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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

The Committee of Inquiry

After the first transatlantic cable failed in 1858, a committee of inquiry was formed to investigate. The group conducted a thorough review of the project that exposed problems with the science behind the first cable. They made suggestions that would benefit the entire field of telegraphy, and established for the first time a method of investigating engineering failures.

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Call for a Committee
The successful laying of the first transatlantic cable was received with jubilation on both sides of the Atlantic. When the cable failed just a few weeks later, celebration turned to suspicion and anger. One newspaper suggested that the cable had never worked, that the entire project had been part of an elaborate stock fraud. "Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?" the Boston Courier wondered. And when one year later, a British cable in the Red Sea collapsed, the clamor for some kind of public investigation grew even louder. Soon a committee of inquiry was formed in Britain, with four of its members appointed by the Board of Trade and four by the Atlantic Telegraph Company (A.T.C.).

The committee members were an august group: the telegraph pioneer Professor Charles Wheatstone; Captain Douglas Galton of the Royal Engineers; William Fairbain, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; George Parker Bidder, an engineer who invented the concertina and originated the word "microphone"; Cromwell Varley, an expert in the practical workings of the telegraph; engineers Latimer and Edwin Clark; and A.T.C. Secretary George Saward. Appointed in 1859, they investigated the telegraph failures until April 1861, hearing testimony from such key individuals as Cyrus Field, Edward Whitehouse, and William Thomson. Whitehouse spent most of his testimony disclaiming responsibility for anything that had gone wrong with the transatlantic cable, blaming instead Field's haste to get things done. Field "had so much steam that he could not wait so long as three months," Whitehouse said. Thomson, meanwhile, showed the serious problems with Whitehouse's design of the first cable and his high-voltage induction coils.

The committee presented its findings to the British government in April 1861, but they weren't published until July 1863. In a report longer than the Bible, the committee concluded that the cables' failures "have been due to causes which might have been guarded against had adequate preliminary investigation been made into the question." Field's haste had made waste, but so had Whitehouse's erroneous science. The committee was optimistic about the future, though, confidently stating that "a well-insulated cable, properly protected, of suitable specific gravity, made with care, and tested underwater throughout its progress...possesses every prospect of not only being successfully laid in the first instance, but may reasonably be relied upon to continue for many years in an efficient state for the transmission of signals." That prediction would come true just three years later.

Learning from Mistakes
The committee made other recommendations helpful to the entire field of telegraphy: for example, it noted the need for standardized scientific units to measure electric current and resistance. But the committee's greatest contribution may have been that it existed at all; the novel group set a precedent for other rigorous inquiries into scientific failures in the years to come, like the sinking of the Titanic or the Challenger disaster. In fact, investigations are now routine following such failures or disasters, showing that the mistakes of the past need not be repeated.

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