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PIONEERS’ PAGE

Transatlantic telegraphy

Cyrus W. Field (1819–1892)
The entrepreneur behind the transatlantic cable, Field was born in Massachusetts in the United States in 1819, and became wealthy through a paper-making business.

 

International, submarine telegraphy began in 1850 with a line between Britain and France, as mentioned in Pioneers’ Page for December 2006. In that article, we asked how a flagpole in Liverpool, United Kingdom, connects the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel with the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The answer is Brunel’s last creation: the Great Eastern, a ship which laid the first, successful transatlantic telegraph cable. After the ship was broken up in 1888, one of its masts became a flagpole outside Liverpool Football Club. And it was in Liverpool that the first meeting of the Atlantic Telegraph Company took place in 1856.

The Field force

 


W.H. Russel

  The wooden HMS Agamemnon encounters a whale while laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable

Making transatlantic telegraphy into a reality required not only technical advances, such as the use of gutta percha to insulate submarine cables (see December’s Pioneers' Page); it also required an entrepreneur with vision. That person was Cyrus West Field — the force behind the project.

In 1854, Field was asked by the British engineer Frederick Gisbourne to invest in a telegraph line between Newfoundland in Canada and New York. This would allow messages from Europe to reach the United States more quickly, as ships could signal ahead as soon as they reached the Canadian coast. Field agreed to finance completion of the project — adding the ultimate aim of extending the telegraph across the Atlantic itself. Instead of taking up to 12 days for a message to be sent from London to New York, it might only take a few minutes.

 
Great Eastern at the port of Heart’s Content, Canada.
The huge ship was the first to have a double hull.
 

The first link

The planned route of the transatlantic cable was just over 3000 km long and involved depths of up to 2400 fathoms (4.39 km). Success would require accomplishing an unprecedented technical feat. It also meant overcoming political opposition in the United States and a lack of American finance during an economic downturn. However, Field found backing in Britain’s main commercial centres, as well as from the British government. He launched the Atlantic Telegraph Company with a board of directors that included Samuel Morse, as well as John Watkins Brett, who had opened the telegraph between Britain and France a few years before.

 

The biggest ship in the world

Brunel was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1806. As well as many railway projects, he designed the Great Britain, launched in 1843 and the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. For the route to India and Australia, Brunel built the world’s biggest ever ship, the Great Eastern. It was more than 200 metres in length, could carry 4000 people, and was intended to travel from London to Sydney without needing to refuel.
In 1859, while inspecting the Great Eastern before its maiden voyage, Brunel suffered a stroke and died a few days later. He did not live to see the ship’s failure as a commercial venture, despite its speed and luxury. In 1864, the Great Eastern was sold for refitting as a cable-laying ship.




Isambard Kingdom Brunel
(1806-1859)

Attempts to lay a transatlantic cable began in 1857, when USS Niagara from the United States Navy set off from Valentia, an island off County Kerry in south-west Ireland, bound for Trinity Bay on the coast of Newfoundland. It could only carry half the required length of cable, with the rest aboard the accompanying Royal Navy ship HMS Agamemnon. The two halves were to be spliced together in mid-Atlantic, and then Agamemnon would carry the cable to its destination.

Cable was played out from Niagara, while, from time to time, signals were sent back along the line to test it remained intact. The cable comprised seven copper wires covered with three coats of gutta percha, and wound with tarred hemp and dense spirals of iron wire. Unfortunately, it snapped less than half way across the ocean.

The same two vessels tried again a year later, this time sailing to mid-ocean and joining their halves of the cable before returning to opposite sides of the Atlantic. After several mishaps, the first transatlantic telegraph link was completed in August 1858. Britain’s Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan used it to exchange congratulatory telegrams. However, the cable could not transmit messages reliably and the line failed after a few weeks.

Success at last

Field did not give up. Despite delays caused by the American Civil War, he was able to raise finance for a new attempt to span the Atlantic. This used a much stronger cable, weighing twice as much as the earlier ones. Only one ship was capable of carrying the entire load: the Great Eastern.

In July 1865, it left Valentia for Trinity Bay. On two occasions, it seemed that the cable had been sabotaged by having a spike driven through it to cause a short circuit. And after reaching three-quarters of the way to Canada, the line snapped.

Nevertheless, the attempt had demonstrated that Great Eastern could lay a deep-sea cable, and on 13 July 1866, the huge ship left on its mission once more. This voyage was uneventful. On 27 July, Great Eastern landed at the tiny Canadian port of Heart’s Content. Field later wrote how sailors took the cable ashore: "I see them now as they dragged the shore end up the beach at Heart’s Content, hugging it in their brawny arms as if it were a shipwrecked child whom they had rescued from the dangers of the sea."

Only four weeks later, Great Eastern returned to Heart’s Content with a second triumph for Field. The end of the 1865 cable had been grappled from the seabed and joined to a new section to complete another link between Ireland and Canada. By the end of the 19th century, 15 transatlantic telegraph cables had been laid — five of them by Great Eastern.

Question for next time

On board HMS Agamemnon and Great Eastern was the inventor of an important piece of equipment for telegraphy. He is said to have envisioned it as he idly twirled his monocle and observed the light patterns it caused. Who was he?

 

 

 

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