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Transatlantic Cable Communications

"the Original Information Highway"

Canso & Hazel Hill

The Early Cable History

Where would Canso and Hazel Hill's place be in the history of communication, if not for the visions of great men who pioneered the notion of a submarine cable spanning the Atlantic? We have outlined many of the events surrounding the origin of the transatlantic cable. As well, many of the important individuals and technologies that made the cables possible will be explored.

The Century of Science

The history of Telegraphy could not be properly told without first describing the invention that planted its seed. The 1800's were described by author Bern Dibner as the age of Science. Dibner identifies recent centuries with the following labels:

On the eve of this Century, (the year 1800 to be exact), Alassandro Volta published a paper in the "Transaction of the Royal Society of England" describing the invention of the Voltaic pile (or battery). This gave the increasing number of experiments on either side of the Atlantic a new instrument - a source of constant flow electricity. By 1820, experiments had devised an electric arc that shone with extraordinary brilliance, water had been decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen and electroplating had been demonstrated. In 1820, Oersted had discovered that a magnetic field surrounded a wire carrying an electric current, thereby linking the two major phenomena of nature, electricity and magnetism - the second an ever present effect of the first. The invention of the electromagnetic telegraph was demonstrated by Samuel Morse in 1837. This invention was as revolutionary as the printing press some 400 years earlier.

One Of The First Great Electrical Inventions - The Telegraph

The electric telegraph was one of the first important and large-scale practical applications of the new electrical force. It shrank the distances across continents to almost nothing, for it took no longer to transmit a message across a continent than it did across a street. The first electric telegraph line was constructed between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, and the highways of Europe and America were soon lined by poles and crossarms carrying wires through which the silent electric messages streamed in ever increasing numbers.

Why A Transatlantic Cable ?

As lines spread across the continents, the world's distances shrank in inverse proportion. It was inevitable that when these networks reached eastward along the Atlantic Seaboard across states and provinces, over mountains and under rivers, bays and straits, the eastern most point of land in North America would eventually be reached. Similarly, moving westward the networks in Europe would stand paused at the Western Shore of Ireland. There then would remain the gap of nearly 2000 miles of Atlantic, a challenge to the scientist and entrepreneur. Such a challenge did not remain long unheeded in the adventuresome days of the mid 1800's.

Meet Mr. Frederick N. Gisborne

Frederick Gisborne was the Chief Officer of the Nova Scotia Telegraph Company and in 1851 he resigned to form the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company. His plan was to link Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The plan involved an overland cable approximately 400 miles long connecting Cape Ray, NFLD, and Saint John's, NFLD, combined with a steamboat connection between Cape Ray and Cape Breton. He envisioned an eventual submarine cable across the Cabot Strait. Interestingly enough, the Carrier Pigeon was also to play a part in his plan.

After covering only 30-40 miles of rugged Newfoundland terrain, Gisborne faced a significant crisis. One member of his party of six had died and the rest had nearly perished from starvation. What's more, his funds were basically cut off; he was sued and subsequently arrested under pressure from his creditors.

From Defeat Comes Ingenuity

Facing a company in bankruptcy and debts of some $50,000 owing to suppliers and the construction crew, Gisborne left Halifax and headed for New York in 1854. Having seen the success of the Dover/Calais line (from England to France) he abandoned his plan of steamboat/Carrier Pigeon and focused instead on laying a submarine cable.

[photograph of Cyrus Fields]
While in New York Gisborne met Matthew D. Field, a civil engineer, who introduced him to his brother Cyrus W. Field, (pictured at the left) a wealthy New York merchant. Cyrus W. Field had retired a year previously, with a considerable fortune in reserve, and was not really inclined to become involved with such a large undertaking, however, there was something about this Gisborne fellow that sparked his interest and entrepreneurial spirit. After the initial meeting, Cyrus retired to his library and found himself observing his globe. Trying to visualize how this line could become a reality he was struck by an idea, and what an idea it was. It would be of enormous advantage to extend this line across the Atlantic Ocean.

Could It Be Done????

Some ten years earlier Professor Morse stated that "a telegraphic communication line could certainly be established across the Atlantic Ocean". While considering the possibility of the Cable, Field found a host of new questions that would have to be answered:

  1. Could a cable of sufficient strength be built?
  2. Could a signal be sent this vast distance under submarine conditions?
  3. There were also Geological questions regarding the nature of the ocean bottom, the possibility of undersea tides and the possibility of undersea volcanic action.

To find answers to his questions, Cyrus Field sent two letters immediately. The first was sent to Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury, Lead of the National Observatory (Washington) and a prominent oceanographer. The second was sent to Professor Morse. Both responded punctually and their responses are summarized below.

Lieutenant Maury

Maury reported that Lieutenant Commander O.H. Berryman had completed a series of soundings the previous year from Newfoundland to Ireland across the Atlantic Ocean. He also investigated winds and currents in the area. Anticipating the possibility of a submarine telegraph line, Lieutenant Berryman found that the ocean floor in the 1600 miles between Nfld. and Ireland was primarily a plateau deep enough to clear icebergs and ship anchors, yet shallow enough to make a submarine line feasible. Lieutenant Maury, in an almost poetic conclusion to his report stated, "I do not, however, pretend to consider the question as to the possibility of finding a time calm enough, the sea smooth enough, a wire long enough, or a ship big enough to lay a coil of wire sixteen hundred miles in length".

Professor Morse

Professor Morse showed an even deeper interest in the questions raised by Mr. Field and replied that he would come to visit in New York in a few days. This he did, and what ensued was a harmonious and tremendously productive lifetime friendship. Professor Morse reiterated his report of ten years previous that he was certain the 1600 miles transmission of the signal was very possible.

And They're Off

Like a good race, thus began one of the great sagas in modern history, a venture which would touch the fields of science, politics, finance and geography. At this time Cyrus Field's eager and romantic vision did not foresee that what lay ahead was thirteen years and over forty trips across the Atlantic, which at that time took a considerable amount of time and was both hazardous and uncomfortable.

[Cyrus Field and Associates]A syndicate was formed of ten capitalists who were invited by Cyrus Field to join the venture team. In a matter of a few weeks the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company was formed and initial financing put in place. The most important feature of this newly chartered company was its exclusive cable landing rights in Newfoundland and Labrador for the next fifty years. The new enterprise began to move into high gear.

Laying The Cable

To lay a transatlantic cable takes a tremendous team effort. Cyrus Field assembled for this endeavor a team of talented and wealthy individuals from throughout the fields of commerce and science. Among the many influential people involved was Samuel Morse, who many of us know for the code that bears his name.

As with any new technology, laying this heavy cumbersome cable was no walk in the park. Two ships were involved in the initial undertaking. The Sarah L. Bryant, a wooden barque, had brought the cable to Newfoundland from England. It was to be towed by the steamer "Adger". Samuel Morse and a group of the other principals as well as journalists and members of the construction crew stood on the deck of the Adger on a clear, sunny summer day in 1855. After a brief ceremony in which Professor Morse described the operation of the telegraph instrument, the cable was anchored and the project set in motion.

Not suprisingly, the first enemy of the new cable was to be the Maritime weather. The portion of water between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia is one of the roughest straits in the world. Approximately halfway across, the calm was broken by a heavy gale that pitched the boat violently. To save the Sarah L. Bryant, the Captain ordered the cable cut. Thus 40 miles of cable were lost and the Adger returned to New York. In hindsight it was realized that a sail powered vessel was not suitable for laying cable. These vessels had no power of their own and had to be towed by other vessels making them somewhat unmanageable.

The first incident introduced some doubt in the minds of the directors of the company. However, a new cable was ordered and in the following year a cable was successfully laid. No cost estimate was found in our research for the lost 40 miles of cable, but one can be certain it was incredibly costly for the period. Perhaps even more difficult was the spanning of 400 miles of land lines. When finished in 1856, the telegraph network spanned nearly 1000 miles from New York to Saint John's, Newfoundland. Total cost for the project was well over a million dollars.

Now The Big Challenge

With telegraph service to Newfoundland, the group was at the threshold of their biggest challenge. They now had to lay a cable that would be over twenty two miles as long as their initial crossing. To confirm Berryman's notion that the floor of the Atlantic was flat plateau between the two continents, two more sounding studies were done. Lieutenant Maury named this area the Telegraphic Plateau. At its deepest point, about 200 miles off of Ireland, the ocean was 14,000 feet deep and over two and a half miles wide.

Gutta Percha

[picture of cable equipment]

What was Gutta Percha? This material, found just a few years earlier in Malaya, was introduced to Cyrus Field by Samuel Canning who would come to be a member of the company's English Contingent. From Samuel Canning, Mr. Field learned of the difficulties of keeping the copper wires in the cable insulated from the ocean conductive medium surrounding it. Gutta Percha seemed to have the required properties for this task.

Gutta Percha was produced by evaporating the milky fluid of the Gutta Percha Tree and coagulating the latex from which an inelastic firm insulator resulted, one that softened in hot water. It had a distinct advantage over india rubber that had been used in earlier cables because, on cooling, it became hard without becoming brittle. It was ideally suited for underwater use where the cold and pressure improved its insulating qualities. Submersion also kept the cable away from sunlight which had a deteriorating effect on the cable. The crossing was viewed by the scientists involved in the Gutta Percha work as the ultimate test of the material.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company

A new company was formed to execute the Atlantic Cable project a new company was formed. It was called the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Its mission was to complete the work of New York, Newfoundland, and London Company. The cost of the transatlantic cable was estimated to be about 350,000 pound sterling. This capital was raised in a matter of a few weeks by Cyrus Field and his associates. Many of those adventuresome individuals came to the new company with engineering and electrical skills and gave the effort much more of an American-British balance.

What followed over the next twelve years was a series of heartbreakers and triumphs that would dishearten even the most adventuresome scientist or entrepreneur. The cable business was new and there were no operating manuals or pre-set specifications to go by. In this business the cost of learning was millions of dollars, hundreds of miles of cable, political toil and struggle and even loss of life in some cases. Even though other successful projects were being completed there was not a great deal of communication of the technologies or strategies.

The Expediton Of 1857

[photo to the two ships]

Two ships, the Niagra and the Agamemnon, were to carry and lay the cable. Each ship took on 1300 miles of cable.

Two approaches were considered by the engineers for laying the cable. One approach would be the first ship to fully pay out its load and then have the cable spliced to the end of the cable on the second. The second ship would then complete the job. The other approach involved having both ships meet at the midpoint of the ocean, splice their cables and then pay it out in both directions until the respective shores were reached.

Interestingly, the electricians favored the first method, and the engineers the second. The electricians who lost the argument were redeemed eventually when the first expedition failed.

On a fine August 5 morning the cable was connected to the Irish shore in a festive send-off. Only five miles were laid when the cable caught up in the ship's machinery and broke. This was quickly repaired and the mission continued. To ensure that the cable remained intact, signals were continuously broadcast over the line. After 10 days, disaster struck. A worried engineer fearing the cable was paying out too fast applied the brakes which grabbed solidly and broke the cable. Three hundred miles of cable was lost at sea.

Lesson # 1: Anti-lock Brakes Would Be Needed!

The Expediton Of 1858

[Photo of anit-lock brake system]After the failure of the 1857 expedition, Cyrus Field raised the capital to have a second attempt launched. Seven hundred miles of cable was ordered to replace that lost the previous year. Every detail of the laying procedure was reviewed and some revisions were to be made to the cable laying equipment. Anti-lock brakes were designed and installed and a new method of paying cables was instituted.

A poem had been written on the 1857 Expedition.

Pay it out, Oh! Pay it out.
As long as you are able;
For if you put the darned brakes on
Pop goes the cable.

For the second expedition the trip strategy makers decided to listen to the engineers and lay the cable from the mid-ocean point out in both directions.

On this expedition a new and recently invented device was put in use. Professor Thompson had invented something called a mirror galvanometer. This came to be an essential part of cable laying.

The Mirror Galvanometer Or Marine Galvanometer

This instrument consisted of a small but exceedingly light steel magnet to which a tiny reflecting mirror was attached. This assembly weighed no more than a grain and was suspended from its center by a filament of silk. Around this was wound a coil of very thin insulated copper wire. When an electric current passed through the surrounding coil, the suspended magnet would move in proportion to the magnetic field built up by the current in the coil. A ray of light passing from a shaded lamp through a slat in a screen would be reflected from the mirror onto a graduated scale. Even a small charge would cause a pronounced movement on the scale. The marine galvanometer greatly improved the ability to receive messages. This instrument was capable of receiving 20 words per minute when previous devices could only receive two.

When assembled at mid ocean floor for attempt number two, the cable ships once again parted ways. After only three miles the cable broke. Both ships returned and tried again. This time the ships were 80 miles apart before the cable broke again. Once again they met in the middle and started over. On their third attempt almost 200 miles of cable was successfully laid before the final defeat was felt. As before, defeat came in the form of a last signal over the cable identifying a break.

Finally A Triumph

After veering dangerously off course the crew of one of the ships made another discovery. A hull full of electrically charged cable was not good for a ship's compass; a pilot boat was thenceforth used to keep the cable ships on target.

On Thursday August 5, 1858, the ship Niagra anchored at Newfoundland coast having laid 1016 miles of cable. Just days later the cable was successfully landed in Ireland.

A Celebration Of Worldly Proportions

The men who just weeks earlier were viewed as lunatics and failures were now embraced by the world as heroes. Nationalism soared as dignitaries honored the company for making connection between these two great continents. When Cyrus Field reached New York with the other directors of the company, a celebration was staged that was comparable to the ending of the war. Unfortunately for the company, the new cable worked fine for about four weeks, then the line went dead, tossing into doubt once again the grand plan of Cyrus Field.

The Cable Of 1865

Nearly six years after the last attempt had ended with the rupture of a cable, the 1865 expedition was put together. The Civil War was on in America so the company's efforts were under some time pressures. The actual cable to be laid was a significant improvement over previous cables and was put through a rigid battery of tests. This time, instead of fabricating a cable in pieces, the entire cable (2700 miles) was made in one piece. Only the "Great Eastern" would be big enough to carry this enormous weight. The cable took eight months to complete (approx. 14 miles per day). When finally loaded, the Great Eastern weighed 21,000 tons, as much as a whole fleet of ships or a small army.

At a point 73 miles from the Irish Coast, a malfunction occurred. For the first time, the cable was collected back onto the ship, repaired and once again payed out. A day or two later a similar fault occurred. Observation showed that in both cases, an object had pierced the cable. The leaders of the expedition became suspicious that someone had attempted to sabotage the project and had a 24 hour security watch put on the cable tanks. It seemed that the same crew had been on duty when both mishaps occurred.

[photo of grapplings & anchors]Disaster was never very far away, and with only 600 miles or so left to go, the cable fouled up and the end slipped into the sea. At a depth of two and a half miles, the crew struggled for a few days to grapple the cable and bring it to the surface. After nine days and nights no alternative was left but to head for home to get the necessary equipment to rescue the cable.

The Cable of 1866

This time around, the principals and supporters of the initiative did not feel totally defeated. They were planning to salvage the cable and complete the circuit. Since political will and investor discouragement made each expedition progressively more difficult to finance, this time it was decided a whole new company should be formed to raise the capital. The strategy for the mission would be to rescue the failed cable as well as stringing a parallel cable. This new venture was called The Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

On July 13, 1866, the Great Eastern, a magnificent ship of its day left Valencia, Ireland paying out the cable all the way to Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland landing the shore end on July 27th.

Final Success

From Heart's Content, Cyrus Field sent the following message on July 27, 1866...

"We arrived here at nine o'clock this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid, and is in perfect working order."

The Great Eastern quickly returned to sea and on August 12th began grappling for the broken cable of 1865, 680 miles from Newfoundland. The cable was eventually lifted on September 1, spliced and cable payed out until September 17, 1866. The cable was also landed at Heart's Content completing a second parallel circuit for the transatlantic cable. Many dreams were fulfilled with this momentous event.

[image of men hauling cable line]

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