History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
The First Atlantic Telegraph Cable
The First Atlantic Telegraph Cable
September 1, 1858, was an eventful day in the municipal history of New York, for on that day the city celebrated the landing of the first Atlantic Telegraph Cable, by which the long-talked of and eagerly-desired electric communication was effected between America and Europe, between the New World and the Old.
The popular enthusiasm, which had been increasing from day to day, after the wondrous tidings had reached New York and had been flashed over the wires to the utmost boundaries of the Republic, that “the Impracticable Enterprise,” as it was stigmatized, had become a reality, culminated in one of the grandest of popular demonstrations that had ever taken place in the Empire City. All classes united in the celebration. As for the press it surpassed all previous efforts. It was indefatigable in the collection of the minutest items, and its headlines were marvels of composition and typographical display. Thus it was announced, in the biggest of capitals, that “the Cable Carnival” had attracted “Half a Million of Visitors from Afar and Near,”—a vast multitude for that day;—that the “Metropolis was literally overwhelmed with the huge crowds;”—that the celebration was a “Glorious Recognition of the Most Glorious Work of the Age;” and so-forth through the column or more following the laudatory captions.
As to the public procession, the metropolis never saw anything comparable with it before. It was the largest, the most varied and the most picturesque. The civic and military authorities co-operated in the work of organization, in which the public participated heart and soul, all the associations, trade societies, clubs and kindred bodies contributing their efforts to make the celebration in every way worthy of the occasion. In the line the place of honor was, of course, given to the officers and crews of the Telegraph Squadron. At night the city was illuminated and the City Hall, which was almost hidden under a profusion of banners and flags and streamers and bunting, fashioned into folds and festoons of every conceivable form, glowed with the light of thousands of gas jets and colored lamps. Conspicuous among the distinguished persons in the procession besides the Mayor and other chief officials of the municipality, were Mr. Cyrus W. Field, Professor Morse, the inventor of the electro-magnetic telegraph; Captain Hudson, of the U.S. Steam Frigate Niagara, and the captains of the two British ships, the Valorous and the Gorgon, which, after the landing of the cable, accompanied our vessel from Newfoundland to New York.
In addition to the illumination there was a torchlight procession of the firemen, with their massive hand-engines, hose-carts and ladder trucks, making one of the most striking, as it always was one of the most popular, features in all public demonstrations. The shipping in the harbor presented an animated spectacle with its endless array of flags and streamers of all sizes and colors, among which could be distinguished the national emblems of nearly every maritime power.
The celebration, however, was not limited to the outdoor display, for there were few associations, or clubs, or other organizations of note that did not manifest their appreciation of the event by some special festivity or entertainment. The grand municipal banquet, at which the guests were numbered by thousands, and which took place in the Crystal Palace, then occupying the site now known as Bryant Park, fittingly closed the celebration of this historic episode.
From the 5th of August, 1858, the day on which the cable was landed, to that on which the celebration took place, numerous dispatches had been transmitted through the line from the two stations, among which were those conveying the congratulations of Queen Victoria and President Buchanan on the accomplishment of the work by the ships of the two nations. According to the official report the total number of messages sent from station to station was three hundred and sixty-six, of more or less importance. Hardly, however, had four weeks elapsed before the electrical connection had ceased altogether; the defects which had been the cause of the many delays and difficulties encountered on the different expeditions having not only impaired, but finally destroyed the continuity.
But, notwithstanding the failure of the first cable, the important fact that the paying-out process was a mechanical success and that a machine had been devised and constructed that had proved equal to the task, inspired the company with such confidence that the required amount necessary for the renewal and prosecution of the enterprise in 1866 was ultimately secured and another and more efficient cable was laid. For this renewal of the work the company was indebted mainly to the one man, Cyrus W. Field, who throughout the whole history of the enterprise was its guiding spirit. His indomitable energy and resolution overcame all obstacles, and he manifested his absolute faith in the great project by subscribing $500,000 of the original capital of $1,750,000. Among the principal American subscribers to the stock besides Mr. Field, were Mr. Peter Cooper, Mr. Chandler White, Mr. Marshall O. Roberts, Mr. Moses Taylor and Archbishop Hughes.
The first cable, as stated, had not only ceased to work, but every attempt to raise it proved futile, and it was finally abandoned.
The writer of this article had the good fortune of participating in the first Atlantic Telegraph Expeditions, those of 1857 and 1858. In 1857 he held the temporary position of secretary to Professor Morse, and the following year acted in the same official capacity to Mr. Field, Mr. Morse not taking an active part in the subsequent operations and therefore not present on the last expedition. In these relations, as well as through being the guest of the officers of the Niagara during the several expeditions, covering altogether a whole year, he had unusual opportunities and advantages for obtaining information of the most accurate and reliable character in regard to the enterprise and the details of the work.
The following account of the first Atlantic Telegraph Expeditions can therefore be relied upon as being from the pen of an eye-witness who was personally cognizant of all he has described:
A company was organized in the month of March, 1852, under the title of the “Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company,” for the purpose of establishing communication between Europe and America. The manner in which it was to be accomplished was through a line of telegraph constructed across the southern part of Newfoundland extending from Cape Race at its eastern extremity to Cape Ray at its western, and connecting Cape Ray with Cape Breton by a submarine cable across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The telegraphic communication with the United States was to be effected by a line from Cape Breton to Prince Edward Island, across the strait which divides that island from the mainland to New Brunswick, and thence on to the United States through the various telegraph lines and connections already established. Such, in brief, was the plan by which it was proposed to connect St. Johns with all parts of this country and the British Provinces. The communication with Europe was to be completed by the steamers that plied, or were to ply, between Great Britain and the United States.
But the company by which all this was to be accomplished was unable, for want of that wherewithal without which neither the great nor the petty affairs of the world can be transacted, to carry out their designs. Their resources were unequal to the undertaking, and after a long but ineffectual struggle they sank into hopeless bankruptcy. True, they had a charter, but they were unable to fulfil its obligations, or meet its requirements, and thus lost all the privileges and grants which were to be conferred on the successful termination of the project. Under these circumstances application was made to Mr. Matthew D. Field, and through him to his brothers, Mr. Cyrus W. and Mr. David Dudley Field, to carry on the work which the insolvent company was obliged to abandon.
Both these gentlemen took the subject into earnest consideration, and Mr. Cyrus W. Field, who had in view the submerging of a cable between Ireland and Newfoundland, wrote to Professor Morse and to Lieutenant Maury, Superintendent of the National Observatory, and author of “The Physical Geography of the Sea,” in regard to the practicability of the undertaking. From the first of these distinguished scientists he received the most satisfactory and encouraging assurances in regard to the electrical character of the enterprise; and Lieutenant Maury’s reply in relation to the nautical part was no less gratifying and hopeful.
Thus assured by the highest authority, the great task was commenced, and though the man to whose energy and tenacity of purpose the world is mainly indebted for the success of the enterprise was fully aware of the almost insuperable difficulties he would have to encounter, he entered upon it with a determination that overcame all obstacles.
A new company, however, had to be organized and a new charter obtained before they could enter on the practical part of the undertaking; it was, therefore, decided to solicit the co-operation of capitalists whose resources and financial ability would be equal to the magnitude of the work and whose reputation would constitute the best evidence and the most substantial proof of their earnestness and sincerity of purpose. This was regarded as of the first importance to inspire the public with the desired confidence in the integrity of the company. Such co-operators Mr. Field found in Mr. Peter Cooper, Mr. Moses Taylor, Mr. Marshall O. Roberts and Mr. Chandler White. The plans and prospects of the organization were laid before these gentlemen and discussed at four successive meetings in the residence of Mr. Field, and it was finally resolved that a committee of three, consisting of Mr. Cyrus W. Field. his brother, Mr. David Dudley Field, and Mr. Chandler White (who died before the completion of the work of which he had been not only an enthusiastic but efficient advocate) should proceed at once to Newfoundland and procure a charter from the Government of that Colony. As a preliminary step, however, the new company paid off the debts of the old, amounting to about fifty thousand dollars, purchased all its property and in return received the charter under which that company was incorporated.
The agreement by which the Electric Telegraph Company surrendered their rights was signed on the 10th of March, 1854, and four days after the Committee of Three started for St. John’s, Newfoundland.
It is not necessary, for the purposes of this narrative, to enter into particulars regarding the progress and results of their mission; it is sufficient to know that they were cordially welcomed, and their application was as promptly entertained and acted on by the colonial authorities as the nature of the case would permit. The most liberal and generous spirit was manifested in the granting not only of the rights and privileges specified in the charter, but in the substantial and valuable concession of lands and subsidies, including the exclusive right of landing telegraph lines on the shores of the island and other lands within their jurisdiction, comprising, in addition to those of Newfoundland, the whole Atlantic coast of Labrador from the entrance of Hudson’s Straits to the Straits of Belle Isle. The company also obtained in May, 1854., an exclusive charter from the Government of Prince Edward’s Island, and afterwards from the State of Maine, and a charter for telegraph operations in Canada.
Thus far the efforts of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company had been successful and the prospects were very promising, but the practical part of the work was still untouched and as it came to be contemplated in all its vast proportions, filling the minds of its projectors with the uncertainties and anxieties of an untried problem, a problem which some scientists regarded as impossible of solution,. it might well seem to the great multitude the impracticable scheme of mere enthusiasts and visionaries; or, if not worse, the insidious designs of corrupt speculators on the gullibility of a too confiding public.
But the men at the head of the enterprise had calmly considered the chances of success; they had measured the difficulties with which they would have to contend and regarded with hopeful minds the facilities which nature herself presented to encourage its prosecution. They had been told by the highest scientific authorities that at the bottom of the stormy ocean which lay between Ireland and Newfoundland, the two island outposts of the New and Old World that were to form the points of connection, there was a vast submarine plain, an extended plateau, on which reigned the silence of the grave and the darkness of night, where the remains of minute forms of life, so minute as to be imperceptible to the unaided vision, had lain undisturbed for untold centuries; where currents were not, and where the storms that swept over the surface two miles above, and lashed the angry waters into foam, were unknown except by the wrecks and lifeless forms with which they strewed the depths. There, in the language of the inspired writer, was the path which “the bird hath not known, neither bath the eye of the vulture beheld it, the children of the merchant have not trodden, neither hath the lioness passed by it.” There the cable might lay undisturbed for centuries, and the only change would be that produced by those subtle chemical agencies which are never at rest, and which by the combination of the protecting iron with the corrosive elements of the sea, would enclose and surround it with a concrete mass, affording it a still better protection than it had received before from its outer wire covering.
What matter how much geologists may differ as to the causes which have produced this submarine plateau, this table land of the ocean, and who really cares whether it was built up by the disintegration of rocks borne down innumerable ages ago from Arctic mountains by gigantic icebergs, or by those infinitesimal shells which have been brought up from its surface by the sounding leads of Lieutenant Berryman and Captain Dayman, the two distinguished officers of the American and British Navies, who made the surveys under the orders of their respective governments. That is a question for further scientific research, and so it may be left. It is sufficient for us to be assured that it is the safest and best resting place for the cable.
On the 19th of July, 1856, Mr. Field sailed for England for the purpose of enlisting the aid of English capitalists, and in the course of three weeks, during which he had addressed large and influential meetings in Liverpool, Manchester and London, he obtained all the capital required. The organization of a corporation entitled the “Atlantic Telegraph Company” followed; and everything seemed to conspire in favor of the enterprise. Through the same indefatigable agent a contract was made with the Governments of Great Britain and the United States, by which both agreed to furnish ships for the laying of the cable, and when that was done to pay an annual sum of seventy thousand dollars each for the transmission of official messages.
Everything was now ready for the mechanical part of the work. A cable connecting Cape Breton with Newfoundland had been laid across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the land line over the southern part of the latter island had been constructed. The great cable, itself, was not yet done, but the manufacturers at Birkenhead and Greenwich had promised to have it completed in time for the expedition, which was to sail in the summer of 1857.
And now, having arrived at this point, it is essential for a further investigation of our narrative, to consider in detail this marvelous but simple production of mechanical ingenuity, this great electric link which binds worlds together in immediate intercourse, and along whose slender copper core the subtle electric current courses with the speed of thought. The mechanical process by which the cable is produced is simplicity itself; but it is with the material of which it is composed that we have to do. In the first place the most important part of the covering is the gutta percha, a peculiar gum obtained from a tree which grows in the East Indies and which possesses not only the property of resisting acids, but which is also one of the most perfect non-conductors of electricity known to science.
Up to the time of its discovery and application to this particular use, all attempts to make a perfectly insulated submarine conductor had failed. Narrow tracts of water, it is true, had been crossed by sub-aqueous wires, but the impossibility of establishing communication between distant points separated by water had become clearly apparent.
In October, 1842, as I was informed by Professor Morse, he connected Governor’s Island with the Battery by a conductor which was insulated, or covered with a coating of tar. pitch and India rubber, and although he succeeded in passing a current through it after its submersion, he was convinced that the insulation thus effected could be only temporary. But here was a new material, the peculiar properties of which became known just at a time when science had tried all its former resources and appliances without effect.
The conductor in the center of the first Atlantic telegraph cable was composed of seven small copper wires, each of which was as thin as an ordinary pin. In this first ocean cable, to which the present description applies, these copper wires were twisted spirally, in which form, it was claimed, they were capable of being extended a considerable portion of their length before parting. Then should six of the seven part, the seventh, it was asserted, would have sufficient tenacity to maintain the electrical continuity. To insure the complete insulation of the conductor, it was covered with three layers, or coatings of gutta percha, over which was wound a serving of hemp steeped in a composition of tar and pitch. The unfinished cable next received the outer covering, or wire armor; after which it was passed through tanks of tar before being subject to the process of coiling, the tar protecting the iron from rust until submerged; but when once safely deposited on the bottom, all the corrosion to which it would then be subjected could not affect the conductivity insured by the insulating property of the inner covering of gutta percha. In the manufacture of the three thousand miles of cable there would be, it was estimated, a liberal margin over and above the sixteen hundred and forty nautical miles, or nineteen hundred and fifty statute miles, which was the distance between the connecting points in Valentia Bay, Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.
Three thousand miles of cable were, therefore, manufactured and coiled on board the Niagara and Agamemnon by the month of July, 1857; and both ships having received the machinery required for the process of submersion, proceeded to Queenstown, Ireland, which had been selected as the place of rendezvous. From Queenstown the whole Telegraph Squadron proceeded on its course. It consisted of the two above-named principal, or cable ships; the Susquehanna (which took no part in the subsequent expedition of 1.858), to attend upon the Niagara; the British war steam frigate Leopard, as escort to the Agamemnon; the Cyclops, to keep the course; and two small steamers, the Advice and the Willing Mind, to assist in landing the cable in Valentia Bay. From that point it was decided that the laying of the cable should be begun, although the proposition to commence in mid-ocean met with more favor.
Advantage was taken of the time required for the passage from Queenstown to Valentia to test the machinery on the Niagara, but the trial proved so unsatisfactory that it caused considerable anxiety as to the issue.
On the 5th of August the operation of taking the cable ashore was effected in the presence of a great multitude from all parts of Ireland assembled to witness the public and official ceremonies with which the occasion was to be celebrated. It was, in fact, one of the greatest events that had occurred in the history of the country, and the enthusiasm of the people was unbounded.
The end of the cable was landed in the midst of the wildest excitement; the spectators, unable to restrain their impatience till the cable reached the shore, rushed into the water as with a common impulse, and joining the men of the Niagara, ran with it up the beach, bearing back the dense crowd that vainly endeavored even to participate in the honor of having touched it with their fingers.
In the evening there was great rejoicing in the little village of Knightstown and the merrymakers kept up the festivities throughout the night. In the morning the Niagara resumed the work of paying-out, and with her bow to the westward, proceeded at the rate of two miles an hour. This was the shore cable, and as it was much thicker and heavier than the deep sea line, the paying-out process was consequently more tedious and difficult. The misgivings felt as to the working of the mechanism were confirmed on the very first trial, which proved a signal failure, hardly two miles having been paid out before the dreaded fracture occurred; the cable had surged off from the grooved wheels of the paying-out machine, and becoming entangled, snapped like a pipe stem. Several hours were lost in repairing damages, when the work was resumed with better success.
The 7h, 8th, 9th and 10th of August saw the Niagara still laying the cable and the hopes of the desponding began to revive. All went well till the night of the l0th, when an interruption in the electric continuity occurred, lasting over two hours. It was a phenomenon which the electricians in vain tried to clear up; but in the midst of their perplexity and when they were about to give up in despair, the continuity returned as suddenly as it had disappeared. It was as inexplicably restored as it had mysteriously been interrupted.
But our rejoicing was premature; our good fortune was to be short-lived, for about a quarter to four the following morning the cable again parted in consequence of another excessive strain to which it had been injudiciously exposed; the machine was temporarily paralyzed and the broken end of the line swung, loosely from the stern of the Niagara.
This time the cause of the disaster was no mystery; the engineer in charge, acting precipitately under the impression that there was an excessive expenditure of the cable, had put an undue pressure on the brakes. The result was inevitable: the wheels of the paying-out machine ceased to revolve and the cable parted under the increased strain.
There was a sad scene on board our ship when it was announced that we were to return to England bearing the depressing and mortifying, news of our defeat and of the grave disaster to the enterprise. We had grown over-confident from our last four days of almost uninterrupted progress and were hopefully calculating the number of days and hours it would take to reach the bleak and mountainous shores of Newfoundland. We thought of home and of the great expectant public who were eagerly awaiting the hour that would bring them the glorious news of our success; and our hearts throbbed more rapidly as the hope grew day by day into the semblance of a living reality.
But here we were two hundred and sixty-six miles from our starting point on the Irish coast and with three hundred and thirty miles less of cable than we had on board when we steamed, four or five days before, out of Valentia Bay. As to the financial loss, it amounted to over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the cable alone.
Although depressed, we were hopeful of ultimate success, for having laid so much of the line we not unreasonably concluded that but for that unlucky mishap of the strain, we might have reached our destination. Before this the gravest doubts were entertained as to the practicability of the work, for it was believed and persistently asserted by the skeptics, that it would
be found impossible to submerge the cable in the great depths; but here we were above the great depths already and the broken line lay on the Telegraph Plateau two miles beneath the keel of the Niagara. Over seventy miles had been laid in water from fifteen hundred to two thousand fathoms deep when the fracture occurred, and what more convincing proof could be required of the feasibility of the undertaking?
About six o’clock on the morning of the 11th of August a meeting was called in the cabin of the Niagara, at which the engineers, the electricians and the Commanders of the Squadron were present. At this meeting it was decided that the experiment of splicing the cable between the two ships should be made with the intention of commencing the operation from mid-ocean on the next trial. Having, after careful deliberation, arrived at this decision, Mr. Field started at once for England on one of the escorts, and on landing proceeded direct to London, where he informed the Directors of the company of the results of the expedition. Although it was now the middle of August, it was proposed to make another attempt in October, by which time, it was believed, an additional supply of cable, to replace what had been lost, could be manufactured. That month was said to be one of the mildest of the year, but it certainly did not sustain its reputation this time, for it proved to be one of the most boisterous and tempestuous that ever occurred on the Atlantic. It was fortunate, therefore, that the work was postponed till the summer of 1858 by which time there would be ample opportunity to devise and construct more perfect machinery, as the breaking of the cable on the 11th of August was partly attributed to the paying-out apparatus.
The Niagara having discharged her cargo in Plymouth, returned to New York, where she arrived on the 20th of November. The Agamemnon had also discharged her portion of the great sea-line, and the two ships were put out of commission until they should be required to resume the work. Mr. Field had reached New York in September, having previously ordered the manufacture of about nine hundred additional miles of cable. As the distance between the two termini is, as stated, 195o statute miles, the two ships were to be allowed 1500 miles each, which was regarded as a most liberal allowance to meet every possible contingency.
From October of 1857 till March of 1858 the public heard little of the great enterprise and settled down into the firm belief that it was not only impracticable, but that the men at the head of the undertaking were either visionaries, or were deceiving the stockholders, playing on. the credulity of those who, in spite of the signal failures which had thus far attended every trial, might be induced to invest their money in what these keen and knowing skeptics did not hesitate to denounce as a gigantic bubble. Nor was this at all surprising, for there was a certain savant, who in the course of an abstruse and scientific lecture before a London audience, had proved that the thing could not be done; that it was beyond the attainment of human genius; in a word, that all the resources of science were unequal to the task. Nor was this all, for he had actually received a gold medal in testimony of the high appreciation in which his marvellous acumen and learning were held. It may be remembered that this particular scientist was preceded many years before by another learned and distinguished oracle of his day, a certain Dr. Dionysius Lardner, who wrote an elaborate disquisition to prove that it was impossible to propel a vessel by steam across the Atlantic for the all-sufficient reason that no vessel could be constructed to carry the necessary amount of coal required for the trip. Who thinks of the skeptics now?
The public, as stated, heard little or nothing of the enterprise from October of 1857 till March of 1858; but preparations were being made persistently and quietly for the resumption of the work during the month of June of the latter year.
Mr. Field accepted the office of General Manager at the urgent solicitation of the Board of Directors, and entered on the duties of his new office in January, 1858. Before leaving the United States for England, however, he applied to our Government for leave of absence for Mr. Wm. E. Everett, one of the most skillful and experienced officers of our Navy, and having succeeded in the application, both gentlemen left New York on January 6th, 1858, in the Persia, for Liverpool, where they arrived on the 16th. Mr. Everett had been on the expedition of August, 1857, as the Chief Engineer of the Niagara, and while acting in that capacity had rendered very efficient service. But the task which he had now to perform was of a novel character, a task that demanded mechanical ingenuity and skill of the highest order. He was called on to devise anti build a machine that would surely lay the cable, which machine, if successful, would save the company from disaster and bankruptcy. It is sufficient to say that he fully realized the responsible nature of the duty imposed upon hint, and he entered on its performance with an assiduity equal to its importance.
in one of the dirtiest, dingiest and most out of the way places of London called Gravel Lane, stood the factory in which this apparatus was to be made, and here, in this building, itself in strange harmony with the broken down, ruinous aspect of the locality, Mr. Everett worked night and day in the construction of the machine that did lay the cable. At the end of three months he succeeded the production of an apparatus that the best engineering talent in England agreed was the most perfect that could be made, a decision which was fully justified by its performance on the final expedition.
This machine consisted of four wheels with four grooves on each, each groove being four and a half inches deep. In these grooves the cable ran, and the speed of paying out was regulated by the action of brakes. The principal feature of the brakes was their automatic, self-releasing character, by means of which the pressure could be safely increased from one to two, or three thousand pounds. There was, in addition to this, another safeguard, so that if the break accidentally failed to act, the strain on the cable might be immediately released. At the dynamometer, the indicator which told the amount of strain, stood man holding the handles of a wheel similar to that used in steering ships; and the moment the indicator registered a heavier strain than the cable could safely stand, the pressure on the brakes was released by a few turns of the wheel, thus allowing the line to pass out more freely and with less risk.
Such, in brief, is a description of the Everett Paying-out Machine, and it is not too much to say for its efficiency that it was an, important, if not an indispensable factor in the successful accomplishment of the work of submerging the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, the precursor of the numerous lines that now unite Europe and America.
Two such machines were placed respectively on the Niagara and Agamemnon in the month of May, and by the end of that month the coiling of the cable on both ships was also completed. And that same coil was a wonderful thing in its way and the men engaged ill the coiling were a wonderful band. They called themselves the “Cable Guard of the Niagara,” and to the vigilance and skill with which they executed their part of the work the success of the expedition was in no small measure due. Stalwart, hardy, earnest workers, who, without a dollar in the enterprise, felt as much interest in it as if each man was the owner of a share of its stock. How faithfully and patiently they worked only those who saw them could tell. Coiling away foot after foot, yard after yard, mile after mile of the fifteen hundred miles of the tarred rope, they worked from morning till night and from night till morning on these huge bobbins [hand corrected in the original from “coils”] of which there were no less than seven on the three decks and hold of the vessel, packing away every fathom as neatly as a thread is wound upon a spool. From day to day and week to week they labored until the fifteen hundred miles had passed through their hands and each one of the cable circles was as full as. it could hold. And while they worked they had their jokes, and their yarns of the oldest and the newest brand.
The 29th of May the Niagara and Agamemnon, accompanied by their escorts, the Gorgon and Valorous, started on a trial trip to the Bay of Biscay, where the splicing and submerging of the cable was tested and the paying-out machine was operated to the satisfaction and approval of the engineers. The squadron then returned to Plymouth, arriving at that port on the 3.d of June. On the l0th of the same month they left Plymouth for the rendezvous in mid-ocean, where both vessels were to meet, splice the cable and start for the eastern and western termini of the Sub-marine Telegraph.
The weather was all that could be desired; the sun shone out from an almost cloudless sky, and the wind, which at times sweeps with destructive violence along the rock-bound coasts of Cornwall and Devonshire, was subdued to a gentle zephyr. A numerous array of friends had assembled on the end of the Plymouth Breakwater, and under the shadow of its lighthouse, to bid us farewell. In a few hours the shades of evening had closed down on the scene and shut out from our view the last projecting landmark.
During the first three days the weather was no less favorable, but on the fourth an ominous change came over the face of the heavens; the bright skies had disappeared and large masses of threatening clouds obscured the sun. The violent gusts of a storm which was about to break upon us in all its fury, swept over the darkening surface of the ocean; the waves which but a few hours since were but as the ripples on a stream, were lashed into foam by the increasing force of the gale, and swelled into mountainous proportions. Everything that was necessary was done on board our ship in preparation for the coming storm; all sails were reefed, and the watchful supervision of our captain and officers saw that nothing was left undone for the security of our noble vessel and her costly freight, on the safety of which depended the realization of one of the grandest of human enterprises. The same precautions were taken on the Agamemnon, and the whole fleet kept on its course for the ocean rendezvous, seven hundred miles away. Every hour added to the violence of the storm; the squalls came up thicker and heavier and the huge waves surged and foamed about the ships in their fierce wrath. Still the Squadron held on its course, the unerring needle their only guide to that point where there was nothing but sea and sky.
For nine long and weary days they battled with one of the wildest storms that ever swept the stormiest of oceans. There was no cessation in the combined fury of wind and waves. The Niagara and Agamemnon kept company for several days, but the Gorgon and the Valorous had disappeared soon after the beginning of the gale. But the former also became separated, and had then to fight it out with the warring elements alone and unseen. Captain Preedy, the commander of the Agamemnon, was obliged to change his course because of what, as we presently learned, seriously endangered the safety of his ship. The immense coil which was placed in the hold, and which contained over a thousand miles of the cable, had, in the rolling of the vessel, worked loose and into tangled masses until about one hundred miles of it were forced out of the circle and tossed about in the hold, burying beneath it all who had the temerity to approach. In addition to this serious situation it was feared that one of the deck coils would work loose also, and it was evident that under such circumstances, no human strength could save the Agamemnon. But the coil did not shift, and when on the eighth day the gale began to abate, the sky to clear and the waves to go down, there was many a glad heart on the British vessel. Only those who “go down to the sea in ships,” and who have had such experiences, can appreciate the feelings with which they greeted the return of fair weather.
Worthy of the highest praise were the captains and officers of the Agamemnon for the coolness displayed under circumstances that might well appall the hearts of the bravest. Night and day they were on deck, and with an energy that was almost superhuman, they kept up the fight, inspiring their men with their own heroic courage, till they saved their ship from what seemed inevitable destruction.
Of the Niagara, which was the newer and in all respects the better ship, it can be truly said she bore her burden more lightly and passed through the storm almost unscathed. She had been constructed by her designer, George Steers, the celebrated builder of the Yacht America, which won the now historic race off Cowes over half a century ago and the prize cup that we have held ever since against all competitors.
The storm over, the reunited vessels set out with as little delay as possible for the rendezvous once more, though not for the last time, and reached the appointed place on the 25th of June. It was found impossible, however, to begin operations until the tangled coil on the Agamemnon was taken up and recoiled, which consumed a whole day in the operation.
On the 26th the work of splicing the two ends of the cable was done, the Niagara and Agamemnon being held together for the purpose by a hawser eight hundred feet long. As this was one of the most important details of the work, a somewhat detailed description is necessary to a proper understanding of the process. In the first place, the two ends were completely denuded of the outer wire, the hemp serving. and, finally, of the gutta percha, so that nothing was left but the copper core, or conductor, about six inches of which were exposed. The two ends thus prepared were laid together and secured by a binding of copper wire. This done, the second part of the process consisted of the soldering of the spliced wire, an additional binding and soldering following to reinforce the first binding. It was now ready to receive the gutta percha, which was laid on in a plastic state, to which it was brought by the flame of a blowpipe in the hands of the operator, or splicer. The hempen strand, or serving, was next wound round the gutta percha, and over this was interlaced the outer wire. The spliced portion was still further strengthened by a wrapping of strong, cord. This completed the operation; but as this portion of the line required still further protection it was relieved from all strain by two iron-bound loops which were placed one on each side of the splice and then drawn together in such manner as to leave the splice free from strain. A crescent-shaped piece of wood, about eight feet long, was next procured and the cable laid in a groove cut on the surface of the wood and secured in its place by a piece of flat iron of the same form and size as the wooden crescent.
At least two hours were passed in this operation and it was with a feeling of relief that we saw the splice with a heavy weight attached, descend slowly into the water, and the motion of the paying-out machine informed us that it was on its way to the submarine plateau two and a half miles down. A red flag was hoisted on the Agamemnon as the signal that she had commenced paying out, and soon after the cable was running over our stern at the rate of three miles an hour, both ships proceeding as slowly as possible to give the spliced portion time to reach the bottom. Hardly, however, had two and a half miles been paid out from our ship before the cable was torn apart, having slipped out of one of the grooves of the machine. It was, it seems, impossible to avoid the accident at the time, and it was, therefore, regarded as of slight importance, as it had not been caused by any deficiency in the working of the apparatus, and but little cable had been lost by the accident. So the ships returned once more, made another splice, and steamed away. each on its homeward course. But they were again doomed to disappointment, for after forty more miles had been submerged from each of the cable ships an unaccountable break of the electrical continuity occurred, a break for which no satisfactory explanation could be offered. The electric current had ceased, and after holding on by the cable for several hours we were obliged once more to cut it and make for the rendezvous.
The 28th of June the Niagara and Agamemnon met again in mid-ocean; but inquiry among the electricians on either ship failed to elicit any information as to the cause of the interruption of the current.
This untoward incident caused the gravest apprehensions, as it was impossible to tell what agency might be at work at the bottom of the sea, an agency which we could not hope to contend against, because unseen. However, here we were preparing for still another trial. The splicing process was repeated for the third time and the ships started for their separate destinations. The work went on fairly well until each vessel had laid about one hundred and forty miles, when the cable again broke at the stern of the Agamemnon.
In accordance with the agreement made in anticipation of such contingency, the Niagara having gone over the stipulated distance of one hundred nautical miles, returned to Queenstown to coal, preparatory to starting on the third, and, as it proved, the final expedition. The Agamemnon, however, under the impression that we had not traversed the stated distance, returned to the rendezvous and waited there several days, when she, also, returned to Queenstown. The Niagara reached that port on the 5th of July, and the Agamemnon seven or eight days after.
Again we were obliged to carry the news of our defeat and to add another chapter to the disheartening story of repeated disasters. The intelligence reached London soon after our arrival at Queenstown, and the Directors were dismayed. Some did not hesitate to assert openly that the project was impracticable, declaring that it was better to sell what remained of the cable than to lose still more in what they insisted would be a fruitless attempt. They had, it was urged, tried it too often already, and what would the prudent, practical, common sense part of the world think? Think, of course, what it never failed to say, with an emphatic and profane prefix, that it was “a bubble.” The skeptical members of the company had, therefore, made up their minds that the cable should be sold. But Mr. Field insisted on still another trial, for having once entered upon the work, he was determined to prosecute it to the end. With his usual promptitude he once more set out for the British Capital, and on his arrival went at once to the Atlantic Telegraph Office. There he met the despondent members, into whom he infused new hope, spoke cheeringly of the certainty of success, alluded to the means they still had, and finally succeeded in persuading them not to abandon the enterprise until they had made one more trial. On the effect produced by Mr. Field’s arguments upon the Board depended the resumption of the work. The majority of the members acceded to his appeal, and to the courageous and heroic effort which he then and there made the world is indebted for the triumph of the enterprise. But if he persuaded the majority of the Board, there was one unbeliever by whom it was so strongly opposed that he had his protest entered on the minutes of the meeting against any further trial, on the ground that it was sheer madness. His protest was placed upon the record and there it still stands over his own signature.
Mr. Field returned for the last time, as it proved, to Queenstown. July 17th the Niagara was again once more on her way to that ocean rendezvous to which they were ever returning. The Agamemnon did not leave till the following morning; but the Gorgon and the Valorous sailed before our ship.
The evening of our departure was sombre and threatening, and the dark clouds with which the heavens were overcast looked like a huge funeral pall. The aspect of the elements was certainly inauspicious, but the die was cast, and, as the result proved, fortune at last smiled upon the enterprise. The paying-out machine had, on trial, answered the highest expectations; no fault could be found in it, thanks to the skill and ingenuity of Mr. Wm. E. Everett. There still remained on the two ships about twenty-five hundred miles of cable and that allowed a fair surplus over the actual distance.
Our passage to the rendezvous was marked by such weather as is rarely if ever seen in those high northern latitudes, with the air so still for many days that it seemed as if our ship was in the region of perpetual calms, and that the sea on whose mountainous waves we had been tossed for eight long; and anxious days, had become as still as the telegraph plateau itself. Here we are, six days out, and at our appointed place, half-way between the two island outposts of America and Europe; here where there is no trace of man’s work; here where no voice breaks the silence of the solitude save the harsh cry of the sea-birds. Five long and anxious days we waited for the Agamemnon; the Valorous and the Gorgon had already arrived. At last she made her appearance on the morning of the 20th of July. She had sailed a great part of the way to save coal, of which she had but three hundred tons, while of the cable there were thirteen hundred miles for the half of the distance to be traversed. The Niagara had five hundred tons of coal and about the same length of cable.
It was one o’clock when the process of splicing, already described, was completed and the signal was given to pay out the line. The wheels of the machine commenced revolving at the rate of five miles an hour and the weighted splice was soon rapidly sinking to its bed of ooze on the plateau. An hour has passed since it was lowered over the stern of the Agamemnon, and the ships are now at least five miles apart. Three o’clock has just struck and two hours have passed since we parted company; the Agamemnon is on the very verge of the horizon, and in another hour we shall be alone on the ocean with our faithful guide, the Gorgon, leading the way to the land of fogs.
Next to the paying-out machine, one of the most interesting objects connected with the work is the circle from which the cable is now descending to the depths at a speed of from six to seven miles an hour, a speed which will be increased as the vessel approaches nearer her destination. As the line is uncoiled, flake after flake, it is conducted to the paying-out machine over a series of pulleys from which it is delivered into the grooved wheels and passes on till it reaches the single wheel over the stern as it leaves the vessel. In the particular circle from which the cable is being unwound about a dozen of the most experienced coilers are stationed at regular intervals, charged with the vitally important duty of looking out for kinks, and when the last turn of each flake, or layer, is reached, to take the bight, or bend, and lead it in safety to the cone which stands in the center of the circle. As this is the critical moment the utmost caution and vigilance is necessary, and as each flake is liable to kink when the short turns are approached, the danger attending the operation will be realized when it is known that it must be performed several hundred times on board both ships before they arrive at their respective destinations.
The next and no less important point of interest, where we obtain all the news in regard to the electrical condition of the cable, or the continuity, is the office of the electricians. To get there we have to descend to the main deck and pass on till we come to the so-called Ward Room Coil, at one side of which a small apartment had been fitted up for the electrical apparatus. It is barely large enough to accommodate half a dozen persons comfortably; but space is precious on both ships and it is economized to a miserly extent. The electrician is taking note of the signals which are passing along the whole length of the cable on board the two ships. Here are the batteries that generate the subtle current, the commutator, the electro-magnetomotor, the marine galvanometer and a number of other instruments with titles of “learned length and thundering sound.” Discarding details, it is gratifying to be assured by the chief electrician, Mr. de Sauty, that the continuity is all right, and with a fervent hope that it will remain in that happy state to the termination of the voyage, we leave the little office.
Six hours have passed since the splice was made on the rendezvous and over sixty miles of cable have been submerged by both ships. It is past seven o’clock and all is going on well; but the old adage says “appearances are deceitful,” and in this instance it is painfully verified, for although the paying-out continues without interruption, and the machine is doing its part of the work in splendid style, we hear with renewed feelings of dismay and despondency, that the continuity is becoming weaker every minute, and that if there be no change soon for the better, the electric current will have ceased altogether. But just as we are about to yield to, despair, the glad news is announced that although two hours have elapsed since the first unfavorable indications were observed, it not only holds on, but that it is improving every moment and in less than five minutes the joyful tidings reach every part of the Niagara that the current is coursing through the twenty-six hundred miles of cable with unabated force.
All through the night of the 29th of July the machine was in motion and the cable left the stern wheel at the rate of five and six miles an hour. And so it continued till the 1st of August, three days since the splice was lowered. The weather, which might be truly called ideal for cable laying, began to change, and although the barometer had risen to a prominent altitude, there were, according to the weather-wise, unmistakeable indications of a gale. The wind increased hourly, until it attained the magnitude of a stiff breeze; but we had no gale, and although a heavy rolling sea had set in from the northwest, it gradually became evident that there would be no storm. But the Niagara never rolled and plunged during the whole voyage as in this sea, and our fears were again aroused for the safety of the cable. To this new alarm was added still another: the old spectre of a weak and defective current haunted the harassed, unnerved and weary watchers, from the Captain’s cabin all the way down to the forecastle. During three long hours this dread anxiety held possession of all on board until human endurance seemed to have reached its limit, when the suspense was at last broken by the cheering report from the electricians’ office that the wavering continuity had returned in full strength and volume.
This was the last alarm, and from now on our confidence increased as the work progressed to the end. Signals continued without further interruption from ship to ship, which were now eight hundred miles apart, and these conveyed the intensely gratifying assurance that while the Agamemnon had her own troubles, she had shared our good fortune in overcoming all difficulties, and was jubilant over her success.
Three days more brought us in sight of land, and words fail to express the feelings with which we gazed on that rock-bound coast as we approached the entrance to Trinity Bay, at the terminus of which the cable was to be landed the following day, the ever-memorable 5th of August, the eighth day since we started from the rendezvous. But, as we draw nearer to our terminus and at last enter between the headlands of Trinity Bay, a strange scene of enchantment greets our astonished sight. This land of wonders cannot surely be the barren island for which we have so earnestly longed during our anxious passage! What shore could it be that lay there in the glowing light, beautiful as an enchanted land and changeable as the figures in a kaleidoscope? Now it presents the rugged aspect and bleak outline which marks nearly the whole coast range of Newfoundland, with Alpine summits that for a great portion of the year are covered with snow, or veiled in impenetrable fogs. And now it presents the form of an immense table land, level as the great western prairies. But, under the potent spell of the mirage, (for this is the necromancer whose magic power has wrought these atmospheric marvels,) scenes of bewildering variety succeed each other in rapid succession. Icebergs of all forms are around us, some white as the unstained snow; others green and translucent, sparkling in the sunlight, and as we gaze, others of gigantic proportions fall asunder, sink beneath the surface, but only to rise again in new and fantastic forms.
We are now passing up Trinity Bay, and as the shades of evening settle down upon the ocean, the mirage and all its scenes of enchantment disappear, leaving only the great headlands visible. Eighteen miles further is the landing place of the cable, the temporary Atlantic Telegraph Station on the American side as Valentia Bay is on the European side.
The steamer Porcupine, which had been dispatched from England under the command of Captain Otter, to await our arrival, now appeared in sight, and prepared to lead the way to the Bay of Bulls, where the cable was to be taken ashore the following day. Mr. Field, however, concluded not to wait and started in a small boat for the Telegraph Station, where he arrived some six or seven hours after. The occupants of the house were all asleep, but when they heard that the cable was laid they were literally bewildered. By one of these same electricians the first message was wired to nearest station connecting with St. John’s, from which it was forwarded to the United States, where it was received with a welcome that came from the great heart of the nation.
At six o’clock on the historic 5th of August, 1858, a procession of six boats started from the Niagara which lay about half a mile from the landing. The last boat in the line contained sufficient cable to reach the station. As we left the ship the men in the last boat paid out the line with their hands, an operation which was performed in less than twenty minutes; and, as the procession landed, Mr. James North, the First Lieutenant of the Niagara, presented, in due form, the end of the first ocean cable to his superior, Captain Hudson. Another procession was now formed, Captain Dayman, of the Gorgon, and Captain Otter, of the Porcupine, leading the way, holding the tarred cable in their hands, and followed by the officers of the three ships in regular procession, in accordance with their respective ranks. The cable hands of the Niagara, with a portion of the rest of the crew, formed the rear of this Memorable procession. Plodding through bog and over rock, the pioneers, who had the glory of landing the first submarine line, came in sight of the Telegraph Station, where in less than half an hour the conductor was put in connection with the electrical apparatus, and the telegraphic union of the two worlds was consummated.
Such a consummation could not be permitted to pass without due and appropriate recognition and ceremonies. Accordingly, Captain Hudson, as the ranking officer, after an admirable address, inspired by the solemnity of the occasion, pronounced in reverential tones, that touched the hearts of his audience, a prayer of thanksgiving to Providence for the success of the great enterprise.
From Trinity Bay the Niagara set sail for St. John’s, where her arrival was made the occasion of a series of popular ovations and demonstrations, including official addresses of welcome, a public dinner, and a ball in the Government Building, winding up with a regatta on Lake Quidi Vidi.
The 18th of August, after unavoidable delays, from the constant recurrence of fogs during the passage, saw the Niagara entering New York’s incomparable bay, and we were home at last amid rejoicing and welcoming friends.
What though the cable had ceased to work four weeks after its submersion; the great problem had been solved and the way had been so clearly, so brightly blazoned as to make the future so safe, so prolific in results, that to-day, forty-eight years after the landing of the first submarine cable in Newfoundland, the aggregate length of submerged lines throughout the world is. according to reliable statistics, no less than TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN MILES.
by John Mullaly
The illustration of the Atlantic Telegraph Squadron shown in accompanying picture, which was composed of the four warships employed in the laying of the great ocean cable, is a minute reproduction of a large lithographic print published under the patronage of the Commanders and officers of the vessels and was dedicated by the artist to Hon. George M. Dallas, at that time (1857) United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain.
The Squadron consisted of the U.S. Steam Frigate Niagara and the British line-of-battle Ship Agamemnon, both vessels having been selected not only as the largest men-of-war in the respective navies of the two nations, but because they were also the best adapted otherwise for the important undertaking in which they were to be engaged. They were accompanied by two smaller vessels, the U.S. Frigate Susquehanna, acting as the escort of the Niagara, and the British Frigate Leopard, doing similar duty for the Agamemnon.
The Niagara, as shown in the engraving, had a capacity of at least three thousand five hundred tons, and the Agamemnon had about equal register. The two ships were built on entirely different models, the first having been designed on the plan and lines of the clipper ship, and the second on the old style of the ninety-six gun ship of the line. In point of speed there was no comparison, the American vessel being much the faster of the two, a fact, however, which did not detract from the usefulness of the Agamemnon in the work of cable laying, which rarely exceeded a speed of seven or eight miles an hour.
In the preparation of the ships for the work to which they were assigned it was found necessary not only to strengthen the decks on which the Cable was to be coiled, but to make radical changes for its proper distribution. Large circles, fenced around with heavy planks to the height of four or five feet and shored up with massive beams, formed the receptacle in which the Cable was laid in successive layers around a central cone. Thus the Cable on the Niagara was, with a due regard to the “trimming” of the ship, divided into seven parts, or sections, three of which were placed on the main deck, two on the second deck and the balance in the hold.
The armament of the ship had been removed and every available foot of space that was required for the machinery and appliances in the submersion of the great submarine line was appropriated and even the sleeping quarters of the officers in the Ward Room were invaded. The whole internal aspect of the Niagara, in all its decks, was changed. The huge warship, (huge for that day) which had been armed at every point with great guns and other weapons of destruction, was transformed into an agent of peace and industry and science for the binding together of nations in commercial intercourse and friendly relations. The ponderous cannon had been unshipped and relegated to the forts and arsenals on land, and the magazines were emptied of their tons of explosives and deadly missiles, while the paying-out machinery, over which the Cable was carried into the depths of the ocean, two-and-a-half miles beneath the surface, occupied more than three-fourths of the main deck. At the stern of the Niagara was erected the grooved wheel over which the Cable passed in its descent to its resting place on the Telegraph Plateau, which extended at a uniform depth between Ireland and Newfoundland, the two termini, or points of connection of the Atlantic Telegraph.
While it is true that the two warships which had been selected on account of their carrying capacity were otherwise unfitted for the work of cable laying, it is very doubtful if, in view of the magnitude of the enterprise and the amount of capital required, it would have been accomplished but for the international co-operation extended by the two governments and the timely, effective and substantial aid thus afforded. Had the undertaking depended solely on its merits as a commercial project its accomplishment in the face of the incredulity, and even suspicion in some quarters with which it was regarded, it would most probably have been postponed for another generation.
In view of all the circumstances attending the early history of the Atlantic Telegraph, the failures and losses and disappointments by which the first trials were beset, though finally crowned with a success that proved its practicability, the illustration of the united ships of the two nations engaged in the solution of one of the greatest of scientific problems possesses more than ordinary historical interest.
Last revised: 10 August, 2011