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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Timeline

The Great Transatlantic Cable

A century and a half of key events that led to the completion of the telegraph cable circumnavigating the globe.

1747
Sir William Watson shows that electricity can be sent long distances down a metal wire.

1752 
June:  Benjamin Franklin conducts his famous experiments with electricity.

1753
February 17: In Scots Magazine, a writer known only as C. M. suggests using electricity to send information through wires.

1794
Claude Chappe builds semaphore stations across France. Stationed five to ten miles apart, they use a mast and two crossarms to signal each other. Messages sent through what Chappe dubs the "telegraph" can travel several hundred miles a day.

1815
January 8: Americans commanded by General Andrew Jackson defeat a British force attempting to seize New Orleans in the last battle of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent had ended the war two weeks earlier, but in an era of hand-carried messages, word of it does not reach New Orleans in time.

1819
November 30: Cyrus Field is born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one of preacher David Dudley Field's ten children.

1835
Sixteen-year-old Field is apprenticed to New York City department store pioneer A. T. Stewart.

1838
When his apprenticeship ends, Field joins his brother at the faltering E. Root paper company. When E. Root goes bankrupt, Field acquires its stock and settles its debts, going into business for himself as Cyrus Field and Company. It rapidly becomes one of America's premier paper wholesalers, and within a decade Field's net worth exceeds $200,000, an enormous sum for the era.

1840
Field marries Mary Stone, and they settle in New York's posh Gramercy Park neighborhood. Field and his brother hire cabinetmaker Charles Baudouine to furnish their houses, marking the first time in New York's history that a professional designer is hired to decorate a private residence.

1842
Inventor Samuel Morse places a wire across New York harbor and sends an electric current through it. In December he sends messages by wire between two committee rooms in the U.S. Capitol, leading Congress to appropriate $30,000 towards construction of a telegraph line.

1843
Portuguese engineer Jose d'Almeida describes the uses of gutta-percha to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Gutta-percha, produced from the sap of the gutta tree, is a hard yet flexible substance ideal for insulating electrical cable.

1844
May 1: The Whig National Convention takes place in Baltimore. By this point Morse has strung a telegraph wire from Washington to within 15 miles of Baltimore, and an assistant transmits a list of convention nominees to Morse in D.C., who announces the results 64 minutes before a train arrives confirming them.

May 24: The telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore is completed; Morse sends the message: "What hath God wrought."

1850
November 8: A bishop in Newfoundland, J. T. Bullock, suggests running a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland rather than Nova Scotia, which is further west, estimating a Newfoundland terminal could speed transmission of messages to America by 48 hours. "I hope the day is not far distant," he writes, "when St. John's will be the first link in the electric chain which will unite the Old World and the New."

1851
England's John and Jacob Brett lay a working telegraph cable across the English Channel.

September-December: Telegraph company head Frederick Gisborne surveys Newfoundland's southern coast in preparation for laying a cable there.

1852
Field's business continues to expand. Although not legally obligated to do so, he pays off the debts of the E. Root Company, greatly enhancing his reputation in New York.

Gisborne tries, and fails, to lay his telegraph cable in Newfoundland.

1853
Summer: The U.S.S. Dolphin conducts soundings along the 1600-mile route between Newfoundland and Ireland, discovering that a smooth plateau (soon dubbed the "telegraph plateau") stretches across almost all the distance.

1854
Winter: Gisborne heads to New York in search of more funding. Field's brother Matthew meets Gisborne and introduces the two men. Although initially skeptical about the project, Field realizes that by laying a cable from Newfoundland to Ireland, he can shorten the transmission of information from England to America by two weeks. Field then writes to Morse and Lt. Matthew Maury, head of the United States Naval Observatory, seeking their opinions on the feasibility of a transatlantic cable. Both men are enthusiastic; Morse believes such a cable is technologically possible, and Maury reveals the discovery of the "telegraph plateau."

Buoyed by these responses, Field solicits his wealthy Gramercy Park neighbors for support. After four nights of meetings around Field's dining table, the so-called Cable Cabinet agrees to provide funding for the enterprise.

March 10: The Cable Cabinet decides to take over Gisborne's project and form the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (N.Y.N.L.T.C., or the Company).

March 14: Cyrus and Matthew Field depart New York for St. John's, where they secure a charter from the government giving their company exclusive cable-laying rights in Newfoundland for the next 50 years.

May 8: Upon Field's return, the Cable Cabinet convenes for 15 minutes and elects officers for the N.Y.N.L.T.C., committing themselves to raise $1.5 million.

Summer: Deciding to begin by extending the current telegraph network from Nova Scotia to St. John's, the Company starts construction of a telegraph across Newfoundland.

December: Cyrus Field sails for England to find a manufacturer for the submarine cable that will connect Newfoundland to Nova Scotia across the Cabot Strait.

1855
January-March: Field meets John Brett, who suggests a company to make the cable, and hires the ship Sarah L. Bryant to carry the cable to Newfoundland.

Spring: After returning to New York, Field charters a second ship, the James Adger, to tow the Sarah Bryant across the Cabot Strait while the cable is laid from her decks.

August 7: The James Adger leaves New York with several Company directors on board. She meets up with the Bryant, but the attempt to lay the cable fails due to bad weather and the Adger captain's refusal to follow orders. Field returns to New York, determined to try again.

1856
Summer: The steamer Propontis successfully lays cable across the Cabot Strait and the Newfoundland line is completed; now the telegraph has been extended one-third of the distance between New York and Europe. Field returns to England to raise more money.

Fall: The British government agrees to provide ships for Field's project and pay £14,000 a year once the cable is operational, in exchange for government transmissions having priority. In October Field charters the Atlantic Telegraph Company (A.T.C.) in London and quickly sells out its initial stock issue.

1857
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.

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 Brunei tries to launch the world's largest ship, the 693-foot-long Great Eastern, on the Thames River. The attempt fails.

1858
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.

June 10: The ships depart Plymouth for latitude 52°2' N, longitude 33°18' 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.

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.

1859
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.

1860
A fire at Field's warehouse forces him to mortgage almost all his possessions, including his pew at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

1861
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 Jacintostops 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.

1863
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.

1864
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.

1865
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.

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.

1866
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.

1867
March: Congress awards Field a gold medal.

1869
The Great Eastern lays a competing cable from France to St. Pierre and then to Duxbury, Massachusetts. Another cable travels from Suez to Bombay.

1871
A cable is laid to Australia via Singapore.

1892
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.

1902
With the completion of a line from British Columbia to New Zealand, telegraph cable now circumnavigates the globe.

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