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Timeline: The Great Transatlantic Cable

1747-1856 | 1857-1902  


January-March: Field lobbies Congress to make a similar offer. His proposal meets with heated resistance, and the legislation passes the Senate by just one vote.

March 3: On his last day in office, President Franklin Pierce signs the Atlantic Cable Act.

USS Niagara (1857-1885) May 14: The U.S.S. Niagara, assigned to assist H.M.S. Agamemnon in laying the transatlantic cable, arrives in England. The cable is made of 340,500 miles of copper and iron wire, insulated with 300 tons of gutta-percha, and stretches 2,500 nautical miles. Since no one ship can carry a cable that long, each boat is assigned half the load.

June 22: The Niagara arrives at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England, and begins loading its half, a process that takes three weeks. Meanwhile, the Agamemnon takes on its portion at Greenwich.

August 4: The ships arrive at Valentia Bay in Ireland. The next day the shore end of the transatlantic cable is unloaded and a ceremony takes place honoring the expedition.

August 8: After one failed attempt, the Niagara begins laying the cable, transmitting messages back to shore as she steams out to sea.

August 10: By noon the Niagara has laid 255 miles of cable. But at nine o'clock that night, communications with Valentia cease. After several hours, the cable springs back to life. But at quarter to four the next morning, the Niagara is buffeted by a wave and the cable snaps and sinks to the ocean floor. With hundreds of miles of cable lost, Field and the directors of the A.T.C. decide to abort their attempts for the year.

August 24: A leading New York bank suddenly collapses. The financial panic soon engulfs other financial institutions, and in September Wall Street crashes. Field's paper company is on the brink of bankruptcy, but he makes an arrangement with the firm's creditors. Field then prepares for a second attempt to lay the transatlantic cable.

November 3: Isambard Kingdom Brunel tries to launch the world's largest ship, the 693-foot-long Great Eastern, on the Thames River. The attempt fails.


January 31: The Great Eastern is finally launched. The day before she is supposed to head to sea, Brunel suffers a stroke. He will die a week later.

Spring: The Niagara and Agamemnon arrive in Plymouth and spend all of April and half of May loading the cable. Later that month the ships conduct test runs in the Bay of Biscay.

Engraving by Henry Clifford of the Agamemnon on stormy seas. June 10: The ships depart Plymouth for latitude 522' N, longitude 3318' W. This time the ships will start laying cable simultaneously from this half-way point in the Atlantic.

June 13: A storm develops, and for the next week the ships must fight their way through it while burdened by the tons of cable. On June 20 the Agamemnon nearly founders.

June 25: The Agamemnon arrives at the rendezvous. The next day the cable is spliced and the ships depart, but on June 27 the signal between them is lost. Unable to determine why, they return to the starting point and set off again. After more than 140 miles have been laid from the Agamemnon, its cable snaps and the mission is abandoned.

July 17: After dealing with the resignation of two of the A.T.C.'s directors, Field mounts another expedition and the ships leave Ireland for their mid-Atlantic destination.

July 29: The Niagara and Agamemnon set off from the rendezvous point in opposite directions. Once again the cable signal mysteriously stops and then starts up again. The Niagara soon discovers she is off course and laying out too much cable, but the problem is corrected.

President James Buchanan August 4: The Niagara reaches Trinity Bay in Newfoundland; the Agamemnon enters Valentia Bay the next day. At 1:45 a.m. on August 5, Field rows ashore and wakes the local telegraph operators by proclaiming "The cable is laid!" Field soon sends messages to his wife, father, business colleagues, and the Associated Press. Celebrations begin on both sides of the Atlantic.

August 16: The first public message is sent through the cable, congratulations from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. It takes 16 1/2 hours to transmit.

August 17: The first commercial message travels from America to Europe.

September 1: Field has a parade in his honor up Broadway, from Trinity Church to 42nd Street. But at a banquet that night, he receives the text of a garbled message from Europe. The signals coming through are now so weak they can barely be deciphered, and soon the cable is dead. Public opinion turns against Field, and a committee of inquiry is formed to investigate.


A submarine cable is run the length of the Red Sea in order to link with India, but fails, costing the British government 800,000.


A fire at Field's warehouse forces him to mortgage almost all his possessions, including his pew at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.


Civil War telegraph April: The Civil War begins; over the next few years, land telegraph lines will prove vital in the transmission of military information.

November 8: The U.S.S. San Jacinto stops the English mail steamer Trent in international waters and seizes two Confederate diplomats. Although war between the United States and Britain is narrowly avoided, Field uses this incident to advocate resumption of the cable project, writing Secretary of State William Seward that if the cable had been functioning, "A few short messages between the two governments and all would have been satisfactorily explained." Field then returns to England to raise more capital.


Bodies of dead on right of Federal line Bodies of dead on right of Federal line Bodies of dead at Gettysburg July: As Union and Confederate troops clash at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Committee of Inquiry's report is published, assigning blame both to Field and the Company's electrician, Dr. Edward Whitehouse.


January: Field crosses the Atlantic for the 31st time, seeking more funds in England. He meets railroad baron Thomas Brassey, who agrees to help and introduces Field to other wealthy associates willing to pledge money for the project.

April: A merger of two manufacturers produces the Telegraph Construction and Cable Company, which agrees both to make and help finance Field's cable in return for shares in the A.T.C. One of the company's directors, Daniel Gooch, is also part of a group that purchased the Great Eastern, and he offers the ship's services in exchange for stock.

October: During a dinner party at Field's home, General John Dix learns that Confederate soldiers have crossed over from Canada and attacked a Vermont town. Field talks Dix out of authorizing U.S. soldiers to pursue the Confederates into Canada, thereby averting another diplomatic crisis with Britain.


Assassination of Abraham Lincoln April: The Civil War ends; Lincoln is assassinated.

May 30: Manufacturing of the new cable (2,700 miles long) is completed. Once the cable has been stowed on the Great Eastern and the ship outfitted, it sails for Ireland on July 15.

The Great Eastern out of Valentia Island, 1865 July 23: The Great Eastern leaves Foilhummerum Bay on Valentia Island, bound for the Newfoundland village of Heart's Content. But after laying only 84 miles, the signal is disrupted and the cable hauled up. A small wire spike is discovered, repairs are made, and the journey continues. On July 29 the line goes dead again; another small spike is found. The problem is corrected and the Great Eastern sails on.

August 2: While the Great Eastern is trying to fix another problem, the cable snaps and goes over the bow. The ship is only 600 miles from Newfoundland, so the crew spends the next 11 days unsuccessfully trying to retrieve the cable. On August 13, the Great Eastern, heads back to England in defeat. But the A.T.C. backers there are determined to try again, so more company stock is issued and another cable is commissioned.


The telegraph at Heart's Content, Newfoundland June 30: With the new, better designed cable on board, the Great Eastern sails from England. On July 13 the shore end of this cable is laid at Foilhummerum Bay. On July 21 the ship hits the half-way mark.

July 27: After a trip with few incidents, the Great Eastern reaches Heart's Content. This time the transatlantic cable works perfectly, and soon all kinds of commercial and political messages are being sent between Europe and America.

September 2: The Great Eastern retrieves the 1865 cable, soon connecting it to Newfoundland. Now two transatlantic cables are in use.


The gold medal presented to Cyrus Field March: Congress awards Field a gold medal.


The Great Eastern lays a competing cable from France to St. Pierre and then to Duxbury, Massachusetts. Another cable travels from Suez to Bombay.


A cable is laid to Australia via Singapore.


July 12: Field dies at age 72. Hundreds attend the memorial at his country estate on the Hudson. Field is laid to rest in Stockbridge near the church where his father preached.


With the completion of a line from British Columbia to New Zealand, telegraph cable now circumnavigates the globe.

1747-1856 | 1857-1902  

page created on 11.30.04
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