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


The Great Eastern was now over waters 2,000 fathoms deep, though the exact depth was not known, owing to the absence of the Sphinx with the only set of sounding gear. From the start, the picking-up process failed to go smoothly. First the machinery gave trouble; then the wind made the Great Eastern veer around so that the cable did not come straight over the sheaves. It started to chafe against the ship, and when the picking-up machinery began to work once more, the strain on the cable proved too great for the weakened portion. “The cable parted … and with one bound flashed into the sea.… There around us lay the placid Atlantic, smiling in the sun, and not a dimple to show where lay so many hopes buried.”

[Now began a lonely and dramatic battle in the middle of the ocean. With a five-pronged grapnel the Great Eastern began to probe the Atlantic ooze two and a half miles down, fishing for the severed cable. Having no single line long enough to reach the ocean floor, the ship’s officers improvised one from two dozen sections of wire rope, each 600 feet long, joined together by shackles. Twice the cable was hooked and brought part way to the surface, but each time a shackle broke and the ponderous cable sank again. Crew members did succeed, however, in dropping a buoy to mark their position, and this was to prove exceedingly useful later on. On the third try the line twisted in one of the grapnel’s flukes and the grapnel came up empty.]

The fourth attempt was made the next day, and on the afternoon of August 11, the cable was hooked again.

It was too much [wrote Russell] to stand by and witness the terrible struggle between the … hawser, which was coming in fast, the relentless iron-clad capstan, and the fierce resolute power in the black sea.… But it was beyond peradventure that the Atlantic Cable had been hooked and struck, and was coming up from its oozy bed. What alternations of hopes and fears! … Some remained below in the saloons, fastened their eyes on unread pages of books, or gave expression to their feelings in fitful notes upon piano or violin.… None liked to go forward, where every jar of the machinery made their hearts leap into their mouths.…

It was dark and raw that evening, and after dinner Russell left the saloon and walked up and down the deck under the shelter of the ship’s paddle box.

I was going forward when the whistle blew, and I heard cries of “Stop it!” in the bows, shouts of “Look outl” and agitated exclamations. Then there was silence. I knew at once that all was over. The machinery stood still in the bows, and for a moment every man was fixed, as if turned to stone. Our last bolt was sped. The hawser had snapped, and nigh two miles more of iron coils and wire were added to the entanglement of the great labyrinth made by the Great Eastern in the bed of the ocean.…

There was a profound silence on board the Big Ship. She struggled against the helm for a moment as though she still yearned to pursue her course to the west, then bowed to the angry sea in admission of defeat, and moved slowly to meet the rising sun. The signal lanterns flashed from the Terrible “Farewelll” The lights from our paddlebox pierced the night “Good-bye! Thank you,” in sad acknowledgment. Then each sped on her way in solitude and darkness.

The 1865 expedition had been yet another failure—but with a difference. It had proved so many important points that there could no longer be any reasonable doubt that a transatlantic cable could be laid. The Great Eastern had demonstrated, through her stability and handling qualities, that she was the perfect ship for the task; the cable itself was excellent, apart from the brittle armoring which could easily be improved—and, most important of all, it had been shown that a lost cable could be found and lifted in water more than two miles deep.

[By early 1866, Field and his British associates had succeeded in raising another £600,000. They ordered 1,600 additional miles of cable (the brittle armoring was replaced by a more ductile covering of galvanized iron), obtained the loan of the H.M.S. Terrible from the Admiralty, chartered two more ships, the Albany and the Medway, and in July were back in Valentia Bay with the Great Eastern and the rest of the telegraph fleet, ready for another try.]

On Friday, the thirteenth of July, 1866, the Great Eastern sailed again from Valentia Bay. Those who disliked the date were reminded that Columbus sailed for the New World on a Friday—and arrived on one.

At a steady and uneventful five knots, Brunei’s masterpiece plodded across the Atlantic, paying out the cable with clockwork regularity. The only incident on the entire fourteen days of the voyage was when the cable running out from the tank caught in an adjacent coil, and there was a tangle which caused a few anxious moments before it was straightened out.