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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

Edward Whitehouse (1816-1890)

Cable Whitehouse.jpg
Edward Whitehouse

Incompetent, and often wrong when it mattered most, the Englishman Dr. Edward Whitehouse served as the Atlantic Telegraph Company's electrician during the laying of the first transatlantic cable. His erroneous theory about the proper way to transmit electric current was likely responsible for the failure of that first cable.

Amateur Engineer
Whitehouse had been trained as a surgeon, but telegraphy interested him more than surgery. He taught himself everything he knew in the area, and when Cyrus Field traveled to England in 1856 to commission the submarine cable that would be laid across the Atlantic, he chose Whitehouse to supervise its design. In order to raise project funds in England, Field had chartered the Atlantic Telegraph Company (A.T.C.) in October 1856, selling stock in the company to generate the necessary capital. Field, a businessman with no technical knowledge of submarine cables, liked Whitehouse's mistrust of scientific theory and reliance on his own experimental results. In addition, Whitehouse had a self-confidence that the hard-charging Field must have found attractive. Whatever the reason, the former surgeon was soon hired as the A.T.C.'s chief electrician.

Technical Questions
Although electricity moves through a vacuum at the speed of light, traveling through copper wire greatly reduces its speed, sometimes to only one percent of light speed. With submarine wires, which are larger and have greater capacity than land lines, the slowing down of electricity is even more pronounced, and this results in a retardation of any signal sent along the wire. Some individuals involved with the cable project, like Whitehouse and Samuel Morse, thought that retardation was best defeated by making the wire as small as possible. Others, like the cable project's chief engineer, Charles Bright, and William Thomson, a member of the A.T.C. board of directors, thought the way to solve the problem was to use a large-diameter wire core and thereby reduce its resistance. Unfortunately, Whitehouse rejected that notion, stating that "no adequate advantage would be gained by any considerable increase in the size of the wire." Field, already anxious to have the cable made as quickly and cheaply as possible, sided with Whitehouse, and the cable was constructed with a core of only 107 pounds per nautical mile as opposed to the 392 pounds that Bright and Thomson recommended.

Insisting on too thin a core was not Whitehouse's only mistake. Another problem afflicting telegraph cables was that the dots and dashes of the Morse Code tended to smear out over long distances, requiring a slower transmission speed. Thomson sought to solve this problem by creating a more sensitive signal receiver, called a mirror galvanometer. Whitehouse, by contrast, insisted on sending stronger and stronger electric currents through the telegraph cable. When the first cable was laid from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1858, Whitehouse set up giant induction coils at Valentia that pushed thousands of volts down the line. By overloading the system, Whitehouse's coils caused the cable's insulation to burn out and precipitated its failure after just a few weeks of operation.

The Committee of Inquiry
In the wake of the first cable's failure, a committee of inquiry was formed in England to investigate the causes. Whitehouse stuck obstinately to his theories and disclaimed responsibility for any problems, saying that he hadn't been given time to conduct proper experiments and placing blame instead with Field's "frantic fooleries." But Whitehouse had already been fired by the A.T.C., whose board of directors noted that he "acted in every way as if his own fame and self-importance were the only points of consequence to be considered." Whitehouse's position was greatly undermined by Thomson's scientific testimony before the committee. Whitehouse attempted to justify his position in a book called The Atlantic Telegraph, but his reputation had already been ruined.

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