Skip PBS navigation bar, and jump to content.
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

The Film & More
Special Features
People & Events
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
People & Events

return to people & events index

  The Second Cable-Laying Attempt (1865-1866) Previous
11 of 12

Isambard Kingdom Brunel portrait After the failure of the 1858 cable, several years would pass and the Civil War would consume America before Cyrus Field made another attempt to connect North America and Europe by telegraph. Field's second try would require a ship larger than any ever built.

Big Ship Needed
One of the logistical problems that had plagued the first cable-laying attempts was the inability to fit 2,500 nautical miles of cable on a single ship. In August 1857, such a ship did not yet exist. But it was on the way.

Engineering Genius
Great Eastern in dock The Great Eastern was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a brilliant British engineer who had made a career out of pushing the structural envelope. Proficient in geometry at an age when other children were still learning to read, Brunel once correctly predicted the collapse of a building being constructed near his school. Brunel designed London's Paddington Station and the rail line that connected it to Bristol. He situated another railroad tunnel, at the time the longest in the world, so the rising sun shone completely through it once a year, on his birthday. And soon he turned his attention to ships. The Great Eastern was both his masterpiece and the reason for his demise.

Monster Ship
To say the Great Eastern was the largest ship in the world would not do her justice, since she did not just exceed previous records, she shattered them. She was 693 feet long and displaced 22,500 tons. She had two engines capable of producing a combined 10,000 horsepower, five funnels, six masts, and two paddle wheels. The Great Eastern was so massive, in fact, that she had to be launched sideways on the Thames River, an effort that ended up taking almost three months. And the work took a mortal toll on Brunel, who suffered a stroke the day before her sea trials and died a week later. He had already met Field, though, and invited him to tour the Great Eastern while still in dry dock. "Here is the ship to lay your cable," Brunel said. And it was.

The Civil War had stalled efforts to lay a second cable, but as that conflict drew to a close, Field secured the financing for another attempt and commissioned a new, better conceived cable -- one that weighed more, had more insulation, and featured heavier armor. It reflected the engineering influence of William Thomson instead of Edward Whitehouse, and it would not fail the way the Whitehouse cable had. The new cable was completed on May 30, 1865, and then loaded onto the Great Eastern. She set off from Ireland on July 23, but her journey was interrupted by several failures in the cable signal, each caused by a small spike found in the line. Although at first sabotage was suspected, the fault turned out to rest with the iron sheathing that surrounded the cable, and each time the problem was patiently corrected. But during one such correction on August 2, with the ship just 600 miles from Newfoundland, the cable snapped and sank to the bottom. Nearly two weeks of grappling for the cable were unsuccessful, and on August 13, the Great Eastern headed back to England in defeat.

Patience Rewarded
testing cable But this time Field and his colleagues felt they were truly on the cusp of success, and a new, even better designed cable was manufactured for another try, now able to withstand greater strain and with further improvements made to its armoring. On July 13, 1866, the Great Eastern again set off from Ireland, and this time the voyage was largely uneventful. She reached Heart's Content, Newfoundland, on July 27, and soon the two continents were joined by cable. On September 2 the Great Eastern retrieved the 1865 cable from the ocean floor, and soon it was working as well. When Field learned of this success, "I left the room, I went to my cabin, I locked the door; I could no longer restrain my tears -- crying like a child, and full of gratitude to God that I had been permitted to witness the recovery of the cable we had lost from the Great Eastern just thirteen months before." It had consumed more than a decade of his life, but Cyrus Field's crowning achievement was now complete.

  The Second Cable-Laying Attempt (1865-1866) Previous
11 of 12
page created on 11.30.04
Site Navigation

The Great Transatlantic Cable Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1997-2004 PBS Online / WGBH

The Great Transatlantic Cable American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: