Friday, April 17, 2015

Faster, Lower, Deeper - The First Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route

On the 16th of August, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a telegram to the President of the United States, James Buchanan.  For more than a week the telegraphic cable across the Atlantic had been undergoing tests but this was the first official message.  Prior to the laying of the cable, messages from the United Kingdom to the United States were limited by the speed at which a ship could cross the ocean. This would routinely take ten days (presuming a clear run in good weather), but now the speed with which a message could be sent was reduced to minutes -- or was it?

There had, of course, been earlier attempts to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. The first cable was laid across the floor of the Atlantic from Telegraph Field, Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. But the laying of the cable met with problem after problem.  On the American side, an attempt to lay cable across the Cabot Strait in 1855 failed when a gale forced the cutting of the cable to avoid the sinking of the boat laying it. In the following year, in better weather, a steamboat completed the link from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.

Finally though, by August of 1858, everything was in place.

The first official message (from Queen Victoria) read,


The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest.

The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.

The Queen has much pleasure in thus communicating with the President, and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

The message was, of course, sent in Morse code, but because of the primitive nature of the cable, lacking, as it did, repeaters to strengthen the signal, reception was bad and it could take as much as two minutes to transmit a single character. This equates to one word every ten minutes! The Queen's entire message took over 16 hours to transmit and, even as late as 1866 with a new cable laid in that year, transmission speed was only eight words per minute - 80 times faster than Victoria's message, but still painfully slow by today's standards; even at the higher speed it would have taken more than ten minutes to convey the Queen’s message.

Responding to QueenVictoria, President Buchanan declared the cable “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle.” He then went on to invoke “Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” 
In this view will not all nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communications shall be held sacred in passing to the places of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities.
Clearly, news of the success of the cable and the exchange of messages between the Queen and the President seemed to offer hope of a bright future.  A week after the messages were exchanged The Times waxed rhapsodic (or at least as rhapsodic as the staid old Thunderer could wax). "We fully believe" it pronounced in an editorial,
that the effect of bringing the three Kingdoms and the United States into instantaneous communication with each other will be to render hostilities between the two nations almost impossible for the future.
"The two great Anglo-Saxon States," it went on, "remain firmly united--fused together ..."

Speed, that's what it was about.  Speed and more speed.  How fast could one get from A to B by train, how fast could a letter be sent and now, how fast could a message be sent across the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the era of steam and the Great Clipper ships were reaching the end of their days.  Now the question became not "if" a message could be transmitted by telegraph over the Atlantic, but "how quickly."

The New York Tribune exultantly proclaimed, in mid-1855, "there can ... be no difficulty in sending electricity across the Atlantic." Two years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, John Watkins Brett was telling the Royal Institute,

The ultimate union of America with Europe by electricity may now be considered a certainty. Providence has placed this object within our reach; there are no practical impossibilities in the way of its accomplishment; and those united with us in the undertaking do not regard the means required in comparison to the good to be accomplished.

Such optimism was misplaced. The first successful telegraph cable, despite the Queen's optimism, survived for a period of only three weeks.  In the following nine years, five separate attempts were made to establish a telegraphic link between Great Britain and the United States but it was not until 1866 that telegraphic communication between the two countries was established on a reliable basis.

The Great Eastern

 Even the achievement of laying a successful cable started with less than propitious omens.  The Great Eastern, the largest ship ever built, a record she was to hold until 1899, was chartered to lay the new cable in 1865.  Because of its great size and speed, it was planned that only the one ship would be used.  This would solve the problem of two ships meeting at sea, splicing the cable, and then dropping it into the depths of the Atlantic. Once again the project met with failure when the cable snapped after 1,200 miles had been laid. 

Interior of The Great Eastern with Cable

But with bulldog tenacity, the project went ahead.   In 1866 The Great Eastern succeeded, not only in laying a new cable across the Atlantic Ocean, but in repairing the snapped cable from the previous year.  Two working cables now spanned the Atlantic Ocean.

And what an amazing advance it was. Barely more than a quarter of a century had elapsed since the first working telegraph had been introduced and only ten years since the first attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable had been undertaken. But the telegraph system, in its earliest years was far too expensive for anything other than commercial and governmental use.  In 1866 it would have cost ten dollars a word or $US 100 to send the minimum of ten words.  In today’s terms, this would be about US$1,340.

By the death of Queen Victoria, there were more than half-a-dozen cables linking the old world and the new. Progress continued with the establishment in 1955/56, ninety years after the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph lines, of a telephone cable from Scotland to Newfoundland. Today's trans-Atlantic cables use fibre optic transmission. Because of their low cost, high capacity and speed they have increasingly replaced satellite communication and with the use of modern technology it is now possible to place calls around the world for a few cents a minute and even, from computer to computer, free of charge.
A free copy of W. H. Russell, The Atlantic Telegraph  (1865) is available via Amazon Kindle (without illustrations) or with black and white illustrations for $.99. A free copy with illustrations can be found here