Narrative History

Updated Monday 29 September 2014
The following information was sourced from the archives of the Telecom Digest in responses to the question "Does anyone know the date of the first undersea cable between the USA and Europe/UK?" posted to alt.dcom.telecom in 1994. It is in a permanent file in the Telecom Archives /history sub-directory.

The concept of wiring two continents together is far older than most people might know. Telegraphers on both sides of the ocean took up a Shakespearean line from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where Puck says, "I'll put a girdle `round the earth in forty minutes." England's Cable and Wireless, in fact made that the title of their (privately published) corporate history book, and the most recent historian of Western Union, George Oslin, opens Chapter 11 of his epic history, "The Story of Telecommunications," with the same line, as he begins to tell about submarine telegraphy.

I'm missing my copies of the CandW book and some others at the moment, but prototypes of the art were done in crossing the River Thames at London around 1840, while Oslin reports Samuel Morse himself tried to connect New York's Battery with Governor's Island on October 18, 1842 -- but souvenir hunters cut his hand-made cable and took 200 feet away, destroying the job. Morse was reported to build a similar experiment at Washington, DC two months later, and even suggested that a telegraph cable could be laid across the Atlantic, but Congress (even with Morse having cronies there), hadn't even acted on subsidising that first famous Washington-Baltimore overland link of 1844 that our history books usually begin with.

By 1845, many entrepreneurs had jumped into the then-fantastic new technology of transmitting messages instantly by wire. (Consider the revolution it portended at that point in history!), and the first of several crossings of the Hudson River and New York Harbour began in that year, not by Morse at first, but by several of his many competitors. One quasi-competitor was Morse's personal friend, Samuel Colt (of revolver fame), who laid several crossings of the East River in New York to support Colt's local telegraph company. But these submarine cables all lacked a needed quality: Permanence and physical durability. The only materials for "insulating" and "waterproofing" wire at the time were things like oakite and asphaltum. These did not last long for even short, shallow crossings, much less reaching 3,000 miles across an ocean.

The discovery of a form of rubber called "gutta percha" in 1843 led to electricians and telegraphers developing a suitable means by 1847 or so, with the British leading the development. In 1848, the first U.S. factory to insulate wire with gutta percha opened up. In Germany, Werner von Siemens, operating in a frenzy of creativeness similar to that of the later Thomas Edison, also had a gutta percha insulating machine developed in 1847, and Siemens laid a gutta percha cable in Kiel Harbour in 1848.

The real beginnings of global submarine cable telegraphy began with a wealthy English merchant family named Brett, who financed a cable crossing the English Channel to France in 1850. Like a later chapter in this story, that cable failed after only a few messages were exchanged, and was finally replaced with an engineered design that could withstand the currents at the bottom of the Channel in September, 1851. Also in the 1850-51 time frame, former aerial crossings of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers that had been wrecked by floods were replaced with submarine telegraph cables. Development of that art continued apace in Europe, where by 1852 cables were connecting England, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, and another connected Italy with Corsica, Sardinia and even across to Africa. (Siemens was instrumental in much of this construction.) By the time of the Crimean War, a 300-mile cable was laid across the Black Sea, so England and France had instant connectivity with their armies in the Crimea. Meantime, in Canada, construction of telegraph companies was also moving apace, with connectivity out to the Maritime provinces and several border crossings to the U.S. completed in the same time frame. Close ties of the several companies in Canada were forming with Western Union and its competitors. These ties are significant to a later part of the story.

The most notable driving users of the early telegraph were the press, which had reporters waiting on the docks when packet ships landed, grabbing their packets of news dispatches and running them to telegraph offices for filing into the domestic telegraph network. As connectivity extended northward up the Atlantic coast of the U.S., the press moved first to Boston, then to Nova Scotia, to get dispatches a day or more sooner, what with shorter times from Europe by ship. Thus, connectivity to Halifax, Nova Scotia was accomplished early on. Even prior to that, some reporters would collect the news at Halifax, write it onto tissue paper and use carrier pigeons to fly it to Boston for filing to the telegraph.

Canadians can even take credit for the concept of a "pony express," having had the first riders carrying press from Halifax to Digby, Nova Scotia, where the rider boarded a ferry across the 50 miles of the Bay of Fundy to file press on the telegraph network that reached from the U.S. to St. John's, Newfoundland -- a location to later prove extremely important, even a century later. It made sense then, to make the first transatlantic cable connect from Canada to Ireland, the shortest route through relatively shallow water across the North Atlantic.

Frederick Gisborne, a founder of one of Canada's several first telegraph companies, placed a proposal before the Canadian government in 1850 to connect Newfoundland with England. Gisborne got some initial funding, and was financially ruined by New York investors who backed out on him. He had to return to New York to find new backers, and finally, in January, 1854, met Cyrus Field, a wealthy New York paper merchant who had retired from active business at the age of 35. Field was not a man of narrow vision, although he and Gisborne were very different people. Field jumped into the matter with great enthusiasm, and found that, indeed, the U.S. Navy had surveyed a large area of the North Atlantic and found a shallow plateau on the ocean bottom that would provide a 1,600 mile crossing between Newfoundland and Ireland. Amazingly, the words from the naval survey said, "...the bottom of the sea between the two places is a plateau, which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a submarine telegraph." Field's enthusiasm for the venture mounted further. A flurry of activity ensued, and Field gathered a number of wealthy New Yorkers to join with him, some of them being names like Peter Cooper, Moses Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts of the Erie Railroad, and Chandler White. This group founded the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company on May 6, 1854. They purchased cable from the English firm of Glass, Elliott and Company, a name to later figure heavily in manufacture of submarine cables crossing most of the oceans of the earth.

An attempt to lay cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia in August, 1855 proved that handling a wire, no matter how strong, from the deck of a pitching ship, was no simple matter, and after several losses, connectivity was finally achieved from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, but the funds of the company were exhausted by this effort. Field then went to England to get further partners, and obtained them in Charles T. Bright, Chief Engineer of England's successful Magnetic Telegraph Company and John Brett, the backer of that first cable across the English Channel, in September, 1856. Another name that was to gain some fleeting dark fame in technology, Dr. Edward Whitehouse, a physician who experimented with electricity joined a bit later.

The influence of Bright and Brett garnered support with ships for cable laying and a commitment of UK£ 14,000 per year for the carriage of government messages on the new cable. Stock sales in England were oversubscribed, and although Field reserved 25% of the shares for American investors, only 27 shares were ever sold in the U.S. The reason: Western Union had its own grand plan to reach Europe by way of Alaska and Siberia, crossing the entire land mass of Asian Russia overland, a route that required only 25 miles of submarine cable across the Bering Strait. Western Union's view of the Atlantic route was that it was entirely too unproved and risky, especially after evidence of the problems earlier, shorter attempts had shown. No smart investor in the U.S. would doubt the expertise of Western Union, which was immensely profitable at that point in time. Field even had real trouble in Congress getting U.S. government support in the form of naval ships to form half the convoy to get the wire across the ocean.

The needed resolutions in the U.S. Congress barely passed, and President Franklin Pierce only signed them into law on his last day in office, March 3, 1857. Meantime, the Atlantic Telegraph Company, as the Bright/Brett/ Whitehouse/Field-organised company was named, had ordered up 2,500 miles of insulated cable, containing a single copper conductor made of seven twisted strands, surrounded by gutta percha insulation, protected and strengthened by eighteen surrounding iron wires coated with hemp and tar. Half the cable was loaded on the British battleship "Agamemnon" and the other half on the American frigate "Niagara", and the two sailed out of Valentia Bay, Ireland to begin laying across the Atlantic on July 30, 1857, managing to start in the short few weeks of relatively calm waters of the North Atlantic Ocean each year.

The "Niagara" paid out its portion from the Irish shore, which was to be spliced to the "Agamemnon's" portion in mid-ocean to finish the western half. After only thirty miles had been laid, the strain of the long end descending to the ocean bottom caused the cable to snap under its own weight. The project was once again a failure, further vindicating the plan of Western Union. No further attempts could be made in the short summer left in 1857.

Atlantic Telegraph gave it another try beginning June 10, 1858. Telegraph cable engineers had made considerable improvement in "deck engines" to handle cable paying out to the ocean bottom, and the plan was changed to have the two ships meet and splice their sections in mid-ocean, and each pay out their half toward their own shore. There was a ten-day storm at mid-ocean in which both ships nearly sank (which may explain the way cable ship sailors ever since have shown themselves to be willing to sail through almost anything on the ocean; just ask a mariner), and paying out finally began June 26. The cable broke after only three miles, but the ships rejoined, made another splice and started again. The cable broke again the following morning and the ships again rendezvoused to make a third splice and attempt.

On June 28, after laying only 112 miles of cable, the strain caused by sailing in the stormy waters broke the flooring in the cable tank that had been built into HMS "Agamemnon", the cable was damaged, and the ships had to sail back to port for repairs.

Field travelled to London for a showdown with the directors of Atlantic Telegraph, and managed to prevail, largely with the support of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), whose standing as a respected physicist swayed the rest. In the amazingly short period to July 29 of the same summer, the cable fleet spliced cable halves in mid-ocean and made a fourth attempt at a continuous lay. That very afternoon, a curious great whale inspected the new item in its habitat and grazed the cable, but did not break it. Later that night, a damaged portion of cable was found coming up from the tank, and workmen made a hurried repair on deck before it passed overboard. Finally, at 4 AM on August 5, "Niagara" entered Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, and Field rushed ashore to send a message to the press at New York. The two ships had maintained communication through the cable as it was being laid (a practice followed by every oceanic cable layer since, regardless of technology), so he could report that the cable was still intact. At 6 AM the same day, a message came across from "Agamemnon" that she had reached Valentia in Ireland.

A message flashed across Ireland and England to be carried out to Queen Victoria, who was banqueting with the Emperor of France on board a ship in Cherbourg harbour. On receiving the news, Queen Victoria immediately knighted the then 26-year-old Charles Bright _in_absentia_. There were a further eleven days described as "testing" in the Oslin version of the story, but English books are more frank about the matter. The truth is that in 1858, nobody knew what Ohm's Law really was (in fact, Georg Ohm had been ridiculed by many of his peers for suggesting his "law"); nobody knew what would happen to an electrical pulse in a piece of wire thousands of miles long, and nobody had an inkling of knowledge about any differences in potential between two points on the surface of the earth thousands of miles apart...all of which added up to the transmission of signals so feeble and slow that this cable was doomed to commercial, if not physical failure. The attitude of Western Union seemed ever more correct.

Finally, something had to be given to the public, because there were mass celebrations, fireworks and cannons being shot off in cities across the U.S., in anticipation of the public opening of the cable. So, on August 16, an attempt to transmit Queen Victoria's formal inaugural message to President Buchanan was made. Only 25 of the 72 words of the Queen were copyable from the weak and wavery pulses that arrived. The cable was clearly not going to be able to support a reliable commercial enterprise. The public didn't know that, of course, and Field and the Niagara's crew were treated as heroes at New York, with a parade and endless celebrations and rhetoric at stops all over the city.

By August 27, enough operation had been attained so a short news dispatch from Europe could be printed in the {New York Daily Tribune} as the world's first transoceanic press dispatch by electrical means. What wasn't being told was that it was taking hours and hours to send only a few words, what with repeats and repeats necessary to try to interpret the weak, wavery signals that had to be detected with a candle-lit mirror galvanometer on which earth currents registered higher than the actual signals. Three operators at a time had to stand and watch the beam trace on a wall at Newfoundland and make a majority guess about what the intended character was that was coming in.

Delays on the cable didn't get any better, and by a month later, on September 26, the press was frustrated to the point that the New York Leader printed. "Have we a pack of asses among us and are they specially engaged in electrical experiments over the Atlantic cable?" (Many of today's technologists can probably relate to that sort of treatment.) The original sending voltage applied to the cable had been about 600 volts. That British physician, Dr. Whitehouse, made one of the classic mistakes that's still today being made by telecommunications users -- when the signals didn't get through, he raised the voltage. Now, Lord Kelvin, the physicist director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, had reservations, but he was overridden by the non-technical "chief electrician," Dr. Whitehouse. Whitehouse cobbled together apparatus to raise the sending voltage to about 2,000 volts -- and the cable's insulation failed! After only three months of use and a total of 732 messages, the first cable across the Atlantic Ocean went dead, apparently forever. Western Union's plan to go around the world the long way was again shown to be the best.

Many people believed that Cyrus Field had actually committed a hoax that could outdo any of P.T. Barnum. An investigation was held by the British government in the interests of shareholders of Atlantic Telegraph. Field's own business was drenched in debt, and he managed only by personal influence to get that forgiven ... and he once again started in. Meantime, the technology was improving, and Charles Bright in England was beginning to knit together Queen Victoria's empire, with cables that moved outward, first to Portugal, then to Gibraltar, and through the Mediterranean to the Suez. Submarine cable telegraphy over great distances was beginning to prove itself in.

Werner von Siemens was engaged in a race to reach India overland, while Charles Bright was trying to beat him with a submarine cable route. Siemens eventually won (with a far longer telegraph line than the one trumpeted in American history for crossing North America), but Bright was not far behind, and Bright's work went on to connect South Africa and extend from India to Singapore to Australia within a short time, plus many spurs and waystations throughout Victoria's empire. With his close knowledge of Bright's successes, Field was able to once again establish a project for the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

British investors again rose to the challenge of backing a new attempt. Among them were self-interested people like John Pender a member of Parliament, John Chatterton, who made insulating material and R.A. Glass, a partner in the burgeoning Glass, Elliot that was making cables for Charles Bright to lay all over the world. Americans were still somnolent, preferring to take the advice of Western Union, in spite of Charles Bright's successes going around the world easterly from England to reach an ultimate goal of Australia by cable with his Eastern Telegraph Company, which was to become the antecedent of today's Cable and Wireless.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company took on such a British complexion that Field's name virtually dropped from the Brittanica for half a century. In England, the Gutta Percha Company and Glass, Elliott merged into the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, which wound up laying all of Bright's Eastern Telegraph and most of the submarine telegraph cables of the rest of the world, too. TC&M came up with an improved cable design based on its experience around the world, fabricated a new cable that was three times the diameter of the failed 1858 cable and weighed in at 9,000 tons in one 2,300 mile piece. To handle this chunk of copper and iron, TC&M had to purchase the largest ship in the world at the time, a ship sailors regarded as jinxed, the 700 foot long cargo ship originally named Leviathan, renamed it Great Eastern and fitted it out to be a cable ship.

The task of merely coiling up the 2,300 miles of cable in the three circular tanks of the ship took from January to June, 1865. A crew of 500 was needed to operate the ship, of which 200 were needed merely to raise its anchor. Supporting this crew and feeding it meant the Great Eastern carried a dozen oxen for deck work, plus twenty pigs for breeding meat while at sea, and a cow. Finally, on July 23, 1865 the Great Eastern started off from Valentia to attempt retracing the route of seven years earlier.

This attempt was almost as problem-filled as the first failed one in 1857. Several times, faults were found in the wire as it was paid out, and the operation had to stop for cable repairs on deck. On August 2, the cable broke after laying 1,186 miles of cable, and the end was lost to the ocean floor. Dragging and grappling for it for nine days, and losing the end after snagging it twice more than two miles under the water, the attempt was abandoned on August 11, 1865, and the expedition turned back to England.

This time, a new company had to be formed, called the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, which made 1,600 miles of more new cable, with again three times the tensile strength of even the previous year's cable. Again, Great Eastern and its fleet set off from Valentia Bay, Ireland, and started westward. The cable was, as in all previous attempts, operated from the deck of the ship, and was connected back through to England, so the English public knew of the progress. (This may have been the world's first press reports from the deck of a ship at sea, since in earlier attempts, the cable, while being operated, had not been connected through to shore.)

After a relatively trouble-free run of laying 1,896 miles of cable, Great Eastern arrived offshore from Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Being so large, Great Eastern could not approach the shore closely, so a smaller ship took aboard the shore end to make the connection to the cable station that had waited there for a replacement for eight years. The inhabitants were overjoyed, and celebrated, of course.

On July 27, 1866 Daniel Gooch, the cable laying engineer on board Great Eastern, sent a message back down the cable just before cutting the shore end off for transport to the cable station, informing Lord Stanley, the British Foreign Secretary, that the New World was once again connected with the Old. Cyrus Field was still there, and had ridden along on board Great Eastern (yet another tradition one sees in ocean cable laying to this day -- top executives go along for the ride when a new cable is being laid), and as before, he rushed ashore to telegraph the news to the U.S., but the line down to the States was out of order. He finally got to inform the U.S. two days after the transatlantic portion was completed, on July 29, with a message dated July 27.

This time, days and days of "testing" were not required, so Queen Victoria and (now) President Andrew Johnson exchanged formal opening messages on July 29, 1866. As an aftermath to final success, Great Eastern sailed back to sea, and after 30 attempts, managed to grapple the end of the 1865 cable it had lost the year before, splice to it, and lay a new end to Heart's Content. This meant that the first successful cable crossed the Atlantic on July 27, 1866 (with service to the U.S. on July 29) was duplicated on September 9, 1866. So, the first successful route had two cables from very early days.

As to operating details, the speed of transmission was eight words per minute (a speed that many submarine telegraph cables operated at for decades afterwards), and the rate for twenty words or less, *including* address, date and signature, was $100 in gold or $150 in greenback banknotes (which weren't any sort of "hard currency" in those days), while additional words were $5 in gold, $7.50 in greenbacks *each*.

Finally, on February 27, 1867, Western Union, after having its project stalled badly by Siberian winters, abandoned its attempt to reach Europe by way of Alaska and Siberia. (Western Union began to purchase into the operations of Anglo-American and would eventually lay a dozen or more submarine cables across the Atlantic, in addition to those of its competitors from France and Germany that landed in the U.S.

By 1928, there were 21 telegraph cables across the Atlantic to Canada and the U.S. As well, Western Union's expedition to Alaska has very clear ties to the U.S. purchasing Alaska from Russia, but that's beyond the focus of this story.) So, on either August 5, August 16 or August 27, 1858, there was telegraph connectivity of a feeble sort between the U.S. and the U.K. for three months, or beginning July 29, 1866 there was finally a permanent route.

However, that was *still* not a "cable between the U.S. and the U.K." That was a route via Canada. And, even though the French Atlantic Cable Company laid a "direct" cable to the U.S. from Brest via St. Pierre et Miquelon to Duxbury, Massachusetts, completing that first "direct U.S." cable on July 23, 1869, that cable went to France, not to the U.K.

Finally, there was a direct competitor to Anglo-American between the U.S. and the U.K. built sometime in 1870, by the Siemens Brothers, who were largely the only real competitors of the British Bright/Pender/Glass and affiliates operations around the world. The Direct United States Cable Company started to lay a cable from Ballinskelligs Bay, Ireland to Newfoundland, but was stonewalled by Anglo-American's exclusive landing rights with the Newfoundland government. So, Direct U.S. landed its cable at Halifax, Nova Scotia, then laid a connecting undersea cable from Halifax down to Rye Beach, New Hampshire.

If you want to be a purist about when the first DIRECT U.S. - U.K. cable was laid, it would have to be the Siemens-made Direct U.S. cable of 1870. The heyday of submarine telegraph cables is one full of history and quite some adventure. There are stories like the time a U.S. Coast Guard cutter fired shots across the bow of a Western Union cableship that attempted to land an unauthorised cable at Miami Beach.

In both WWI and WWII, an accepted act of war was to cut the enemy's submarine telegraph cables, splice onto them, and run them ashore to your own cable station -- and *keep* the captured cable after the war. Germany lost its cables to the U.S. in both World Wars that way, while the Allies cut Japanese cables throughout the Pacific, and only put them back together after the wars.

Stories abound about laying submarine cable right on top of the earth to cross whole islands and subcontinents, as an expedient way to establish a route, and it is even pretty well shown that Pender's Eastern Telegraph people probably did the first intentional jamming of an early Marconi radio demonstration in England back near the turn of the century. In fact, there was nobody else on the radio to do any jamming at that time!

The global network of British submarine telegraph cables had reached a staggering 155,000 *nautical* miles by the mid-1950's, before other means of international communications began to atrophy it. I have no figures for the total of all companies of all nations, but it is probably double that mileage, a figure that has not yet nearly been approached in total route mileage since the first transatlantic telephone cable of more than a century after that first transatlantic telegraph attempt. Oh, technologically, it was Britain's Telegraph Construction & Maintenance that came up with the concept of "coaxial" cables and polythene (later to become polyethylene) plastic insulation an improvement used in some of the last of the submarine telegraph cables, to which Bell Labs added "continuous loading" with permalloy tape. The combination got the speed of submarine telegraph cables up to as much as 2,800 characters per minute by 1928. This permitted a transmission rate high enough that Western Union even offered a "cablephoto" facsimile service in competition with RCA's "radiophotos" via shortwave radio. However, transmitting a cablephoto at up the total capacity of a cable that could handle far more revenue in cablegrams, so the cablephoto offering saw very little real use.

I hope this long answer to your short question wasn't boring. There's just far, far more to what actually was accomplished many years ago than most corporately-biased history books will tell. How about some digital telephony trivia:

Did you know that the first Bell Labs mathematical paper defining how to transmit speech digitally dates to 1914? That the first PCM channel bank was actually built at STC in England by Alec Reeves in 1937? Of course, it was a roomful of vaccum tubes then. There's so much rich history in telecommunications -- and we're about to see much of it get lost in a wave of revolutionary new technology if we don't get it documented now!

Donald E.Kimberlin


[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note:

... indeed Don, telecommunications history is very rich with details such as the reports you send us from time to time, and it *would* be lost forever if efforts were not made to document it. That is one reason why the Telecom Archives exists in the compre- hensive way it does, and why a large sub-directory within the Archives is devoted to /history ... that people might be aware of how things in telecom came to be the way they are; that they might be made aware of the early efforts of others, even more than a century ago, that brought us to the point we are at today.

This special issue of Telecom Digest will be filed in the Archives in the /history sub-directory for future reference. The Archives can be accessed using anonymous ftp Login anonymous, then use yourname@yoursite as password. When connected, 'cd telecom-archives'. After reviewing the master directory, then 'cd directory-of-choice' to read the many files available. If you need to use email to access the Archives, then the Telecom Archives Email Information Service is avail- able to you. Simply write me and request the archives help file. In addition to the history section, we have: -- an entire directory devoted to dialing instructions when calling other countries from the USA a variety of technical reports, along with the past thirteen years of TELECOM Digest back issues ... and a lot more.

Much of this is possible because the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, Switzerland supports TELECOM Digest with a generous monthly grant which partially funds my work with the Digest and the Archives. The remainder of the funding comes from readers such as yourself who wish to participate and help out as they see fit. Of course without MIT's donation of space for the Archives, they would not be possible, nor would the Digest itself without the patience and cooperation of Northwestern University's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which provides the resources for publishing the Digest and maintaining the Archives.

Enjoy the Archives and the Digest.

Patrick Townson TELECOM Digest Editor

© International Cable Protection Committee 1999 - 2024