“i’ll Put A Girdle Round The Earth In Forty Minutes”


But the problem of raising money for another attempt seemed insurmountable. Before the committee the secretary of the Atlantic Cable Company had recounted his efforts to raise capital among British businessmen. “We have no doubt induced a great many persons to subscribe,” he said, “but they do so as they would to a charity, and in sums of corresponding amount.…”

Between 1861 and 1864, Cyrus Field had similar troubles in America. In addition to the distrust engendered by earlier cable failures, American financiers were now caught up in the Civil War; England’s apparent friendliness to the Confederacy did not make Field’s task any easier. Nevertheless, by 1864, there was £600,000 in the bank, only about one-tenth of it from U.S. sources. The next attempt would be largely a British effort.]

The next problem was to decide the design of the new cable. This time there was no headlong rush to get it manufactured and laid before proper tests had been carried out; everyone knew what that policy had cost. Scores of samples were examined and submitted to every conceivable electrical and mechanical ordeal; the design finally approved had a conducting core three times as large as the 1858 cable and was much more heavily armored. It could stand a breaking strain of eight tons, compared with only three for the previous cable, and was over an inch in diameter. Though it weighed one and three-quarter tons per mile, and was thus almost twice as heavy as its ill-fated predecessor, its weight when submerged in water was considerably less. This meant that the strain it would have to bear while being laid was also reduced, owing to the increased buoyancy. Indeed, ten miles of it could hang vertically in water before it would snap under its own weight; this was four times as great a length as would ever be suspended from a cable ship sailing across the North Atlantic, where there could never be more than two and a half miles of water beneath the keel.

In every respect, the new cable was a vast improvement over any that had been built before. And yet, despite all the thought, skill, and care that had gone into its construction, hidden within it were the seeds of future disaster.

By the end of May, 1865, the 2,600 miles of cable had been completed. The earlier cable had required two ships to lay it. But this time, by one of history’s fortunate accidents, the only ship in the world that could carry such a load was looking for a job. In the Atlantic cable, the fabulous Great Eastern met her destiny and at last achieved the triumph that she had so long been denied.

This magnificent but unlucky ship had been launched seven years before, but had never been a commercial success. This was due partly to the stupidity of her owners, partly to the machinations of John Scott Russell, her brilliant but unscrupulous builder, and partly to sheer accidents of storm and sea.∗

∗ James Dugan’s book The Great Iron Ship is a valuable and highly entertaining history of this wonderful vessel, but unfortunately reports the legend that the skeleton of a riveter was found inside her double hull when she was broken up. This story is much too good to be true, and isn’t. Dugan is also far too kind to Russell, whose evil genius not only laid a burden on the Great Eastern from which she never recovered, but undoubtedly contributed to the death of her designer. For this side of the story, see L. T. C. Roll’s important biography, Isambard Kingdom Brunel .

Nearly seven hundred feet long, with a displacement of 22,500 tons, the Great Eastern was not exceeded in size until the Lusitania was launched in 1906–48 years later. She was the brain child of Isambard Kingdom Brunei, the Victorian era’s greatest engineering genius —perhaps, indeed, the only man in the last 500 years to come within hailing distance of Leonardo da Vinci. Brunei built magnificent stone and iron bridges which are standing to this day (the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol is his most famous, though it was completed after his death) and threw superbly landscaped railways over most of southern England.

Of all his feats, the Great Eastern was his last and mightiest. Though five times the size of any other ship in the world, she was no mere example—as some have suggested—of engineering megalomania. Brunei was the first man to grasp the fact that the larger a ship, the more efficient she can be, because carrying capacity increases at a more rapid rate than the power needed to drive the hull through the water. (The first depends on the cube of the linear dimensions, the second only on the square.)

Having realized this, Brunei then had the courage to follow the mathematics to its logical conclusion and designed a ship that would be sufficiently large to carry enough coal for the round trip to Australia. (Little more than a decade before, learned theoreticians had “proved” that it was impossible for a steamdriven vessel even to cross the Atlantic.)