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“i’ll Put A Girdle Round The Earth In Forty Minutes”
It took a decade of effort, heart-breaking disappointments, and the largest ship afloat before Cyrus Field could lay a successful cable across the Atlantic
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
A new splice was made and paying out started again. This time only half a mile had gone overboard before the cable went dead. Russell remarked despairingly: Such a Penelope’s web in 24 hours, all out of this single thread, was surely disheartening. The cable in the fore and main tanks answered to the tests most perfectly. But that cable which went seaward was sullen, and broke not its sulky silence. Even the gentle equanimity and confidence of Mr. Field were shaken in that supreme hour, and in his heart he may have sheltered the thought that the dream of his life was indeed but a chimera.…
Luckily, the fault cleared itself; almost certainly it did not lie in the cable, but in the instruments or connections either at Valentia or aboard the ship. “The index light suddenly reappeared on its path in the testing room, and the wearied watchers were gladdened by the lighting of the beacon of hope once more.”
On the fourth day, July 26, the Great Eastern ran into heavy seas, which made it hard for the Sphinx and the Terrible to keep up with her. As she forged ahead at a steady six knots, hardly affected by the waves which battered her little escorts, the Sphinx slowly dropped astern and at last disappeared from view. This was a serious loss to the expedition, because owing to some oversight the Sphinx carried the only set of sounding gear.
The Great Eastern plowed on across the waves, spinning out her iron-and-copper thread.
There was a wonderful sense of power in the Great Ship and in her work; it was gratifying to human pride to feel that man was mastering space, and triumphing over the wind and waves; that from his hands down into the eternal night of waters there was trailing a slender channel through which the obedient lightning would flash forever instinct with the sympathies, passions, and interests of two mighty nations.
On the afternoon of the seventh day, when 716 miles had been paid out, the alarms went again. The fault was close to the ship, so once more the cable was cut, secured by wire ropes, and hauled round to the bow for picking up.
Thousands of fathoms down we knew the end of the cable was dragging along the bottom, fiercely tugged at by the Great Eastern through its iron line. If the line or cable parted, down sank the cable forever.…At last our minds were set at rest; the iron wire rope was at length coming in over the bows through the picking up machinery. In due but in weary time, the end of the cable appeared above the surface, and was hauled on board and passed aft towards the drum. The stern is on these occasions deserted; the clack of wheels, before so active, ceases; and the forward part of the vessel is crowded with those engaged on the work, and with those who have only to look on…the two eccentriclooking engines working the pickup drums and wheels make as much noise as possible … and all is life and bustle forward, as with slow unequal straining the cable is dragged up from its watery bed.
It required nineteen hours of this nervous work before the fault was reached—though it would have taken only a few minutes if suitable equipment had been installed at the stern. The cable was respliced, paying out commenced once more, and a committee of inquiry started to examine the faulty coils piled on deck.
Concern changed to anger when it was found that the cable had been damaged in precisely the same manner as before, by a piece of wire forced into it. “No man who saw it could doubt that the wire had been driven in by a skilful hand,” Russell comments, and it was pointed out that the same gang of workmen had been on duty when the earlier fault occurred. The sabotage theory seemed virtually proved, and a team of inspectors was at once formed so that there would always be someone in the cable tank to keep an eye on the workmen.
On the morning of August 2, the Great Eastern had completed almost three-quarters of her task.
Cyrus Field was one of the watchers on duty in the cable tank that morning. About 6 A.M. there was a grating noise and one of the workmen yelled, “There goes a piece of wire!” Field shouted a warning, but it did not reach the officer at the paying-out gear quickly enough. Before the ship could be stopped, the fault had gone overboard.
This time, it was not a complete short-circuit; the cable was usable, but no longer up to specification. Though Professor Thomson thought it could still transmit four words a minute—which would be enough to make it pay its way—Chief Engineer Canning decided not to take a risk. If he completed the cable, and the customer refused to accept it, his company would be ruined.
In any case, picking up a faulty section of cable was now a routine matter; the men had had plenty of practice on this trip. Canning had no reason to doubt that after a few hours delay, the Great Eastern could continue on the last 700 miles of her journey.
The cable was cut, taken round to the bows, and the hauling-up process began again. While this was going on, one of the workmen in the tank discovered some broken armoring wires on the piece of cable that had been lying immediately below the faulty section; the iron was brittle and had snapped under the tremendous weight of the coils above it. This, said Russell, “gave a new turn to men’s thoughts at once. What we had taken for assassination might have been suicide!”