Communicating Underwater

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

Lithograph celebrating the completion of the 1858 Atlantic cable.

Spanning Oceans

The success and profit of the English Channel cable encouraged a larger endeavor—connecting Britain and the United States. The potential of undersea cables also helped drive scientific and public interest in what lay below the ocean’s waves. Until the 19th century, oceans had been viewed merely as a way to move between harbors. In 1823 the Encyclopedia Britannica admitted ignorance in its entry on the sea: “Through want of instruments, the sea beyond a certain depth has been found unfathomable.” Unlike land exploration, exploring the deep oceans had never fired the public or the scientific imagination.

Landing the first successful cable at Newfoundland in 1866

Landing the first successful cable at Newfoundland in 1866. The Great Eastern stands by as a smaller ship brings the cable to shore.

The push for a link between Britain and America by entrepreneurial cable promoters changed that. Occasional deep-sea soundings turned into a program to map the depths and heights of the ocean floor. And the public grew fascinated by the sublime successes and the dramatic failures of the undersea cable projects of the 1850s and 1860s, eagerly reading newspaper and magazine accounts of them.

Connecting the countries was no easy feat. An armored Atlantic cable would have to be over 2,000 miles long, be insulated by hundreds of tons of gutta percha, and be laid at almost unimaginable depths. Further, to make and lay cables required vast sums of money. Only the wealthiest governments and companies could afford such costs.

Many thought the dream impossible; many, including well-known scientists, believed that current could not flow that great a distance. However, in 1854 Cyrus Field, an entrepreneur, began stoking public enthusiasm for the project. He persuaded Samuel Morse to support him, along with the U.S. Navy’s Matthew Maury, chief of the U.S. National Observatory and a man who probably knew more about the deep oceans than anyone alive and who could marshal resources for further study. Maury’s research program had already overturned assumptions about the seabed, showing that the sea floor offered high mountains and deep valleys rather than a gradual incline from shallow to deep waters. Fortunately for Field, by 1854 one of Maury’s ships had found a level path on the North Atlantic sea floor, a path Maury described as a “plateau which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of the submarine telegraph.”

In 1856 Field founded the Atlantic Telegraph Company with British capital and British expertise. The first two attempts to lay cable from Ireland to Newfoundland (connecting Britain and the United States, respectively), in August 1857 and June 1858, failed. The first cable broke in deep water. In the second attempt the mid-ocean splicing of the two halves of cable failed three times before the effort was called off. But the third attempt succeeded, and in August 1858, U.S. President James Buchanan and Britain’s Queen Victoria clasped electric hands across the ocean. In the flurry of public excitement Field sold several miles of leftover cable to Tiffany & Company Jewelers, which cut up this down-to-earth material into four-inch souvenirs, supplied a certificate of authenticity, and sold them for 50 cents apiece. A perfume reminiscent of ocean spray and flowers was even created in Field’s honor. The Times of London compared the effects of the submarine cable to the discovery of the Americas. Morse called it “the great feat of the century.” Torchlight processions were held in the United States, one of which accidentally set New York’s town hall on fire. The grandiose hopes of the two nations were perhaps best expressed in verse by a magazine, the British Workman:

Stretch on, thou wonder-working wire!
Stretch North, South, East, and West,
Deep down beneath the surging sea,
High o’er the mountain’s crest.
Stretch onwards without stop or stay,
All lands and oceans span,
Knitting with firmer, closer bonds
Man to his brother man.

Transmission speeds of up to three short words per minute astonished the public. But celebrations proved premature: electric signals, strong at first, quickly weakened and two months later, on 20 October, failed entirely.

Niagara and Agamemnon

The cover of Atlantic Telegraph Polka shows the Niagara and Agamemnon laying the 1858 Atlantic cable.

The delicate task of laying cables in rough seas without breaking them and with malfunctioning equipment taxed ships, sailors, and onboard cable experts. Making the cables was still an inexpert science, and electrical theory had not kept up with practice. The 1858 cable was doomed by a rudimentary understanding of how electric current behaved through thousands of miles of gutta percha–insulated cable.  Financial losses of hundreds of thousands of British pounds, uncertainty as to why the cable failed, and the U.S. Civil War all blocked further attempts.

Not until 1865 and the end of the Civil War did the two countries attempt to reconnect themselves—and the cable broke. In 1866 the Great Eastern, the largest ship ever built and the only one big enough to carry an ocean’s worth of cable, successfully laid a cable from Valentia in Ireland to St. John’s in Newfoundland. The Great Eastern then turned around, picked up the broken part of the previous cable, and spliced and relaid it. Suddenly, two cables linked the United States and Britain.