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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
Unable to obtain all the backing he needed on this side of the Atlantic, in 1856 Field went to England. There Professor Morse constructed a replica of the proposed Atlantic cable by connecting ten circuits each 200 miles long (using the London-Kirmingham line) and succeeded in passing up to 200 signals a minute through it. On the strength of Morse’s successful results, Field obtained a British treasury subsidy of £14,000 a year—4 per cent of the £350,000 capital that the project was expected to cost—for the consideration that the prospective telegraph company would give British government messages priority over everything but those of the American government. In addition, the British Navy pledged facilities for surveying the route and laying the cable.]
The cast of characters for the forthcoming production was now assembled. The most important was a brilliant young telegraph engineer named Charles Tilson Bright, who at the incredible age of 24 now became chief engineer for one of the most ambitious projects of the century.
Charles Bright was another of those phenomenal Victorians who sometimes make one wonder if the human race has since deteriorated. When only nineteen he had laid a complete system of telegraph wires under the streets of Manchester in a single night without causing any disturbance to traffic. A year later he had taken out 24 patents for basic inventions, some of which—such as the porcelain insulator for overhead wires—are still in use.
A man of action as well as a brilliant engineer, Mright became a member of Parliament at 33 and died at the early age of 55, burned out by his exertions. His monument is a network of telegraph cables stretching more than hallway round the globe and linking together all the countries of the world.
Bright had become interested in the Atlantic telegraph even earlier than Field. Between 1853 and 1855 he had conducted experiments to study the propagation of signals through two thousand miles of line, using lor this purpose the ten circuits of 200 miles each between London and Manchester, connected in series. In the summer of 1855 he had carried out a survey of the Irish coast and had decided that Valentia Bay, near the southwest tip of Ireland, was the best place to land a transatlantic cable. This decision has been endorsed by every company which has taken a cable to Ireland for the last hundred years.
A much less fortunate appointment was that of Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse as the company’s electrician. Dr. Whitehouse was a Brighton surgeon who had interested himself in telegraphy and had acquired a considerable knowledge of the subject by practical experimenting. He was a man of strong personality and fixed ideas, and although his enthusiasm did much to get the company started in its early days, his refusal to recogni/e his limitations was later to bring disaster.
The first meeting of the Atlantic Telegraph Company took place at Liverpool on November 12, 1850, and Field, Bright, and John Watkins Brett, a retired antique dealer who with his brother Jacob had laid a cable across the English Channel in 1850, outlined the commercial prospects of the enterprise with such elfect that the entire £350,000 was subscribed in a few days. Field took up £75,000 this, not for his own benefit but on behalf—as he fondly imagined—of his fellow Americans. When he got back to his own country, however, he had the utmost difficulty in unloading even £27,000 of this amount and was left holding the remainder himself.
Most of the capital was taken up by British business houses, though among the private subscribers it is interesting to note the names of Lady Byron and William Makepeace Thackeray. These literary figures were obviously keener on progress than their contemporary Thoreau, who had written in Walden two years before: We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph lioni Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Wc are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, napping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping-cough.…
[Field expected the same co-operation from his own government us he had received in Britain, but in Washington he ran into congressional opposition, bused partly on financial grounds (several congressmen objected to the $70,000 a year the government would have to pay for telegraph service), and partly on fear of political entanglements—Senator James C. Jones of Tennessee remarking that “he did not want anything to do with England or Englishmen.” Rut on March g, 1857, by a single vote, a bill was passed granting the subsidy which would guarantee a steady income for the cable company and providing for ships to help in the cable-laying.]