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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
After loading their respective halves of the cable, the two warships (with their escorts, the Susquehanna and the Leopard ) sailed to their rendezvous at Valentia Bay, County Kerry. The plan that had been adopted, at the insistence of the directors, was for the Niagara to lay the whole of her cable westward from Ireland and for the Agamemnon to splice on in midAtlantic and then complete the job. This would have the advantage that the expedition would be in continual contact with land and could report progress through the unwinding cable all the way across the Atlantic. On the other hand, if the ships arrived in mid-ocean during bad weather, and it was impossible to make the splice, half the cable would be lost.
The cable-laying began on Thursday, August 6, 1857. Almost at once there was a minor but annoying setback: five miles out, the cable caught in the primitive paying-out mechanism and broke. It was necessary to go back to the beginning, lift the section that had already been laid, and run along it until the break was reached.
“At length,” Cyrus Field’s brother Henry wrote, in his history of the cable-laying, “the end was lifted out of the water and spliced to the gigantic coil (i.e., the 1,250 miles in the Niagara ’s hold) and as it dipped safely to the bottom of the sea, the mighty ship began to stir. At first she moved very slowly, not more than two miles an hour, to avoid the danger of accident; but the feeling that they are away at last is itself a relief. The ships are all in sight, and so near that they can hear each other’s bells. The Niagara , as if knowing that she is bound for the land out of whose forests she came, bends her head to the waves, as her prow is turned towards her native shores.”
All went well for the next three days, as reported in the London Times: The cable was paid out at a speed a little faster than the ship, to allow or any inequalities at the bottom of the sea. While it was thus going overboard, communication was kept up constantly with the land. Every moment the current was passing between ship and shore.… On Monday they were over 200 miles to sea. They had got far beyond the shallow waters of the coast. They had passed over the submarine mountain … where Mr. Bright’s log gives a descent from 550 to 1750 fathoms within eight miles. Then they came to the deeper waters of the Atlantic, where the cable sank to the awful depth of two thousand fathoms. Still the iron cord buried itself in the waves, and every instant the flash of light in the darkened telegraph room told of the passage of the electric current.…
But not for much longer—for at nine o’clock that morning the line suddenly went dead. There was a gloomy consultation among the engineers and all hope had been abandoned when, quite unexpectedly, signals started coming through again. This two and a half hour break in continuity was never satisfactorily explained; it might have been due to a faulty connection in the equipment at either end, or to a flaw in the cable itself.
This was a disturbing setback, but the next day brought catastrophe. The cable had been running out so rapidly (at six miles an hour against the ship’s four) that it was necessary to tighten the brake on the paying-out mechanism. By an unfortunate error, the tension was applied too suddenly, and the cable snapped under the strain.
There was nothing to do but to postpone the attempt until the next year, since the amount of cable in the tanks was not sufficient to risk another try. But Field and his colleagues, though disappointed, were not despondent. They had successfully laid 335 miles of cable, a third of it in water more than two miles deep, and had been in telegraphic communication with land until the moment the line had parted. This proved, it seemed to them, that there was nothing impossible in the job they were attempting.
[The Niagara and the Agamemnon returned to England and deposited the remaining 2,200 miles of cable at Plymouth. After Field returned to the United States, he somehow succeeded, despite the fact that the Panic of 1857 was in full swing, in raising enough American and British capital for the next year’s effort. He used some of it to order 700 additional miles of cable. Meanwhile, two technical improvements were made. To prevent a repetition of the cable-snapping, a new paying-out mechanism was designed, with a brake that would automatically release if too much tension were applied. And in his laboratory at Glasgow University Professor Thomson developed his famous mirror galvanometer, a much more sensitive signal detector which would enable messages to be sent over the cable much more quickly once it was successfully laid.]
In the spring of 1858, the great enterprise got under way again. Once more the Agamemnon and the Niagara were commissioned as cable-layers and the Admiralty provided the sloop Gorgon as an escort. At Field’s urging, the British Navy also loaned him the Valorous as a replacement for the U.S.S. Susquehanna , quarantined in the West Indies with yellow fever aboard.