“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
Quite apart from the extreme danger to the cable, the need to maintain speed caused the supply of coal to dwindle at an alarming rate. At one time it looked as if it would be necessary to start burning up the spars and planking in a grand finale like the last lap of Around the World in 80 Days . But luckily the gale slowly abated; both the Agamemnon and her cable had weathered the storm.
There was a brief flurry of excitement toward the end of the voyage when an inquisitive American barque bore down upon the telegraph fleet as it plowed along on its predetermined and unalterable course. The escorting Valorous had to fire her guns to scare away the interloper, who was doubtless surprised by such a rude reception. Luckily, no international incident resulted from this display of arms, though as the Times put it: “Whether those on board her considered that we were engaged in some filibustering expedition, or regarded our proceedings as another British outrage against the American flag, it was impossible to say; but in great trepidation she remained hove-to until we lost sight of her.”
But at last, on the morning of Thursday, August 5: the bold and rocky mountains which entirely surround the wild and picturesque neighborhood of Valencia, rose right before us at a few miles distance.… Soon after our arrival, a signal was received from the Niagara that they were preparing to land, having paid out one thousand and thirty nautical miles of cable, while the Agamemnon had accomplished her portion of the distance with an expenditure of one thousand and twenty miles, making the total length of the wire submerged two thousand and fifty geographical miles.∗
∗ This is an error; the reporter had forgotten that the nautical mile is 15 per cent longer than the geographical mile, so that the total length of cable laid was about 2,350 miles. The actual greatcircle distance between the two ends of the cable was 1,950 miles, the difference being due to the slack or excess cable which had to be laid to follow the contours of the sea bed.
Europe and America had at last been linked together. The news of this completely unexpected success, when all but a few enthusiasts had been convinced that the enterprise was hopeless, created a sensation. To read the papers of the time, one would think that the millennium had arrived. Even the staid Times , not prone to hyperbole, informed its readers: “The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country.… The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1775, [sic] and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.…”
There were, of course, celebrations all over the United States; countless sermons were preached, many of them based on the Psalmist’s verse: “Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
When a message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan was received on August 16, further rejoicings and demonstrations broke out, to such effect that the roof of the New York City Hall was ignited by fireworks and the whole structure barely saved from the flames. In England, Charles Bright received a knighthood at the early age of 26 for his work as chief engineer of the project; in New York, on September i, Cyrus Field was given a vast public ovation—at the very moment, ironically enough, when the Atlantic telegraph had given up the ghost.
For the cable that had been laid with such expense and difficulty, and after so many failures, was slowly dying. Indeed, when one considers the imperfections in its manufacture, and the various ordeals it had gone through, it is astonishing that it had ever worked at all.
In his effort to prove that no direct Atlantic line could be an economic proposition, a Colonel TaI Shaffner was later to produce a full transcript of the 1858 cable’s working. It is a record of defeat and frustration—a four-week history of fading hopes. Even after five days had been allowed for setting up the receiving and transmitting equipment, this log of all the messages sent from Newfoundland to Ireland on the whole of the sixth day speaks for itself:
“Please send slower for the present.”
“How do you receive?”
“Please send slower.”
“How do you receive?”
“Please say if you can read this?”
“Can you read this?”
“How are signals?”
“Do you receive?”
“Please send something.”
“Please send Vs and B’s.”
“How are signals?”
There was similar confusion over the sending of the signals. Whereas Thomson wished to use lowvoltage batteries to provide power for signaling, Whitehouse insisted on employing the huge induction, or spark, coils he had built, which were five feet long and developed at least 2,000 volts. The use of these coils was to result in a great deal of public controversy when the cable finally failed, and there can be little doubt that they helped to break down the faulty insulation.