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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

How the Early Cable Was Used

Credit: Corbis

When the first transatlantic cable was successfully laid in the summer of 1858, two continents buzzed with the promise of instant communication. The Times of London went so far as to declare: "The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country... The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the declaration of 1776, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people."

Slow Communication
The reality, of course, was a little more complex. The first public message sent through the cable, from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan, was 99 words long and took 16 and 1/2 hours to transmit, or about ten minutes a word. And although much of that delay was caused by problems with the cable itself, telegraph use across the Atlantic would continue to be constrained by issues of capacity and cost for years to come.

One Message at a Time
Although in a vacuum electric current can be expected to travel at nearly the speed of light, telegraph wires, particular those placed underwater, suffer from a retardation of the signals sent through them. The problem of retardation, which caused much of the delay that accompanied transmissions through the first cable, was greatly diminished by the innovations of William Thomson, and the cables of the 1860s sent signals across the Atlantic in a matter of seconds. But there were still significant barriers to the timely transmission of telegraph messages. For one, the cable could only transmit one message at a time, a problem that would remain until the invention in 1872 of the duplex, which allowed messages to be sent simultaneously both ways over a line; and then the quadruplex, invented by Thomas Edison in 1874, which allowed two messages to be sent at the same time in the same direction.

Dots and Dashes
No matter how fast or frequently the signals traveled, the true transmission rate was determined by the ability of a telegraph operator to interpret them. Telegraph messages were sent in the dots and dashes of Morse Code, and someone had to sit in a telegraph office, listen to the clicks coming through the telegraph receiver, and decipher them. The best telegraph operators could make sense of roughly 60 messages per hour, and "bonus men," named for the extra income their skill merited, could sometimes handle messages at a speed of 40 words per minute. But that sort of volume was only achieved intermittently at some of the biggest offices in the largest cities. The wiring of America proceeded at an explosive pace, swelling from Morse's initial forty-mile line from Washington to Baltimore in 1846 to 12,000 miles of telegraph wire in 1850. But many of the smaller offices in rural areas handled minimal traffic. Even the transatlantic cable had only about 50 messages in a day shortly after it opened in 1866, far less than its theoretical capacity. A key reason was cost.

Cost and Customers
The initial rate in 1866 for messages sent along the transatlantic cable was ten dollars a word, with a ten word minimum, meaning that a skilled workman of the day would have to set aside ten weeks' salary in order to send a single message. As a practical matter, this limited cable use to governments (transmissions from the British and American governments had priority under the terms of their agreements with Field's telegraph companies) and big businesses (who made up about 90 percent of telegraph traffic in the early years). Businesses quickly turned to the use of commercial codes through which one word could convey an entire message. For example, the word "festival" as telegraphed by one fireworks manufacturer meant "a case of three mammoth torpedoes." And for truly urgent information, price was considered no object: New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley spent $5,000 (over $65,000 in 2003 dollars) in 1870 to transmit one report about the Franco-Prussian War. During three months in 1867, the transatlantic cable sent 2,772 commercial messages, for a revenue that averaged $2,500 a day. But this represented just five percent of capacity, so the rate for sending a telegram was halved to $46.80 for ten words, a move which boosted daily revenue to $2,800.

Still, it would take competition from other companies to produce a true democratization of transatlantic cable use. In 1869 a French group laid a cable from France to an island near Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts. Telegraph rates began to fall, and the race into the business began in earnest. By 1900, 15 cables would cross the Atlantic Ocean.

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