A most able cable
Looking back years at a watershed moment in global communication
HERE’S A SNEAKY trivia question that will have your friends either scratching their heads or cursing you: by how many kilometres did the distance between Europe and North America shrink on July 27, 1866? The answer? 3,429, or 1,852 nautical miles — the length of the first lasting transatlantic submarine telegraph cable, which stretched between Valentia Bay, Ireland, and Heart’s Content, N.L., as shown on this map. When the cable was hauled ashore 150 years ago — as depicted in Robert Dudley’s painting Landing of the Atlantic Cable of 1866 at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland ( above) — it marked a new era of intercontinental communication, one that would see electronic messages cross the ocean at a rate of six to eight words per minute instead of the several days it took letters to do so by ship. The political, commercial and economic implications of the cable were huge, and orchestrating this 19th-century equivalent of being able to send an email was no small feat. Beginning in 1857, multiple attempts had been made, each fruitless. A cable was successfully laid between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1858, but failed after about a month of subpar performance. It would be another eight years before the venture was to succeed. The importance of the cable was such that the map was annotated with the messages exchanged between Queen Victoria and U.S. President Andrew Johnson shortly after the transatlantic link was established. The queen congratulated Johnson, saying that she hoped the cable would “serve as an additional bond of union between” the two nations, and Johnson reciprocated the sentiment. Had Newfoundland joined Confederation less than a year later, the answer might well have been penned by the leader of the newly minted nation where the eastern end of the cable actually ended: Sir John A. Macdonald.
*with files from Isabelle Charron, early cartographic archivist, Library and Archives Canada