23 February 2023 — The Great Struggle to Connect North America with the United Kingdom via Telegraph


In the last installment of Sea History Today, we learned about the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world at the time of her completion and a ship that, for the most part, seemed doomed to lose money and never come close to fulfilling the grand expectations of her investors or of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who dreamed her into existence. But for a brief period this vessel was the right ship at the right time, and that was for the campaign to connect Europe and the United Kingdom with North America via telegraph. 

American telegraphy pioneer Samuel Morse—we have him to thank for Morse code—predicted back in 1843 in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury John C. Spencer: “…telegraphic communication on the electromagnetic plan may, with certainty, be established across the Atlantic Ocean! Startling as this many now seem I am confident the time will come when this project will be realized.” At that time Morse wrote this letter, however, the technology wasn’t ready. One of the first challenges was insulation; copper electrical wire had to be shielded from water, and that insulating material had to be strong enough to withstand water and pressure on the ocean floor. That miracle material would be gutta percha, the processed sap of the tree palaquium gutta, grown in Malaysia. Like rubber, gutta percha could be molded, but unlike rubber, it didn’t crumble underwater. Telegraph engineers developed a design for underwater cable, consisting of a core of copper wire surrounded by gutta percha, surrounded by tarred hemp, and then protected with an outer covering of iron wires. After the introduction of gutta percha to the process, enterprising telegraph companies began laying cable across bodies of water, like the Hudson River (1849) and the English Channel (1851)

map of transatlantic telegraph path with image of Cyrus field

This map depicts the path along the ocean floor where the cable was laid. Image: PD.

It was in this period of expansion of telegraph networks that British-Canadian self-taught engineer Frederic Gisborne envisioned laying cable along the floor of the Atlantic. Gisborne was trying to build a telegraph route from St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, to New York. Having burned through all of his investment money early on in the venture, he traveled to New York in early 1854 to try to raise more. One of the rich financiers he spoke to was Cyrus West Field, who had made his fortune in paper manufacturing. Field was intrigued, but wanted to go bigger. Much bigger. Knowing nothing about the nuts and bolts of the technology, he was drawn by the idea of bridging the Atlantic via telegraph. The businessman sprang into action. (He liked to tell people that when he was traveling, the first word he wanted to learn in any new language he encountered was the word for faster.) He lined up investors for the project, and the run from St. John’s to New York was completed. Next, Field incorporated the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (NYNLTC) with more investment funds to face the challenge of the oceanic connection. He secured the support of both the American and British governments, including the use of the American naval steam frigate Niagara and the British Admiralty’s Agamemnon. Two ships were needed for the task because the cable was so heavy that no single ship could carry it.

One of the experts Field consulted in the endeavor was Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, sometimes called the “father of naval oceanography,” the author of The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855). Maury had been taking soundings in the Atlantic, and he had written to the American secretary of the navy:

This line of deep-sea soundings seems to be decisive of the question of the practicability of a submarine telegraph between the two continents, in so far as the bottom of the deep sea is concerned. From Newfoundland to Ireland, the distance between the nearest points is about sixteen hundred miles, and the bottom of the sea between the two places is a plateau, which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a submarine telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm’s way. It is neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed, will remain forever beyond the reach of vessels’ anchors, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow, that the wires may be readily lodged upon the bottom.

length of cable wrapped in wire with brass plaque

Eager to capitalize on the hoopla surrounding the initial success of the 1958 cable, Tiffany & Co. purchased the remaining cable offloaded from USS Niagara and created these 4-inch sections, with brass bands at each end and a brass plaque reading "Atlantic Telegraph Cable/Guaranteed by Tiffany & Co./Broadway • New York • 1858." They sold for 50 cents and came with a letter of authenticity. Their popularity was short-lived, however, and Tiffany was stuck with unsold surplus when news broke of the telegraph line’s failure. Photo: Tiffany & Co., via Wikimedia Commons.

Niagara and Agamemnon set out from Valentia, Ireland, in August of 1857, to lay cable along Maury’s plateau. The plan was for one ship to slowly pay out its cable, and then at the midpoint to splice the two ends together, and then the second ship would take over the task. However, after over 300 miles of cable had been laid on the ocean floor, there was a problem with the braking mechanism in the machinery that had been feeding out the cable, and it snapped. Having lost too much cable to complete the task, the ships returned to the UK to regroup. While new cable was manufactured to replace that lost on the ocean floor, the cable-laying machinery was improved to address the conditions that had snapped the previous cable and Field decided that it was advisable for the two ships to sail to a point in the mid-Atlantic and then begin laying cable simultaneously, one headed east and one headed west. On 10 June 1858, Agamemnon and Niagara, accompanied by HMS Gorgon and HMS Valorous, departed for that midpoint to begin their second attempt. On this expedition, the cable snapped after about 100 miles, and the fleet returned to the UK, to depart once more on 17 July. This time, the expedition was successful, and Queen Victoria cabled her congratulations to President Buchanan over the new line. While there was great celebration on both sides of the pond, the joy was short-lived. The queen’s 90-word message took sixteen and a half hours to transmit. The signals, already weak, grew weaker and more unintelligible; within the month, the connection was lost completely, the damage to the cable likely caused by the high voltage applied to it.

ornately decorated print of remarks of Queen Victoria and US President Buchanan

Both the British and American governments contributed to the financing of the telegraphic cable campaigns, including the use of their naval ships. Official greetings from the monarch and the president marked the significance of the inaugural messages. Image: PD.

It took a long time for Field and his colleagues to try again. The Atlantic line was far from the only submarine telegraph connection to fail, leaving the public—and potential backers—skeptical; scientists and engineers worked to refine and test the technology, developing a solid knowledge base to replace the optimistic tinkering that had often dominated the field in its earlier stages. One beneficiary of this process was the cable itself. The new cable had an additional layer of gutta percha, for a total of four layers, and a substance dubbed "Chatterton’s compound" was added as further insulation. Hemp fiber soaked in pitch was wrapped around the steel armor. The new cable weighed over 3,500 pounds per mile, compared with the previous cable’s 2,000 pounds per mile, and it was more flexible, and had a much higher breaking point. To carry the immense bulk and weight of this new cable, there was only one suitable ship: the Great Eastern, Brunel’s white elephant.

On 23 July 1865, the great ship departed Valentia. She carried five hundred people, including crew, and a small farm’s worth of animals to feed the lot: 10 bullocks, 1 milk cow, 114 sheep, 20 pigs, 29 geese, 14 turkeys, and 500 other fowl. There were setbacks on the journey, as the cable exhibited small pinholes caused by a bit of the reinforcing wire loose in the coil, requiring the crew to haul up the damaged bits and cut them out of the whole, but otherwise all seemed to be going well. But on 2 August, around 600 miles from Newfoundland, the cable snapped, and repeated attempts to retrieve it with a grappling hook failed. The great ship turned around and headed back to Ireland to regroup.

cable machinery

The cable-laying apparatus aboard Great Eastern. Photo: PD.

Learning from the experience of other telegraph projects, the Telegraph Construction Company (the most recent incarnation of the company producing submarine cable in the UK) produced new cable for Field with improvements, including galvanization of the iron armor. The rustproofing properties of the galvanization eliminated the need for soaking the hemp wrapping with sticky pitch—meaning that it would be less likely for bits of wire to stick to the material and poke holes in the casing. Just to be sure, however, the cable-handling crews for the next expedition were issued coveralls without pockets and fastenings in the back, to eliminate any possibility of hiding tools of sabotage. In July of 1867, Great Eastern set out again.

This time, it worked.

Great Eastern delivered the cable to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, connecting the New World to the old. Ever restless, Field promptly loaded up Great Eastern with the remaining cable from the previous expedition, and steamed back to where the cable had been broken and lost the previous year. Retrieving that end from the bottom took weeks of struggling, but by 2 September there were two functioning telegraph lines to link North America to the United Kingdom. Great Eastern had earned her place in history.

Extra Credit

A Thread Across the Ocean: the heroic story of the transatlantic cable

Lightning Beneath the Sea: the Story of the Atlantic Cable

Voyage of the “Niagara” with the Atlantic Telegraphic Cable

Great History of the First Transatlantic Cable - Connecting the World

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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