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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

Attempts to Lay the Transatlantic Cable

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U.S. Naval Historical Center

The First Attempts to Lay the Transatlantic Cable (1857-1858):
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
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 52°2' N, 33°18'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"
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 Niagaraand 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 Agamemnoncame 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.

The Second Cable-Laying Attempt (1865-1866):

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
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 Easternwas 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.

Setbacks
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
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.

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