Bold and Cautious

Adventure and Anticlimax

In 1858 the British ship Agamemnon and the U.S. ship Niagara sailed from Ireland, each carrying more than 1,000 miles of cable. On the way, they met a ten-day-long storm, one of the fiercest recorded in that area.

Cable-laying ships Battered but intact, the two ships paused in mid-ocean, spliced their cables together, and proceeded in opposite directions, unwinding cable onto the ocean floor as they went. After several false starts (the cable kept breaking), they reached Valentia, Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. North America and Europe were wired for instant communication.
Cable-laying ships Agamemnon and Niagara in Atlantic storm.
From Harper's Weekly: Telegraph Supplement (September 4, 1858)
National Museum of American History, from Isabelle Field Judson

But triumph was followed by a major misstep. Cable operators used too high a voltage, causing the insulation to break down. The 1858 cable failed within a month.




The Atlantic Telegraph The book tells the saga of the 1858 cable and recounts the 1865 attempt that reached two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic before the cable broke. Hopes were high that the next attempt would succeed. It did. Journalist William Russell and illustrator Robert Dudley accompanied the 1865 expedition to record it for posterity.
William Russell, The Atlantic Telegraph, illustrated by Robert Dudley (London [about 1865])
Smithsonian Institution Libraries



Mirror galvanometer, about 1880 (with light source and scale) Mirror galvanometer schematic As a tiny pulse of current goes through the coil, it acts on small magnets glued to a mirror suspended by a thread at the center of the coil. The mirror twists slightly, causing a light beam to shift to the right for a dot, left for a dash. This device required two operators: one to observe and call out the signals, another to write them down.
Mirror galvanometer, about 1880 (with light source and scale)
National Museum of American History, from Western Union



The 1858 cable failed. So did a similar cable to India. Britain's Parliament ordered an inquiry. Exhaustive tests identified numerous problems: Promoters tried to rush the job. The copper wire contained impurities. Cable was left in the hot sun, softening the gutta percha insulation. Laying technique was poor, and operators forced high-voltage pulses through the completed cable in an attempt to use ordinary receivers.

However, the Report showed that the basic idea was sound. Investors and promoters decided to try again.
Report of the Joint Committee ... to Inquire into the Construction of Submarine Telegraph Cables
Report of the Joint Committee ... to Inquire into the Construction of Submarine Telegraph Cables (London, 1861)
Smithsonian Institution Libraries



On the Forces Concerned in the Laying and Lifting of Deep-sea Cables In the investigation that followed the failure of the 1858 cable, some of the most important expert testimony came from physicist William Thomson. He put his inventive brain to work on nearly every facet of underwater cables - even addressing problems associated with laying cables and retrieving them.
William Thomson, "On the Forces Concerned in the Laying and Lifting of Deep-sea Cables," Atlantic Telegraph Cable: Address of Professor William Thomson Delivered before the Royal Society of Edinburgh with Other Documents (London, 1866)
Smithsonian Institution Libraries



Broadside saluting the Atlantic cable, 1858 Americans celebrated the inauguration of the 1858 cable with parades, speeches, banquets, and other forms of public jubilation. In New York, a massive display of fireworks got out of hand and burned down the cupola on City Hall.
Broadside saluting the Atlantic cable, 1858
National Museum of American History, from Bern Dibner



Portion of Atlantic cable, 1865-66
Portion of Atlantic cable, 1865-66 (retrieved from the Atlantic in 1939)
National Museum of American History

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