable ceases to function, it will be another eight years before countries lay a functioning transatlantic cable that provides reliable communication across the Atlantic Ocean.
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Message in a cable
Telegraph messages were still a relatively new technology when the United States and Great Britain set out to lay a transatlantic cable. One of the developers of this technology was American inventor Samuel Morse, who also co-developed Morse code. Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message— “What did God do?”—From Washington, DC to Baltimore in 1844.
With this new technology, the United States and Great Britain began to deliver messages on land and on small bodies of water faster than ever. But what about a very big body of water? Delivery of a message by ship across the Atlantic could take about 10 days. If scientists and engineers could figure out how to connect Europe and North America by cable, the average delivery time for transatlantic messages could drop from days to hours.
In 1856, an American investor and two British engineers formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with funding from the governments of both countries, to do just that. In August 1857, two ships, HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara, sailed from Valentia, Ireland, hoping to lay a cable that would go to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.
In the process, part of the cable broke in the ocean and could not be recovered. The ships therefore had to return, explains Cassie Newland, lecturer in heritage and public history at the University of Bath Spa, who organized an exhibition at the Guildhall in London. Gallery for the 150th anniversary of cable.
When the Atlantic Telegraph Company made its second attempt to lay the line in the summer of 1858, it used the same cable, which had deteriorated while sitting for almost a year, unprotected from seasonal temperature changes.
The workers who handled the cable “noticed it was all messed up, so they cut a lot of pieces and had to splice the ends,” Newland says. “When they load it on board [the] ship, it has damage that they could not find. There are also a lot more splices … so the cable is practically half-pulled before they even get it off the ship.
This time Agamemnon and Niagara planned to meet at a point in the middle of the Atlantic then to go in the opposite direction to lay the cable. A raging ocean storm delayed plan when it blew up the Agamemnon of course, injuring 45 men and further damaging part of the cable. When laying the cable in opposite directions, the ships again experienced cable breaks and had to end up in the middle several times. Finally, in early August, the ships arrived at their respective destinations in Ireland and Newfoundland.
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A historic disaster
Now that the cable was laid, the chief engineer of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in Britain, Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, was ready to send a message through it. Believing that high voltage was needed to send the message successfully, Whitehouse injected up to 2,000 volts into the cable, writes Allison Marsh, professor of history at the University of South Carolina.
This level of tension was unnecessary and damaged the already damaged transatlantic cable. Although Marsh writes that the cable was able to send a total of 732 messages in the three weeks it was active, it was clearly not performing very well even before his death.
The British government and British investors were still interested in laying another transatlantic cable even after this failure, in part because the British Empire had colonized many islands in the Caribbean Sea. In the United States, the government and investors were less interested, especially between 1860 and 1865, when the country was in the midst of civil war.
William Thomson, one of the British engineers who worked with the cable in 1858 (who later became Lord Kelvin, the namesake of the temperature unit), continued to work with telegraph cables and refine their construction. . In 1866, the Atlantic Telegraph Company installed another transatlantic cable.
The 1866 cable worked much more reliably. Although it was first used for government and military purposes, this technology later enabled European immigrants to North America to communicate with their families across the ocean. Over the next three decades, workers added five more cables between Valentia and Heart’s Content, where a transatlantic communication station operated continuously until 1965.