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


With her five funnels, six masts, and superb lines, the Great Eastern still remains one of the most beautiful ships ever built, though the absence of a superstructure makes her look a little strange to modern eyes. It is impossible to write of her without using superlatives; her 58-foot paddle wheels and 24-foot screw have never been exceeded in size, and now never will be. This dual-propulsion system made her the most maneuverable ocean liner ever built; by throwing one wheel into reverse, she could rotate around her own axis as if standing on a turntable.

By 1865, the Great Eastern had bankrupted a succession of owners and had lost well over a million pounds. Put up at auction without reserve, the floating white elephant was knocked down for a mere £25,000—about a thirtieth of her original cost. The buyers, headed by Daniel Gooch, chairman of the Great Western Railway, had already arranged with Cyrus Field to use the ship for laying the new cable; they were so confident she could do it that they had offered her services free of charge in the event of failure.

To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship. The drums, sheaves, and dynamometers of the laying mechanism occupied a large part of the stern decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space. When the ship sailed from the Medway on June 24, 1865, she carried 7,000 tons of cable, 8,000 tons of coal, and provisions for 500 men. Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a seagoing farm. Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, 120 sheep, and a whole cackling poultry yard of fowl.

Many of the pioneers—one might say survivors—of the earlier expeditions were aboard. Among them were Field himself (the only American among 500 Britishers); Professor Thomson; Samuel Canning, chief engineer of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Corrpany; and C. V. de Sauty, the company’s electrician. Commanding the ship was Captain James Anderson, but in all matters relating to the cable-laying Canning had supreme authority. Dr. Whitehouse was not aboard, even as a passenger.

This time, with all the cable for the entire job in a single ship, there was no problem of splicing in midAtlantic; the Great Eastern would sail straight from Ireland to Newfoundland. Thanks to the presence on board of Sir W. H. Russell, the famous war correspondent of the London Times , we have a complete record of the voyage, which was later published in a splendidly illustrated volume with lithographs by Robert Dudley.

The shore end of the cable was landed at Foilhommerum Bay, a wild and desolate little cove five miles from Valentia Harbor. The shore end was spliced aboard the Great Eastern , and on the evening of July 23, 1865, she turned her bows toward her distant goal. The escorting warships Terrible and Sphinx , which had ranged up alongside, and sent their crews up into the shrouds and up to the tops to give her a parting cheer, delivered their friendly broadsides with vigour, and received a similar greeting. Their colours were hauled down, and as the sun set, a broad stream of golden light was thrown across the smooth billows towards the bows as if to indicate and illumine the path marked out by the hand of heaven. The brake was eased, and as the Great Eastern moved ahead, the machinery of the paying-out apparatus began to work, drums rolled, wheels whirled, and out spun the black line of the cable, and dipped in a graceful curve into the sea over the stern wheel.…

As Russell remarked, “happy is the cable-laying that has no history.” This laying was to have altogether too much. The next morning, 84 miles out, the testing instruments indicated an electrical fault at some distance from the ship. There was nothing to do but haul the cable aboard until the trouble was found.

At first sight, this would seem to be a fairly straightforward operation. But with the Great Eastern , as she was now fitted out, it was nothing of the sort. She could not move backwards and pick up cable over the stern, where it was paying out, because she would not steer properly in reverse and also because of the danger of the cable fouling her screw. So the cable had to be secured by wire tackle, cut, and transferred the 700 feet to the bow. As Russell describes it: Then began an orderly tumult of men with stoppers and guy ropes along the bulwarks, and in the shrouds, and over the boats, from stem to stern, as length after length of the wire rope flew out after the cable. The men…were skilful at their work, but as they clamoured and clambered along the sides, and over the boats, and round the paddleboxes, hauling at hawsers, and slipping bights, and holding on and letting go stoppers, the sense of risk and fear for the cable could not be got out of one’s head.

It took ten hours to haul in as many miles of cable. When the fault was discovered, it was a very disturbing one. A piece of iron wire, two inches long, had been driven right through the cable, producing a short-circuit between the conducting core and the sea. It might have been an accident; but it looked very much like sabotage.