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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
This time, at the insistence of the engineers, it was decided to start from mid-Atlantic and let the ships lay the cable in opposite directions. Not only would this be more economical in time, but it would mean that the all-important splice could be made at leisure, when weather conditions were most suitable.
After some initial tests in the Bay of Biscay (where, almost a hundred years later, the components of the Atlantic telephone cable also had their baptism of deep water), the little fleet sailed from Plymouth under fair skies on June 10, 1858. Once again Whitehouse had asked to be excused on medical grounds, and once again Thomson took his place—unpaid. It was lucky for Whitehouse that he stayed on land, for only two days after they had left harbor beneath clear skies, the four ships ran into one of the worst Atlantic storms ever recorded.
They were scattered over the face of the sea, each ship fighting desperately for its life. The Agamemnon was in particular danger, made almost unmanageable by the 1,300 tons of cable in her hold and by the more serious hazard of 250 tons coiled on deck. As Nicholas Woods reported in the London Times: But all things have an end, and this long gale—of over a week’s duration—at last blew itself out, and the weary ocean rocked itself to rest.… As we approached the place of meeting the angry sea went down. The Valorous hove in sight at noon; in the afternoon the Niagara came in from the north; and at even, the Gorgon from the south; and then, almost for the first time since starting, the squadron was reunited near the spot where the great work was to have commenced fifteen days previously—as tranquil in the middle of the Atlantic as if in Plymouth Sound.
After this ordeal, one would have thought the expedition had earned the right to success. The battered vessels were made shipshape, the cable ends were spliced together, and on June 26 the Niagara sailed west for Newfoundland and the Agamemnon headed east toward Ireland.
They had gone only three miles when the cable fouled the paying-out machinery on board the Niagara and snapped. This was anticlimax number one, but nobody was too upset, since little time and cable had been lost.
On the second attempt the ships got eighty miles apart before anything went wrong. Then they suddenly lost telegraphic contact, and each assumed that the cable had broken aboard the other. They hurried back to the rendezvous and hailed each other simultaneously with the words, “How did the cable part?” It was very disconcerting to find no explanation for what had happened; for some unknown reason, the cable had broken on the sea bed.
A third time the splice was made and, no doubt with all aboard wondering when they would meet again, the ships sailed apart once more. Unfortunately, it was not a case of third time lucky. After 200 miles had been paid out, the cable parted on the Agamemnon . The ships were now short of provisions, and according to prearranged plans they headed back independently to Ireland for a council of war.
It was an unhappy board of directors that met to consider the next move. Some, in despair, wished to sell the remaining cable and abandon the whole enterprise. But Field and Thomson argued for a fresh attempt, and in the end their counsel prevailed. The faint-hearted directors resigned in disgust at such stubborn foolishness, but by July 29 the ships were back in mid-Atlantic, ready for the fourth try.
There was no ceremony or enthusiasm this time when the splice went overboard and the ships parted. Many felt that they were on a fool’s errand; as Field’s brother remarked in his memoirs, “All hoped for success, no-one dared to expect it.”
And certainly no one could have guessed that they were about to achieve, in the highest degree, both success and failure.
It was just as well for the American press that it had no representative on board the Niagara , for the westward voyage was a monotonously peaceful one, with the cable paying out uneventfully hour after hour. The only excitement was in the electricians’ cabin, for twice during the week the signals from the Agamemnon failed but came back again in full strength after a few hours’ anxiety. Apart from this, the Niagara ’s log records “light breeze and moderate sea” almost all the way, until the moment she arrived in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, with her 1,030 miles of cable safely strung across the bed of the Atlantic.