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The Great Transatlantic Cable | Article

Interview Excerpts

People have been trying to figure out how to send messages quickly ever since a Greek messenger ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to report a military victory. In 1775, news of the "shot heard round the world" at Lexington and Concord took days to reach American colonists as far south as Georgia — and over a month to reach England. The telegraph made near-instant communication possible for the first time, and when investors like Cyrus Field began to wire the world with submarine cables, The Atlantic Monthly rejoiced that the telegraph would promote "unity, peace, and good-will among men."

Read historians' thoughts about the transatlantic cable.

Communication Before the Cable

Colin Hempstead, engineer: Most cities in the industrial world were connected by telegraphs and, indeed, with the connection across the [English] Channel, in 1851, virtually the whole of the world was interconnected electrically. In fact, the only big gap was between Europe and America.

Gillian Cookson, historian: When president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it actually took 12 days for the news to travel to Britain, by the fastest means, which was to send a telegraph from New York... on overland cables to St. John's, the easternmost point on Newfoundland. The message was then picked up by fast steamship and taken to the west of Ireland and then it was telegraphed through to London. It lost a great deal of its impact because it took so long for the news to actually travel.

Daniel Czitrom, historian: Prior to the telegraph, messages could travel only as fast as the people who were conveying them. So, by foot, by horse, by boat. Now, with the telegraph and the promise of instantaneous transmission of messages, communication is separated from transportation really for the first time in history.

John Steele Gordon, author: Before the telegraph, communication was extremely slow by our standards. The best example I can think of is the Battle of Lexington, which started the American Revolution, fought on April 19th, 1775. New York did not find out about the battle until April 24th; Virginia didn't find out until April 26th; and England didn't find out until May 28th.

Donard DeCogan, engineer: I don't think [the Atlantic cable] was inevitable... because there were many people who thought it wasn't possible. Indeed, the British Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddle Airy, declared that it was quite impossible to do this because, at the great depths of the ocean, the electric fluid would be squeezed out of the cable...

A Good Investment, or a Boondoggle? 

Bernard Finn, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: Just as [Samuel] Morse was an unlikely inventor for the telegraph, [Cyrus Field] is a pretty unlikely promoter of the submarine cable. He's just looking for new things to do, and when he sees that Newfoundland is a third of the way across... that's something he can promote to his friends... but... why not go the rest of the way, the other two-thirds? He has no credentials for doing this sort of thing. So what does he do? He calls on the experts -- he writes to Mr. [Matthew Maury], what's it like on the bottom of the Atlantic and is this someplace that I can lay a cable? And then he calls in the grand old man of telegraphy, Mr. Morse himself. And Morse lent his name to the enterprise and he's off and running.

John Steele Gordon, author: Field had no technological background whatsoever. He didn't know anything more about undersea cables than he'd read in the newspapers... They were very new at that time; the first successful undersea cable [was] laid on the Strait of Dover between England and France in 1851, only three years earlier. And Field said, later, it was fortunate for him that he didn't know anything about the problems of undersea cables because he never would have gotten involved in the project. It was rather like somebody in the 1950s reading about the Russian Sputnik and saying, why don't we have a manned expedition to Mars.

Gillian Cookson, historian: By 1850, the general public was very accustomed to seeing land telegraphs and to knowing how they worked, and a few sort of high profile successes like catching murderers who were on the run from the scene of the crime... Telegraphs must have seemed a fairly good investment, a fairly safe and good investment. And, of course, the first few submarine lines, which were quite short and in quite shallow waters, proved to be successful early on. So, when Field came up with his company... everyone knew it was a vast distance of course, but what they hadn't appreciated was just how difficult this whole thing was. It was so much further than anything that had been attempted before; it was so much deeper.

The Challenges of Laying the Cable

Bernard Finn, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: Only thing about the cable is we're dealing with cutting edge technology, we really are. There's telegraphy itself, barely a dozen years old in the mid-fifties. There's only half a dozen ships in the world that are large enough — steam ships — to carry half the amount needed to go across the Atlantic. The insulator that you want to put around the wire, this gutta-percha, has just been made available in the west, in England... The fourth element needed was the wire on the outside of the cable that protected it, and this is a technology that also was only available for a few years prior to this.

Colin Hempstead, engineer: You're captain of the Niagara and you've got to take a cable across the middle of the Atlantic to Newfoundland — it sounds so easy. You've got 1200 miles of cable, simply drop it to the base of the ocean. But it isn't as easy as that. First of all you've got some 20,000 feet of water to go down. You've got a ship moving forward at a defined speed — or at least you hope it's a defined speed; it's going in a particular direction -- at least you hope it's in a particular direction; and you want to make sure that the cable isn't too tight. If it's too tight it'll probably break and you lose money... If it's too loose it'll just snake its way down to the base of the ocean... and you'll run out of cable before you reach Newfoundland.

So you have a problem of matching. You have to match the speed of the ship with the required laying speed of the cable and you have to keep going at this sort of speed, regardless of what happens at the top. What would happen at the top? You'll get waves, you'll get wind, you'll get the ship pitching, you'll get rolling, you'll get all sorts of changes of condition. You'll get people running the cables incorrectly, machinery incorrectly, you have to control all this in order to make sure the cable reaches the bottom at a constant rate and it wasn't all that easy. You're not living in a modern world with GPSes, we're living in a world with compasses. Those problems weren't entirely known, particularly in iron ships... Iron affected the compass directions and, without knowing it, this poor captain was not always maintaining the direction that he required.

Donard DeCogan, engineer: ...The time scale was so short, that you needed two different factories to manufacture the cable. One factory was in London. The other factory was the firm of R. S. Newall, in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Now, in the case of R. S. Newall, they applied some intelligence, because they knew that most people were right handed and, when the cable was being loaded into the ship, it required a right-handed person to hold the cable and to wind it round in a coil. Now, the only trouble about winding it round in a coil is, if it was turned in one way, and this turning of the outer sheathing of protective iron is called a lay and if it was wound in one way and as you were coiling it into the ship, now, did you unwind it or wind it tighter?

Now, in the case of the cable that was made in London, you were effectively unwinding it. What it really needed was somebody to go round in a clockwise direction, a left-handed person. So, what Newall did, quite sensibly, is they said, when the cable is going into the hold of the ship, we want it to be tightened up, rather than loosened up. So, when it was being tightened up that was fine -- the only trouble is, in order to achieve that with right-handed people loading it onto the ship, uh, it had to be done in the opposite direction...

Now, nobody really thought of that very much until, in 1858, the plan was to have two ships, one from Britain and one from the United States, meet in mid-ocean, join up the cables and head off in opposite directions. But, hang on, if you have one cable with a right-hand lay and one cable with a left-hand lay, and you join them together and then pull, they will unwind each other and that is not what they wanted.

In fact, to overcome the problem, what they had to do was to build a large wooden frame and wind each cable round in opposite directions and then put a joint where there was no mechanical stresses on it. Lower the whole thing overboard and, when it had reached the ocean floor, then head off in opposite directions, which is what they did.

The First Cable's Failure  

John Steele Gordon, author: Once the cable was successfully laid, on the third attempt in August of 1858, New York City just exploded in this citywide party... It was just so wondrous a thing. They were used to having the Atlantic Ocean be two weeks, three weeks, six weeks wide and, suddenly, here it was 10 minutes wide. And it was just a miracle...

Field was informed that the cable had gone dead, just as he was going to a banquet in his honor. He didn't spoil the evening by telling everybody that the cable was dead and, of course, I'm sure he also hoped that it would come back to life. It was another two or three weeks before they finally admitted defeat and realized that the '58 cable was dead.

After the cable failed, after this enormous celebration, rather premature, of its success, the public mood swung violently to the other side and he was accused of a hoax, that there was no cable, that the message that Queen Victoria had sent to President [James] Buchanan had actually come by ship. This is rather reminiscent, actually, of after the moon landing in 1969. There had been consistent rumors that it actually took place at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center and then they never went to the moon.

The Atlantic Cable's Impact 

Gillian Cookson, historian: It really was the first opportunity for people between continents to have instantaneous communication. It wasn't a mass form of communication, in the sense that sending an e-mail or making a phone call is now available to us all. Most people couldn't ever have personally used the telegraph, because it was incredibly expensive by the standards of the day. It was something which was really a tool of commerce and a tool of news agencies. But, I think that's where it had its impact on the public... it brought two cultures together because information could be passed so quickly and news could travel between the continents, and that was... revolutionary. 

Donard DeCogan, engineer: In 1894, with one hour of simultaneous trading between New York and London, there was a need to get an enormous amount of business into a very short time and, by heavens, the cable companies responded to this in a big way. They put in enormous cables, which had enormous capacity. The offices in New York and London had teams of messenger boys standing outside, so the moment a message arrived, it was handed to a telegraph boy who rushed round to the stock exchange, passed the message in, transacted a business, carried messages back.

It was a remarkable feat and I believe was the beginning of what we now call data compression... the only way in which you were going to be able to fit so much traffic into such a short time was by developing codes and by using what the operators themselves called short form.

John Steele Gordon, author: Suddenly, you could have Wall Street and London operate together. You could arbitrage prices; if something was expensive in London and cheap in New York, well, you could buy it in New York and simultaneously sell it in London and make money... The two great centers of capital in the world became closer and closer and closer together — thanks to the Atlantic cable.

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