LAYING THE TRANSATLANTIC CABLE
Today we’re building a flying internet. But in the 19th century the biggest challenge for communications tech was laying a single cable.
Cyrus Field was not a man of tears. The noble and enthusiastic American was famous for his positive approach to life, and his inspiring eagerness, but on 2 September 1866, he could no longer resist it. Cyrus Field locked the door of his cabin in the mid-Atlantic, shedding tears of joy. For 11 years, he had struggled to make his dream of connecting Europe and America with a telegraph cable come true. The dream had earned him a reputation of being both an ingenious entrepreneur and a presumed fraudster. And it had cost him unimaginable quantities of blood, sweat, and most of all, money. Eleven years previously, when there was a knock on the door of Cyrus Field’s home in New York, he did not know that in a few minutes, he would be facing the challenge of his life. His guest was Frederick Gisborne, a longbearded Canadian engineer. Gisborne was raising money for an ailing project aimed at connecting Newfoundland and the US with a permanent telegraph cable.
In those days, news from Europe reached America at the speed of a ship crossing the Atlantic, which meant anything from weeks to months, depending on the weather. Gisborne wanted to cut the time span to a few days by making ships berth at the most easterly point of the continent, Newfoundland, from where the news could be forwarded via a telegraph cable on dry land.
Cyrus Field listened carefully to what his guest had to say. He had moved from Connecticut to New York at the age of 15, and a series of good investments had now made him so wealthy that he could engage in new projects just out of curiosity. He liked Gisborne’s idea, but something bothered him: It was not sufficiently visionary.
When Gisborne had left, Cyrus Field stepped into his library, where he realised what was wrong with the project – or as Cyrus Field’s brother noted a few years later: “It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him, that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.” 3,200-km-long cable Cyrus Field’s vision was just as fantastic as it was crazy. No more than about 100 years previously, William Watson had discovered that it was possible to transmit a current through a metal thread across long distances, and engineers had only just begun to experiment with submarine cables. So, it was overwhelming
to imagine a cable across the Atlantic, which would have to be 3,200+ km long and reach a depth of 3 km!
However, Cyrus Field was obsessed with his idea, which could connect “the old” and “the new world”. Over the next few years, he collected a number of scientists and investors, founding the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Field himself contributed 25 % of the capital. The rest was raised by selling shares.
In England, Cyrus Field set out to provide the cable which was to cross the Atlantic. A few years previously, scientists had accidentally discovered that guttapercha sap from tropical trees was flexible and not broken down by water. So, the currentcarrying copper wires were insulated with guttapercha, wax, resin, and tar plus an iron thread armour.
No ship could carry the load
The cable weighed 2,000+ t, which proved to be the next problem, as no ships could carry such a heavy load. The solution was to hire two ships, the USS Niagara, which was the largest American warship, and the British battleship HMS Agamemnon.
In the summer of 1857, the vessels were observed by thousands of spectators, as they loaded the heavy cables and left Ireland for Newfoundland. The newspapers had covered the project with salacious detail, and many had questioned its feasibility. A famous astronomer, Sir George Airy, had even said that it was mathematically impossible to lay down a cable at such depths, and even if it were possible, no signal could travel that far.
However, the negative predictions did not bother Cyrus Field, who was now lying in his berth aboard the Niagara, listening to the slow, heavy sound of the cable being pulled from the ship towards the bottom, nautical mile after nautical mile. On the night of 11 August, the Niagara had laid out 400+ km of cable.
Cyrus Field was lying in his cabin, when he suddenly heard shouting from the deck: “Stop her! Reverse!” The next moment, there was a knock on the door, and Cyrus Field got the disastrous message: “The cable is gone!” The waves had rocked both ship and cable, and though the captain had constantly tried to compensate by slowing down, the cable had finally snapped. Downcast and having lost 400 km of cable, Cyrus Field and the crew of the Niagara turned back towards the coast.
Storm ruins everything
The accident had cost 100,000 pounds, and one year of manufacturing the huge telegraph cable. But that did not upset Cyrus Field, although he had to wait until the next summer to make another attempt. The time was spent improving the cable winding gear and replacing the technical director of the project. The new boss, William Thomsen, believed that the cable was much too thin, but the company did not have money for a new one, so Thomsen had to settle for the thin cable.
In June 1858, the Agamemnon and the Niagara were ready to make a new attempt. This time, the two vessels were to meet in the midAtlantic, continuing towards separate shores with separate parts of the cable. But on the way to the destination, dark clouds gathered above the Agamemnon, and on 13 June, a severe storm began. The large wooden ship rocked from side to side at 30 degree angles, and huge waves struck the hull. A week passed, before the storm died down.
Cyrus Field had travelled aboard the Niagara on a more quiet route, but when the two ships met in the Atlantic, he realized that the cable aboard the Agamemnon was tangled. The crew tried to untangle it and began laying out the cable, but after about 300 km, the worn out cable snapped.
Two continents connected
Once again, Cyrus Field's mission had failed. He was tired, but not heartbroken, as he considered it pure bad luck that the mission had not been completed this time. Soon after, the two vessels left the coast once again, but this time, no cheering crowds waved goodbye.
Both ordinary people and investors had begun to lose faith in Cyrus Field’s wild plans, so success was utterly necessary, when the ships met again in the Atlantic in 1858 to unite the two cable ends, before the vessels once again headed for separate continents. This time, the weather was fine, and everything seemed to work. But that same night, the signal between the
two ships suddenly disappeared, and a seasick William Thomsen was summoned. With trembling hands, he tried to restore contact over and over again. Everybody was watching the instrument panel, as the miracle suddenly happened. Without any explanation, the signal returned.
In early August, the dark rocks of the Newfoundland coast appeared against the horizon, as the cable was still quietly moving towards the ocean floor. The Niagara anchored off Bull’s Arms Bay, and on 5 August, Cyrus Field entered a rowing boat in the middle of the night, sailing towards the coast to search for the small telegraph station which was going to connect the two mighty continents. He staggered about in the darkness, but finally managed to locate the house, from where snoring could be heard. Cyrus Field opened the door loudly and shouted into the night: “The cable has been laid, the cable has been laid!”
Celebration is a scandal
Soon, the feat was greeted with cheers on both continents. In England, the otherwise very cautious Times of London wrote in its editorial: “Since Columbus’ discovery, nothing has happened that can be compared to this extreme expansion.”
When Cyrus Field came to New York, the city organised a festive procession, which was so long that it took it six hours to get from one end of the city to the other.
For a while, it seemed like the speeches, banquets, and torchlight parades would never end. Queen Victoria was to send the first message via the cable, and it reached America on 16 August 1858. But what the public did not know, was that the message of only 99 words had taken more than 16 hours to arrive. The signal from the thin cable weakened day by day, and in early September, the cable fell silent.
What a scandal. Cyrus Field was termed a crazy crook, and newspapers insinuated that the message from the queen had never been sent via the cable, rather it had been sailed across the Atlantic. In the following years, the American civil war was fought, but as soon as the dust from the battlefield had settled, the ever optimistic Cyrus Field was ready to try again.
The world’s largest ship put into service
This time, the cable was half as thick again as the old one and therefore much stronger. This increased the total weight drastically, but in the meantime, the world’s largest ship, the Great Eastern, had just been built, and it was able to carry the full length of the cable. The Great Eastern left Ireland in July 1865, but as fate would have it, things also went wrong this time. Charcoal chips had gotten stuck in the cable, and when the crew tried to remove them, the cable was lost in the ocean.
After four failures, Cyrus Field still refused to give up. The last energies were collected for another go, and finally, everything went well.
On 27 July 1866, the Great Eastern appeared off Newfoundland in dense fog, and the next day, the cable could be connected with the telegraph station, producing a powerful signal.
One month later, the Great Eastern even retrieved the lost cable unharmed from the ocean floor.
Every-one except Cyrus Field cheered. Instead, he wandered to his cabin, locked the door behind him, and wept with joy. His dream had come true, and at this point in time, he had not only laid down one, but rather two fully functional cables across the Atlantic. Two worlds had finally become one.