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.

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS -

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.

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