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  The First Attempts to Lay the Transatlantic Cable (1857-1858) Previous
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USS Niagara The first attempts to lay the transatlantic cable from Ireland to Newfoundland were fraught with bad luck and repeated setbacks. Even after the cable was successfully laid and a signal established, it worked for only a few weeks. But each new attempt was built on lessons learned from previous failures, and each brought Cyrus Field closer to the ultimate realization of his dream.

The Ships
By July 1857, all 2,500 nautical miles of the first transatlantic cable had been manufactured, and it was time to load it on board the ships. At the time, no single ship could shoulder the entire load. Both the British and American navies provided one ship to carry half the cable. The Niagara had been built in 1845 and was the largest ship in the U.S. Navy, with a wooden hull and iron ribs. Weighing 5,200 tons and with both steam and sail capacity, she could speed along at 12 knots. By contrast, the wooden battleship H.M.S. Agamemnon reflected earlier eras of naval design, and although she did have a steam engine, the Agamemnon couldn't keep pace with the Niagara at sea.

High Hopes
Cable issuing machine on board the Niagara Once the cable had been loaded (a process that in the Niagara's case took three weeks), the two ships set off for Valentia Bay, Ireland, where the shore end of the cable would be laid. On August 5, 1857, they received a send-off full of pomp, circumstance, and lengthy speeches. Three cheers were not enough for such a monumental event; twelve rang out from the large crowd. Unfortunately, the expedition failed to live up to these lofty hopes. After one false start and a mysterious period in which the cable went dead for a few hours and then resumed working, the Niagara had laid four hundred miles of cable when at 3:45 a.m. on August 11, she was pummeled by a wave and the cable snapped, sinking to the ocean floor. The ships didn't have enough cable left to continue, so the expedition was abandoned for the year.

A Ferocious Storm
By late spring of 1858, Field was ready to try again. An improved system for paying out the cable had been designed. New cable had been manufactured to replace the portion lost at sea. On June 10 the Niagara and Agamemnon, accompanied by a small fleet of escorts, left Plymouth, England, for a mid-Atlantic rendezvous point. The new plan was to start in the middle of the ocean at 522' N, 3318'W, splice the two halves of the cable together, then have each ship simultaneously lay cable in opposite directions. Having practiced various cable laying and splicing maneuvers before setting off, the ships were better prepared for their tasks this time. But now the weather intervened; a ferocious storm ambushed the fleet, lasting more than a week and nearly causing the Agamemnon to founder. She finally reached the rendezvous point on June 25 and started laying cable the next day, but after the Agamemnon had payed out more than 140 miles, her cable snapped and the mission had to be abandoned once again.

"It Has Succeeded"
Fireworks at City Hall in honor of the Atlantic Cable Field and his colleagues were able to make a quick turn-around, and on July 17 the ships set off from Ireland again. This third time would prove to be the charm, although there were scares along the way. Once again the cable suddenly stopped working and then came back to life without any explanation. Then the iron in the cable distorted the compass on the Niagara and sent her off course; fortunately, the problem was discovered in time and Field had another ship go in front and guide the way. For its part, the Agamemnon came close to running out of fuel before reaching Ireland, but the judicious use of sail power enabled her to complete the journey. On August 4, the Niagara reached Newfoundland, and the Agamemnon sighted Valentia a day later. Field soon telegraphed his wife from Newfoundland: "All well. The Atlantic telegraph cable successfully laid." Field later wrote that "every man on board the telegraph fleet has exerted himself to the utmost to make the expedition successful. By the blessing of Divine Providence it has succeeded."

Short-Lived Joy
At the family home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Field's father "rejoiced like a boy... Bells were rung, guns fired; children let out of school... The village was in a tumult of joy." But this joy would prove short-lived. From the beginning, messages sent through the cable took agonizingly long to receive, and within a few short weeks, the first cable had failed. It would be up to a committee of inquiry to discover what had gone wrong.



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