Today, copper and fiber-optic cables carrying data under the ocean between countries enable instant global communication. But did you know how long it took to install the first transatlantic telegraph cable?
On September 1, 1857, New York held a parade to commemorate the first transatlantic telegraph cable installation. It took four years to complete the project, and the line failed later that month. It wasn’t until 1866 that communications were restored after the third line was laid, and the second line had snapped at sea.
Why was There a Need for Transatlantic Telegraph Cable?
By the early 1850s, telegraph networks had linked most population centers on either side of the Atlantic, including a cable beneath the English Channel that connected British and French networks. Businesses eagerly anticipated a transatlantic connection.
A new transatlantic telegraph cable opened in 1858, further shrinking the world—for the first time, messages could be sent between Europe and North America in minutes rather than days.
Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan of the United States of America were the first heads of state to exchange greetings via the new transatlantic submarine cable. But disappointment soon followed, the line failed, and the connection was lost within weeks.
However, by that time, its supporters had demonstrated that transatlantic telegraphy could cut the time it took to communicate between Europe and the United States from a few weeks to less than a day. The ramifications for business were enormous. (Source: Science Museum)
Who was the Man Behind the Project
Cyrus West Field, a retired New York paper manufacturer with $250,000 in the bank at the age of 33, had the energy and vision to take on this challenge.
It would be expensive and technically challenging to lay a cable across the Atlantic. The shortest sea route covered over 2000 nautical miles between the southwest coast of Ireland and Newfoundland, Canada. By 1856, Field had established the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with investors including people in business as well as the governments of the United States and Great Britain.
The British scientist William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, was one of the supporters. Thomson had created a mirror galvanometer that was sensitive enough to detect and display the weak signals undersea cables.
Field assured investors that the cable would be laid by 1857. The plan was to load half of the line onto each ship, the Agamemnon and the USS Niagara, and connect the two lengths while at sea. The first attempt was a flop. The cable snapped just days after leaving Ireland, and there wasn’t enough left to try again. (Source: Science Museum)
The Successful Attempt
The Great Eastern sailed again on July 13, 1866, and arrived in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, on July 27. The cable’s insulation held up this time, and the transatlantic link was established.
The steamship set sail again on August 9 for the point in the Atlantic where the cable had broken the previous year, which the crew had marked with a buoy. After more than two weeks of trying, they successfully hooked the end of the cable and brought it aboard at the end of August.
(Source: Science Museum)