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1858 Laying cable, the Agamemnon and the Niagara The transatlantic cable project generated a great deal of enthusiasm, nowhere more pronounced than in the editorial pages of British and American newspapers. The New York Evening Post projected that the cable would "make the great heart of humanity beat with a single pulse." The New York Herald termed it "the grandest work which has ever been attempted by the genius and enterprise of man." And The Times of London simply stated, "the jest of yesterday has become the fact of today." But these newspapers were not content with reporting on the attempts to lay the Atlantic cable from afar. One in particular, The Times of London, sent correspondents along on both the 1858 attempts and the 1865 effort. Their dispatches provide the most revealing glimpse of what life was like on the ships trying to make history.

Storm Reporting
When the H.M.S. Agamemnon set off from Plymouth, England, on June 10, 1858, as part of the expedition attempting to lay the transatlantic cable, Times reporter Nicholas Woods was on board. Some of his most vivid reporting came when, three days later, a storm hit the ships at sea. As Woods recalled, "The massive beams under her upper deck coil cracked and snapped with a noise resembling that of small artillery.... The sea kept striking with dull, heavy violence against the vessel's bows." When, two days later, the seas continued to rise, "the Agamemnon took to violent pitching, plunging steadily into the trough of the sea as if she meant to break her back and lay the Atlantic cable in a heap." And on June 20, during a stormy period so violent that the ship almost foundered, Woods was moved to conclude: "The sun set upon as wild and wicked a night as ever taxed the courage and coolness of a sailor."

Fickle Public Opinion
The Agamemnon and its reporter both survived the storm and reached the mid-Atlantic rendezvous point with the U.S.S. Niagara, only to have the cable snap after the ship had payed out about 150 miles. The ships returned to Ireland and then set out again on July 17, but public opinion had now turned against the project, and this time they did not receive a glorious send-off. As Woods reported, "There was apparently no notice taken of their departure... and the squadron seemed rather to have slunk away on some discreditable mission than to have sailed for the accomplishment of a grand national scheme."

A Great, Difficult Scheme
On the second attempt, the weather was kinder and, after a few mishaps, the cable was laid -- a cable, in Woods' vivid imagery, that "was but a mere thread." When it plunged into the ocean, he wrote, it left only "a silvery phosphorescent line upon the stupendous seas." On August 5, Woods delightedly reported the sighting of Ireland: "Never, probably, was the sight of land more welcome, as it brought to a successful termination one of the greatest, but at the same time most difficult, schemes which was ever undertaken." Unbeknownst to Woods, the success would be short-lived, and the first cable would fail just a few weeks later.

Newsworthy Again
Cyrus Field By the time Cyrus Field was able to mount another cable-laying attempt, seven years had passed. This time numerous newspapers clamored to send correspondents on his ship, the Great Eastern, but only the Times was granted permission. On this sailing Woods was replaced by a well-known war correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was impressed by what he saw. "Such a freight had not been seen since Noah's Ark was stranded on Mount Ararat," he reported. But Russell also knew that the shadow of past failures lay over this expedition. "Happy is the cable laying that has no history," he wrote.

The First Ship's Newspaper
The ship set off on July 23, but it soon encountered problems with the cable signal. Each time this happened, the cable had to be hauled up from the ocean floor until the flaw in the connection was located, a process which Russell compared to "an elephant taking up a straw in its proboscis." After one of these interrupted signals, Russell imagined the effect on Field, speculating that "in his heart he may have sheltered the thought that the dream of his life was indeed but a chimera." But then the signal returned, the situation settled, and Russell found the time to produce the first ship's newspaper, The Atlantic Telegraph, with news and stock prices from Europe written out longhand and supplemented by illustrations from The Times artist also on board, Robert Dudley.

Unreported Success
Great Eastern grappling for lost cable in 1865 Then, just as the Great Eastern was within 600 miles of Newfoundland, the cable snapped. In Russell's words, it "flew through the stoppers and with one bound leaped over the intervening space and flashed into the sea. The cable gone! Gone forever down in that fearful depth! There around us lay the placid Atlantic, smiling in the sun, and not a dimple to show where lay so many hopes buried." The Great Eastern tried in vain to retrieve it, but was eventually forced to abandon the effort. When the Great Eastern's final, successful effort to lay the cable began in 1866, there was no professional reporting from the decks. Russell, who had written a book called The Atlantic Telegraph on the 1865 attempt, had now been called away to cover another war, and the Times did not send another correspondent.



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