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


It was nine days before a single word got through the cable from east to west, but on the twelfth day (August 16) the line was working well enough to start transmitting the gg-word message of greetings from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. It took sixteen and a half hours before the message was completed; today, it would arrive in America nearly as quickly by airmail.

The first commercial message ever telegraphed across the Atlantic was sent the next day (August 17), from Newfoundland to Ireland. It is one which we can still fully appreciate: “Mr. Cunard wishes telegraph Mclver Europa collision Arabia. Put into St. John’s. No lives lost.”

More days went by while the operators struggled to keep in contact and to transmit the messages which were piling up at either end. Sometimes a personal note intruded, as when Newfoundland remarked plaintively to Ireland, “Mosquitoes keep biting. This is a funny place to live in—fearfully swampy” or when Thomson, no doubt after turning the Valentia office upside down, was forced to ask Newfoundland, “Where are the keys of the glass cases and drawers in the apparatus room?” (The helpful answer: “Don’t recollect.”)

Finally, after Newfoundland had signaled, “Pray give some news for New York, they are mad for news,” the first press dispatch was successfully sent on the twenty-third day (August 27). It is interesting to compare the headlines of 1858 with those of a hundred years later: “Emperor of France returned to Paris Saturday. King of Prussia too ill to visit Queen Victoria. Her Majesty returns to England 3oth August. Settlement of Chinese question. Chinese empire open to trade; Christian religion allowed; foreign diplomatic agents admitted; indemnity to England and France. Gwalior insurgent army broken up. All India becoming tranquil.”

The last coherent message passed through the cable at 1:30 P.M. on September 1 ; it was the message to Cyrus Field at the banquet in his honor in New York, and it asked him to inform the American government that the company was now in a position to forward its messages to England.

Thereafter, all was silence. After their brief union, the continents were once more as far apart as ever. The Atlantic had swallowed up the months of toil, the 2,500 tons of cable, the £350,000 of laboriously raised capital.

The public reaction was violent, and those who had been most fervent in their praise now seemed ashamed of their earlier enthusiasm. Indeed, it was even suggested that the whole affair had been a fraud of some kind—perhaps a stock manipulation on the part of Cyrus Field. One Boston newspaper asked in a trenchant headline, “Was it a hoax?” and an English writer proved that the cable had never been laid at all.

What had been hailed as the greatest achievement of the century had collapsed in ruins; it was to be eight long years before Europe and America would speak to each other again across the bed of the ocean.

[Agitation over the failure, coupled with a subsequent cable failure, this time of a line through the Red Sea to India financed by the British government, led to the appointment of a commission of inquiry, with four members nominated by Britain’s Board of Trade and four by the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

One of the Board of Trade members was George Parker Bidder, who in addition to being a distinguished engineer was also a mathematical prodigy. At the age of ten he was asked how many times a wheel 5 feet 10 inches in circumference would revolve in running 800,000,000 miles. In less than a minute he had the answer: “724,114,285,704 times with 20 inches left over.” He retained this remarkable ability throughout his life. When he was past seventy a friend commented on the number of light vibrations that must hit the eye every second, if there were 36,918 waves of red light in every inch and light travels 190,000 miles a second. “You needn’t work that out,” Bidder replied. “The number is 444,433,651,200,000.”

Altogether Bidder and his fellow judges on the commission sat for nine months—from December, 1859, to September, 1860. Before them paraded a great variety of witnesses—admirals, engineers, businessmen, cable contractors, scientists—each with his own explanation as to why the Atlantic cable had failed or his own suggestion for laying a new one successfully.

Two of the key witnesses were Dr. Whitehouse and Professor Thomson. Whitehouse refused to admit that his theories had been mistaken or that his high-voltage induction coils had contributed to the breakdown of the cable. He did, however, make one valid point: that Cyrus Field had been in so much of a hurry to get on with the laying of the cable that Whitehouse had not had sufficient time for his experiments.

Thomson, who more than any one man was responsible for changing cable engineering from a jumble of theories to an exact mathematical science, had tried unsuccessfully to defend Whitehouse from the wrath of the Atlantic Telegraph Company’s directors; but now, criticizing Whitehouse’s patent relay, he said: “I find altogether two or three words and a few more letters that are legible, but the longest word which I find correctly given is the word ‘be.’ ” Nevertheless, the committee’s report was optimistic: “The failures of the existing submarine lines which we have described have been due to causes which might have been guarded against had adequate preliminary investigation been made into the question,” it said, “and we are convinced that if regard be had to the principles we have enunciated in devising, manufacturing, laying and maintaining submarine cables, this class of enterprise may prove as successful as it has hitherto been disastrous.”