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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
Cyrus West Field was one of the greatest Americans of the nineteenth century, but today there cm he few of his countrymen who remember him. I Ic opened up no frontiers, killed no Indians, founded no industrial empires, won no battles; tne work he did lias been !juried deep in the Atlantic ooze for almost one hundred years. Yet he helped to change history, and now that his dream of a telegraph to Europe has been surpassed by a still more wonderful achievement, the transatlantic telephone cable, it is only right that we should pay tribute to the almost superhuman courage which enabled him to triumph over repeated disasters.
His face is looking at me now, across the century that lies between us. It is not at all the face of the international financier or the company promoter, though Held was both these things. The thin, sensitive nose, the regular features, the deep-set, brooding eyes—these add up to a poet or musician, not to the stereotyped sad success, indistinguishable from all his ulcer-ridden colleagues we see today in the business section of Time magazine. “Visionary and chivalrous” were the words applied to Field many years later, and no one without vision would have set oil on the long and arduous quest that dominated his life for almost twelve years.
[A New Englander by birth, Field had already made a fortune in the wholesale paper business by the time he was 33, but the clfort had taken a heavy toll on his health, and he had been ordered by his doctors to relax. He took a trip to Europe with his wife, then toured South America with the famous landscape painter Frederick E. Church. To all intents and purposes Field, a millionaire by today’s standards and still a young man, had retired for good.]
He might have remained in retirement for the rest of his days if chance had not brought him into contact with F. N. Gisborne, an English engineer engaged in building a telegraph line across Newfoundland. When the Newfoundland company went bankrupt in 1853 before more than forty miles of line had been erected, Gisborne, who had been left holding the company’s debts, went to New York the next year in an attempt to raise more money lor the scheme. Dy good fortune he met Cyrus Field, who was then relaxing after his South American trip and was not at all keen on becoming involved in any further business undertakings. He listened politely to Gisborne but did not commit himsell to any promise of help. Only the uncompleted line across Newfoundland was discussed, but when the meeting was over and he was alone in his library, Field started to play with the globe and suddenly realized that the Newfoundland telegraph was merely one link in a far more important project. Why wait loi steamers to bring news from Europe? Let the telegraph do the whole job.
From that moment, ticld became obsessed with the Atlantic telegraph. True, lie was not the first man to conceive of a submarine cable linking Europe and America. In 1843 Samuel K. B. Morse, after successful experiments with an underwater telegraph cable in New York Harbor, had predicted that “telegraphic communication … may with certainty be established across the Atlantic Ocean. Startling as this may now seem, 1 am confident the time will come when the project will be realized.” Hut Cyrus Field was the first to do anything practical. The next morning he wrote letters to Morse and to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, founder of the modern science of oceanography.
By one of those coincidences that are inevitable when many people are thinking along the same lines, Maury received Field’s letter at a moment when he had written to the secretary of the navy on the same subject. Hc had forwarded a report of a recent survey of the North Atlantic, carried out by Lieutenant llerryman, disclosing the existence of a plateau between Newfoundland and Ireland. Maury had commented, in a letter to the secretary of the navy on February 22, 1854, that this plateau “seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a Submarine Telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm’s way.”
Field could hardly have hoped for better news, and a few days later Morse called to sec him with equally encouraging advice. With the world’s greatest names in oceanography and telegraphy to back him np, Field now had only to convince the financiers.
[Field turned first to his next-door neighbor in New York, the influential millionaire Peter Cooper, and with his backing and that of several other capitalists he went to Newfoundland in 1854, paid the debts of Cishorne’s company, and obtained exclusive rights for all cables touching Newfoundland and Labrador for the next fifty years. With these tangible assets, he managed to raise .S 1,250,000 in New York and organized the Xew York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, which opened a New York-to Newfoundland line in 1856, as a first stage for a transatlantic cable.
Meanwhile, Field had helped promote new HritishAmerican surveys of the North Atlantic which showed that, although the so-called “Telegraph Plateau” was not quite as flat as originally supposed, its slopes were not prohibitively severe. What was more, its greatest distance from the surface was less than 15,000 feet—and submarine cables had already been laid as dee]) as this.
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.]
A thankful but somewhat exhausted Cyrus Field hurried back to England to see how his British colleagues were faring They were making fine progress, spinning out cable at a rate that has seldom been matched since, and ought not to have been attempted then. Largely because Field had promised his backers that the telegraph would start working in 1857, specifications had been sent out to the manufacturers even before the board of management had been set up, and the production of the cable in the short time of six months was a remarkable performance. It involved drawing and spinning 335,000 miles of iron and copper wire and covering that with goo,ooo miles of tarred hemp to form a cable 2,500 miles long. (The actual distance from Ireland to Newfoundland is about 500 miles less than this, but the extra length was needed for slack in paying out and to allow lor possible losses.)
The company’s engineers were not helped by streams of advice and criticism from outside experts, such as the astronomer royal, Sir George Airy, who stated dogmatically that “it was a mathematical impossibility to submerge the cable in safety at so great a depth, and if it were possible, no signals could be transmitted through so great a length.…” When distinguished scientists made such fools of themselves, it is easy to excuse the numerous inventors who wrote to Bright with proposals based on the ancient fallacy that heavy objects did not sink to the sea bed, but eventually came to rest at a level where their density was matched by that of the surrounding water. There is, ol course, no truth in this idea, for water is so nearly incompressible that even at the greatest depths encountered in the ocean its density is only very slightly greater than at sea level.
Some of the hopeful inventors wished to suspend the cable in mid-ocean by underwater parachutes or balloons; others even more optimistically wanted to connect it to a string of floating call boxes across the Atlantic, so that ships could keep in touch with land as they crossed from concilient to continent. Whether they were crazy or not, Charles Bright replied politely to all these proposals, few of which were inhibited by the slightest practical knowledge of the océanographie and telegraphic facts of life.
The Atlantic Telegraph Company, in any event, had little need for outside help. On its own board of directors was a scientific genius (and for once (he word is not misapplied) who was later to do more than any man to save the lost cause of submarine telegraphy and to retrieve the company’s fortunes.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was not the greatest scientist of the nineteenth century; on any reasonable list, lie must come below Darwin and Maxwell. Mut it is probable that he was the most famous man of science of his age, the one whom the general public chiefly identified with the astonishing inventions and technical advances of the era.
In this, public opinion was correct, lor Thomson was a unique bridge between the laboratory and the world of industry. He was an “applied scientist” par excellence, using his wonderful insight to solve urgent practical problems. Yet he was very much more than this, being also one of the greatest ol mathematical physicists. The range ol his interests and activities was enormous; the multiplication ol knowledge that has taken place since his time makes it impossible that we will see his like again. It would not be unfair to say that if one took half the talents of Einstein and half the talents of Edison, and succeeded in fusing such incompatible gifts into a single person, the result would be rather like William Thomson.
Thomson became involved in the telegraph story as a result of his investigations into what are known as transient electric currents. What happens, he asked himself in 1853, when a battery is connected up to a circuit, in the minute interval of time before the current settles down to its steady value? At one moment nothing is happening; a fraction of a second later, a current ol some definite amount is flowing. The problem was to discover what took place during the transition period, which is seldom as much as a hundredth of a second in duration, and is usually very much shorter.
Nothing could have seemed of less practical importance. Yet these studies led directly to the understanding of all electrical communication, and, some thirty years later, to the discovery of radio waves.
Thomson began to investigate the behavior of telegraph cables. It is possible to understand his main results, and to appreciate their importance, without any knowledge of the mathematics he used to obtain them. Putting it briefly, the problem involved was tliis: How long does it take for a signal to reach the far end of a telegraph cable?
It is a common error to imagine that electricity travels along a wire at the speed of light—186,000 miles a second. This is never true, although in some circumstances this velocity can be approached. In most cases, the speed of a current is very much less than that of light—sometimes, indeed, only a tenth or a hundredth of its value.
This slowing-down is due to the electrical capacity of the line. A telegraph cable behaves very much like a hose pipe; it takes a certain amount of electricity to “fill it up” before there is any appreciable result at the other end.
Fortunately for the progress of the telegraphic art, this effect was of no practical importance in the early days of land lines. Their capacity was so low that messages passed through them without any appreciable delay, and it was not until the first submarine cables were laid across the linglish Channel and the North Sea that signal-retardation became a source of trouble. Its prime cause is the presence of the conducting sea water which surrounds a cable and tints greatly increases its capacity. Because of this effect, a cable may need twenty times as much electricity to charge it up when it is submerged as it would require if suspended in air.
Thomson’s analysis led him to his famous “law of squares,” which states that the speed with which messages can be sent through a given cable decreases with the square of its length. In other words, if one multiplies the length of a cable ten times, the rate of signaling will be reduced a hundredfold. This law is obviously of fundamental importance in long-distance submarine telegraphy; the only way of circumventing it is to increase the size of the conducting core.
This was not appreciated by all telegraph engineers, and was even denied by some—including, unfortunately, Dr. Whitehouse. He had carried out experiments purporting to refute the law of squares; these had also led him to condudc (and the same views had been expressed by Faraday and Morse) that a small conducting wire might be better than a large one, which was the exact reverse of the truth. When stich confusion prevailed among the “experts” it is hardly surprising that the first Atlantic cable was badly designed. It had about as much chance ol success as a bridge built by engineers svho did not understand the laws governing the strength ol materials.
Thomson was only one of the company’s directors, and had no authority—beyond his scientific prestige— over the men who were in charge of its technical allairs. because of their determination to lay the cable during the summer of 1857, the promoters of the scheme had left no time for the experiments and tests which were essential for its success. The dynamic energy of Cyrus Field was partly responsible for this, and when Thomson arrived on the scene, he discovered that the specifications for the cable had already been sent out to the manufacturers and that it was now too late to alter them. What was more, when he had an opportunity of testing the completed article, he was shocked to discover that the yuality of the copper varied so much that some sections conducted twice as well as others. There was nothing that could be done, except to insist that future lengths be made of the purest possible copper and to hope that the existing cable would be good enough for the job.
The conductor itselt consisted of seven strands of copper wire twisted together and insulated by three separate layers of gutta-percha. If there was a hole or imperfection in one layer, the other two would still provide adequate protection. Only in the extremely improbable event of three (laws occurring in exactly the same place would there be danger of an electrical failure.
The insulated core was then covered with a layer of hemp, which in turn was armored with eighteen strands of twisted iron wire. The resulting cable was about five-eighths of an inch in thickness and weighed one ton per mile. This at once raised a serious problem, for the length needed to span the Atlantic weighed 2,500 tons—far too great a load to be carried in any single ship of the time.
The total cost of the cable was £224,000—at least £1,000,000 by today’s standards, though it is about as difficult to relate our present currency to the Victorian pound’s real purchasing power as to that of the Russian ruble.
The cable was completed within the remarkably short time of six months, and by July, 1857, it was ready to go to sea. By rights, Whitehouse should have sailed with it, but at the last moment he pleaded illhealth and Thomson was asked to fill the breach. It says much for the scientist’s greatness of character that he agreed to do this, without any payment. This misshapen infant dumped on his doorstep was certainly not his baby, but he would give it the best start in life he could.
To share the enormous weight of the cable between them, the warships Niagara and Agamemnon had been provided by the United States and British governments respectively. The Niagara was the finest ship in the American Navy; the largest steam frigate in the world, she had lines like a yacht and her single screw could drive her with ease at twelve miles an hour. The Agamemnon , on the other hand, would not have looked out of place at Trafalgar; she was one of the last of the wooden walls of England, and though she had steam power as well as sail, one would not have guessed it by looking at her.
Both ships had been extensively modified to allow them to carry and pay out their 1,250 tons of cable. Their holds had been enlarged into circular wells or tanks in which the cable could be coiled; even so the Agamemnon was forced to carry several hundred tons of it on deck—a fact which later brought her to the edge of disaster.
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.
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.
The eastward-sailing Agamemnon , on the other hand, had once again had an adventurous voyage, and several times had skirted mechanical or electrical disaster. Considering the conditions under which Thomson and his assistants worked, it is astonishing that they were able to keep their instruments operating at all. Listen to this description of the telegraph room as given by the Sydney Morning Herald: The electrical room is on the starboard side of the main deck forward. The arrangements have been altered several times in order to avoid the water which showers down from the upper deck. At one end of the little place the batteries are ranged on shelves and railed in.… The most valuable observation is taken in sending on the marine galvanometer. Three seconds before it is taken, the clerk who times all the observations by a watch regulated by a chronometer too valuable to be brought into so wet a place says, “Look out.” The other clerk at once fixes his eye on the spot of light, and immediately the word is given “Now” records the indication. This testing is made from minute to minute, so that a flaw is detected the moment it occurs.
The ships had spliced the cable on July 29, 1858, midway between Europe and America, in water 1,500 fathoms deep. To let the Times continue the story: For the first three hours the ships proceeded very slowly, paying out a great quantity of slack, but after the expiration of this time, the speed of the Agamemnon was increased to about five knots, the cable going at about six.… Shortly after 6 o’clock a very large whale was seen approaching the starboard bow at a great speed, rolling and tossing the sea into foam all around.…It appeared as if it were making direct for the cable, and great was the relief of all when the ponderous living mass was seen slowly to pass astern, just grazing the cable where it entered the water.…
A few hours later there was a real crisis, vividly depicted by the Sydney Morning Herald ’s reporter: We had signalled the Niagara “40 miles submerged” and she was just beginning her acknowledgement when suddenly, at 10 p.m., communication ceased. According to orders, those on duty sent at once for Dr. Thomson. He came in a fearful state of excitement. The very thought of disaster seemed to overpower him. His hand shook so much that he could scarcely adjust his eyeglass. The veins on his forehead were swollen. His face was deathly pale. After consulting his marine galvanometer, he said the conducting wire was broken, but still insulated from the water.… There did not seem to be any room for hope; but still it was determined to keep the cable going out, that all opportunity might be given for resuscitation. The scene in and about the electrical room was such as I shall never forget. The two clerks on duty, watching with the common anxiety depicted on their faces, for a propitious signal; Dr. Thomson, in a perfect fever of nervous excitement, shaking like an aspen leaf, yet in mind keen and collected, testing and waiting.… Mr. Bright, standing like a boy caught in a fault, his lips and cheeks smeared with tar, biting his nails and looking to the Professor for advice.… The eyes of all were directed on the instruments, watching for the slightest quiver indicative of life. Such a scene was never witnessed save by the bedside of the dying.… Dr. Thomson and the others left the room, convinced that they were once more doomed to disappointment.…
But they were not. No one ever knew exactly what had happened; perhaps the cable’s conducting core had broken under the strain of laying, but reunited on the sea bed when the tension was relaxed, and the elasticity of the coverings brought the wires together again. In any event, the signals returned at last, and the cable spoke again.
Our joy was so deep and earnest that it did not suffer us to speak for some seconds. But when the first stun of surprise and pleasure passed, each one began trying to express his feelings in some way more or less energetic. Dr. Thomson laughed right loud and heartily. Never was more anxiety compressed into such a space. It lasted exactly one hour and a half, but it did not seem to us a third of that time.…
The ship now began to run into heavy seas and started to pitch and roll in a manner that put a great strain on the cable.
During Sunday the sea and wind increased, and before the evening it blew a smart gale. Now indeed were the energy and activity of all engaged in the operation tasked to the utmost … the engineers durst not let their attention be removed from their occupation for one moment, for on their releasing the brake on the paying-out gear every time the stern of the ship fell into the trough of the sea entirely depended the safety of the cable.… Throughout the night, there were few who had the least expectation of the cable holding on till morning, and many remained awake listening for the sound that all most dreaded to hear—namely, the gun which should announce the failure of all our hopes. But still the cable, which, in comparison with the ship from which it was paid out, and the gigantic waves among which it was delivered, was but a mere thread, continued to hold on, only leaving a silvery phosphorus line upon the stupendous seas as they rolled on towards the ship.…
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.
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.”
But the problem of raising money for another attempt seemed insurmountable. Before the committee the secretary of the Atlantic Cable Company had recounted his efforts to raise capital among British businessmen. “We have no doubt induced a great many persons to subscribe,” he said, “but they do so as they would to a charity, and in sums of corresponding amount.…”
Between 1861 and 1864, Cyrus Field had similar troubles in America. In addition to the distrust engendered by earlier cable failures, American financiers were now caught up in the Civil War; England’s apparent friendliness to the Confederacy did not make Field’s task any easier. Nevertheless, by 1864, there was £600,000 in the bank, only about one-tenth of it from U.S. sources. The next attempt would be largely a British effort.]
The next problem was to decide the design of the new cable. This time there was no headlong rush to get it manufactured and laid before proper tests had been carried out; everyone knew what that policy had cost. Scores of samples were examined and submitted to every conceivable electrical and mechanical ordeal; the design finally approved had a conducting core three times as large as the 1858 cable and was much more heavily armored. It could stand a breaking strain of eight tons, compared with only three for the previous cable, and was over an inch in diameter. Though it weighed one and three-quarter tons per mile, and was thus almost twice as heavy as its ill-fated predecessor, its weight when submerged in water was considerably less. This meant that the strain it would have to bear while being laid was also reduced, owing to the increased buoyancy. Indeed, ten miles of it could hang vertically in water before it would snap under its own weight; this was four times as great a length as would ever be suspended from a cable ship sailing across the North Atlantic, where there could never be more than two and a half miles of water beneath the keel.
In every respect, the new cable was a vast improvement over any that had been built before. And yet, despite all the thought, skill, and care that had gone into its construction, hidden within it were the seeds of future disaster.
By the end of May, 1865, the 2,600 miles of cable had been completed. The earlier cable had required two ships to lay it. But this time, by one of history’s fortunate accidents, the only ship in the world that could carry such a load was looking for a job. In the Atlantic cable, the fabulous Great Eastern met her destiny and at last achieved the triumph that she had so long been denied.
This magnificent but unlucky ship had been launched seven years before, but had never been a commercial success. This was due partly to the stupidity of her owners, partly to the machinations of John Scott Russell, her brilliant but unscrupulous builder, and partly to sheer accidents of storm and sea.∗
∗ James Dugan’s book The Great Iron Ship is a valuable and highly entertaining history of this wonderful vessel, but unfortunately reports the legend that the skeleton of a riveter was found inside her double hull when she was broken up. This story is much too good to be true, and isn’t. Dugan is also far too kind to Russell, whose evil genius not only laid a burden on the Great Eastern from which she never recovered, but undoubtedly contributed to the death of her designer. For this side of the story, see L. T. C. Roll’s important biography, Isambard Kingdom Brunel .
Nearly seven hundred feet long, with a displacement of 22,500 tons, the Great Eastern was not exceeded in size until the Lusitania was launched in 1906–48 years later. She was the brain child of Isambard Kingdom Brunei, the Victorian era’s greatest engineering genius —perhaps, indeed, the only man in the last 500 years to come within hailing distance of Leonardo da Vinci. Brunei built magnificent stone and iron bridges which are standing to this day (the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol is his most famous, though it was completed after his death) and threw superbly landscaped railways over most of southern England.
Of all his feats, the Great Eastern was his last and mightiest. Though five times the size of any other ship in the world, she was no mere example—as some have suggested—of engineering megalomania. Brunei was the first man to grasp the fact that the larger a ship, the more efficient she can be, because carrying capacity increases at a more rapid rate than the power needed to drive the hull through the water. (The first depends on the cube of the linear dimensions, the second only on the square.)
Having realized this, Brunei then had the courage to follow the mathematics to its logical conclusion and designed a ship that would be sufficiently large to carry enough coal for the round trip to Australia. (Little more than a decade before, learned theoreticians had “proved” that it was impossible for a steamdriven vessel even to cross the Atlantic.)
With her five funnels, six masts, and superb lines, the Great Eastern still remains one of the most beautiful ships ever built, though the absence of a superstructure makes her look a little strange to modern eyes. It is impossible to write of her without using superlatives; her 58-foot paddle wheels and 24-foot screw have never been exceeded in size, and now never will be. This dual-propulsion system made her the most maneuverable ocean liner ever built; by throwing one wheel into reverse, she could rotate around her own axis as if standing on a turntable.
By 1865, the Great Eastern had bankrupted a succession of owners and had lost well over a million pounds. Put up at auction without reserve, the floating white elephant was knocked down for a mere £25,000—about a thirtieth of her original cost. The buyers, headed by Daniel Gooch, chairman of the Great Western Railway, had already arranged with Cyrus Field to use the ship for laying the new cable; they were so confident she could do it that they had offered her services free of charge in the event of failure.
To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship. The drums, sheaves, and dynamometers of the laying mechanism occupied a large part of the stern decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space. When the ship sailed from the Medway on June 24, 1865, she carried 7,000 tons of cable, 8,000 tons of coal, and provisions for 500 men. Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a seagoing farm. Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, 120 sheep, and a whole cackling poultry yard of fowl.
Many of the pioneers—one might say survivors—of the earlier expeditions were aboard. Among them were Field himself (the only American among 500 Britishers); Professor Thomson; Samuel Canning, chief engineer of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Corrpany; and C. V. de Sauty, the company’s electrician. Commanding the ship was Captain James Anderson, but in all matters relating to the cable-laying Canning had supreme authority. Dr. Whitehouse was not aboard, even as a passenger.
This time, with all the cable for the entire job in a single ship, there was no problem of splicing in midAtlantic; the Great Eastern would sail straight from Ireland to Newfoundland. Thanks to the presence on board of Sir W. H. Russell, the famous war correspondent of the London Times , we have a complete record of the voyage, which was later published in a splendidly illustrated volume with lithographs by Robert Dudley.
The shore end of the cable was landed at Foilhommerum Bay, a wild and desolate little cove five miles from Valentia Harbor. The shore end was spliced aboard the Great Eastern , and on the evening of July 23, 1865, she turned her bows toward her distant goal. The escorting warships Terrible and Sphinx , which had ranged up alongside, and sent their crews up into the shrouds and up to the tops to give her a parting cheer, delivered their friendly broadsides with vigour, and received a similar greeting. Their colours were hauled down, and as the sun set, a broad stream of golden light was thrown across the smooth billows towards the bows as if to indicate and illumine the path marked out by the hand of heaven. The brake was eased, and as the Great Eastern moved ahead, the machinery of the paying-out apparatus began to work, drums rolled, wheels whirled, and out spun the black line of the cable, and dipped in a graceful curve into the sea over the stern wheel.…
As Russell remarked, “happy is the cable-laying that has no history.” This laying was to have altogether too much. The next morning, 84 miles out, the testing instruments indicated an electrical fault at some distance from the ship. There was nothing to do but haul the cable aboard until the trouble was found.
At first sight, this would seem to be a fairly straightforward operation. But with the Great Eastern , as she was now fitted out, it was nothing of the sort. She could not move backwards and pick up cable over the stern, where it was paying out, because she would not steer properly in reverse and also because of the danger of the cable fouling her screw. So the cable had to be secured by wire tackle, cut, and transferred the 700 feet to the bow. As Russell describes it: Then began an orderly tumult of men with stoppers and guy ropes along the bulwarks, and in the shrouds, and over the boats, from stem to stern, as length after length of the wire rope flew out after the cable. The men…were skilful at their work, but as they clamoured and clambered along the sides, and over the boats, and round the paddleboxes, hauling at hawsers, and slipping bights, and holding on and letting go stoppers, the sense of risk and fear for the cable could not be got out of one’s head.
It took ten hours to haul in as many miles of cable. When the fault was discovered, it was a very disturbing one. A piece of iron wire, two inches long, had been driven right through the cable, producing a short-circuit between the conducting core and the sea. It might have been an accident; but it looked very much like sabotage.
A new splice was made and paying out started again. This time only half a mile had gone overboard before the cable went dead. Russell remarked despairingly: Such a Penelope’s web in 24 hours, all out of this single thread, was surely disheartening. The cable in the fore and main tanks answered to the tests most perfectly. But that cable which went seaward was sullen, and broke not its sulky silence. Even the gentle equanimity and confidence of Mr. Field were shaken in that supreme hour, and in his heart he may have sheltered the thought that the dream of his life was indeed but a chimera.…
Luckily, the fault cleared itself; almost certainly it did not lie in the cable, but in the instruments or connections either at Valentia or aboard the ship. “The index light suddenly reappeared on its path in the testing room, and the wearied watchers were gladdened by the lighting of the beacon of hope once more.”
On the fourth day, July 26, the Great Eastern ran into heavy seas, which made it hard for the Sphinx and the Terrible to keep up with her. As she forged ahead at a steady six knots, hardly affected by the waves which battered her little escorts, the Sphinx slowly dropped astern and at last disappeared from view. This was a serious loss to the expedition, because owing to some oversight the Sphinx carried the only set of sounding gear.
The Great Eastern plowed on across the waves, spinning out her iron-and-copper thread.
There was a wonderful sense of power in the Great Ship and in her work; it was gratifying to human pride to feel that man was mastering space, and triumphing over the wind and waves; that from his hands down into the eternal night of waters there was trailing a slender channel through which the obedient lightning would flash forever instinct with the sympathies, passions, and interests of two mighty nations.
On the afternoon of the seventh day, when 716 miles had been paid out, the alarms went again. The fault was close to the ship, so once more the cable was cut, secured by wire ropes, and hauled round to the bow for picking up.
Thousands of fathoms down we knew the end of the cable was dragging along the bottom, fiercely tugged at by the Great Eastern through its iron line. If the line or cable parted, down sank the cable forever.…At last our minds were set at rest; the iron wire rope was at length coming in over the bows through the picking up machinery. In due but in weary time, the end of the cable appeared above the surface, and was hauled on board and passed aft towards the drum. The stern is on these occasions deserted; the clack of wheels, before so active, ceases; and the forward part of the vessel is crowded with those engaged on the work, and with those who have only to look on…the two eccentriclooking engines working the pickup drums and wheels make as much noise as possible … and all is life and bustle forward, as with slow unequal straining the cable is dragged up from its watery bed.
It required nineteen hours of this nervous work before the fault was reached—though it would have taken only a few minutes if suitable equipment had been installed at the stern. The cable was respliced, paying out commenced once more, and a committee of inquiry started to examine the faulty coils piled on deck.
Concern changed to anger when it was found that the cable had been damaged in precisely the same manner as before, by a piece of wire forced into it. “No man who saw it could doubt that the wire had been driven in by a skilful hand,” Russell comments, and it was pointed out that the same gang of workmen had been on duty when the earlier fault occurred. The sabotage theory seemed virtually proved, and a team of inspectors was at once formed so that there would always be someone in the cable tank to keep an eye on the workmen.
On the morning of August 2, the Great Eastern had completed almost three-quarters of her task.
Cyrus Field was one of the watchers on duty in the cable tank that morning. About 6 A.M. there was a grating noise and one of the workmen yelled, “There goes a piece of wire!” Field shouted a warning, but it did not reach the officer at the paying-out gear quickly enough. Before the ship could be stopped, the fault had gone overboard.
This time, it was not a complete short-circuit; the cable was usable, but no longer up to specification. Though Professor Thomson thought it could still transmit four words a minute—which would be enough to make it pay its way—Chief Engineer Canning decided not to take a risk. If he completed the cable, and the customer refused to accept it, his company would be ruined.
In any case, picking up a faulty section of cable was now a routine matter; the men had had plenty of practice on this trip. Canning had no reason to doubt that after a few hours delay, the Great Eastern could continue on the last 700 miles of her journey.
The cable was cut, taken round to the bows, and the hauling-up process began again. While this was going on, one of the workmen in the tank discovered some broken armoring wires on the piece of cable that had been lying immediately below the faulty section; the iron was brittle and had snapped under the tremendous weight of the coils above it. This, said Russell, “gave a new turn to men’s thoughts at once. What we had taken for assassination might have been suicide!”
The Great Eastern was now over waters 2,000 fathoms deep, though the exact depth was not known, owing to the absence of the Sphinx with the only set of sounding gear. From the start, the picking-up process failed to go smoothly. First the machinery gave trouble; then the wind made the Great Eastern veer around so that the cable did not come straight over the sheaves. It started to chafe against the ship, and when the picking-up machinery began to work once more, the strain on the cable proved too great for the weakened portion. “The cable parted … and with one bound flashed into the sea.… There around us lay the placid Atlantic, smiling in the sun, and not a dimple to show where lay so many hopes buried.”
[Now began a lonely and dramatic battle in the middle of the ocean. With a five-pronged grapnel the Great Eastern began to probe the Atlantic ooze two and a half miles down, fishing for the severed cable. Having no single line long enough to reach the ocean floor, the ship’s officers improvised one from two dozen sections of wire rope, each 600 feet long, joined together by shackles. Twice the cable was hooked and brought part way to the surface, but each time a shackle broke and the ponderous cable sank again. Crew members did succeed, however, in dropping a buoy to mark their position, and this was to prove exceedingly useful later on. On the third try the line twisted in one of the grapnel’s flukes and the grapnel came up empty.]
The fourth attempt was made the next day, and on the afternoon of August 11, the cable was hooked again.
It was too much [wrote Russell] to stand by and witness the terrible struggle between the … hawser, which was coming in fast, the relentless iron-clad capstan, and the fierce resolute power in the black sea.… But it was beyond peradventure that the Atlantic Cable had been hooked and struck, and was coming up from its oozy bed. What alternations of hopes and fears! … Some remained below in the saloons, fastened their eyes on unread pages of books, or gave expression to their feelings in fitful notes upon piano or violin.… None liked to go forward, where every jar of the machinery made their hearts leap into their mouths.…
It was dark and raw that evening, and after dinner Russell left the saloon and walked up and down the deck under the shelter of the ship’s paddle box.
I was going forward when the whistle blew, and I heard cries of “Stop it!” in the bows, shouts of “Look outl” and agitated exclamations. Then there was silence. I knew at once that all was over. The machinery stood still in the bows, and for a moment every man was fixed, as if turned to stone. Our last bolt was sped. The hawser had snapped, and nigh two miles more of iron coils and wire were added to the entanglement of the great labyrinth made by the Great Eastern in the bed of the ocean.…
There was a profound silence on board the Big Ship. She struggled against the helm for a moment as though she still yearned to pursue her course to the west, then bowed to the angry sea in admission of defeat, and moved slowly to meet the rising sun. The signal lanterns flashed from the Terrible “Farewelll” The lights from our paddlebox pierced the night “Good-bye! Thank you,” in sad acknowledgment. Then each sped on her way in solitude and darkness.
The 1865 expedition had been yet another failure—but with a difference. It had proved so many important points that there could no longer be any reasonable doubt that a transatlantic cable could be laid. The Great Eastern had demonstrated, through her stability and handling qualities, that she was the perfect ship for the task; the cable itself was excellent, apart from the brittle armoring which could easily be improved—and, most important of all, it had been shown that a lost cable could be found and lifted in water more than two miles deep.
[By early 1866, Field and his British associates had succeeded in raising another £600,000. They ordered 1,600 additional miles of cable (the brittle armoring was replaced by a more ductile covering of galvanized iron), obtained the loan of the H.M.S. Terrible from the Admiralty, chartered two more ships, the Albany and the Medway, and in July were back in Valentia Bay with the Great Eastern and the rest of the telegraph fleet, ready for another try.]
On Friday, the thirteenth of July, 1866, the Great Eastern sailed again from Valentia Bay. Those who disliked the date were reminded that Columbus sailed for the New World on a Friday—and arrived on one.
At a steady and uneventful five knots, Brunei’s masterpiece plodded across the Atlantic, paying out the cable with clockwork regularity. The only incident on the entire fourteen days of the voyage was when the cable running out from the tank caught in an adjacent coil, and there was a tangle which caused a few anxious moments before it was straightened out.
In England, where the progress of the expedition was known at every minute, excitement and confidence mounted day by day. In the United States, however, it was different, for there was no news of what was happening, nor could there be until the ships actually arrived—if they did. Some spectators were waiting hopefully in Newfoundland, but, as Henry Field remarks, not so many as the last year, for the memory of their disappointment was too fresh, and they feared the same result again.
But still a faithful few were there who kept their daily watch … it is Friday morning, the ayth July. They are up early and looking eastwards to see the day break, when a ship is seen in the offing. Spy-glasses are turned towards her. She comes nearer—and look, there is another and another. And now the hull of the Great Eastern looms all glorious in that morning sky. They are coming! Instantly all is wild excitement. The Albany is the first to round the point and enter the bay. The Terrible is close behind. The Medway stops an hour or two to join on the heavy shoreend, while the Great Eastern , gliding calmly in as if she had done nothing remarkable, drops her anchor in front of the telegraph house, having trailed behind her a chain of two thousand miles, to bind the old world to the new.
No name could be more appropriate than that of the landing place—Heart’s Content. “Heart’s Content was chosen now because its waters are still and deep, so that a cable skirting the north side of the Banks of Newfoundland can be brought in deep water almost till it touches the shore. All around the land rises to pine-crested heights; and here the telegraph fleet, after its memorable journey, lay in quiet, under the shadow of the encircling hills.”
The triumph was marred by a slight annoyance; the St. Lawrence cable had been broken, and so there was a delay of two days before the telegraph connection could be completed to the United States. It was not until the morning of Sunday, July 29, that New York received the message: “Heart’s Content, July 27. We arrived here at 9 o’clock this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid and in perfect working order. Cyrus W. Field.”
[But Cyrus Field was not finished. As soon as the Great Eastern could be refueled, she and the rest of the telegraph fleet rendezvoused in the Atlantic near the buoy marking the spot where the 1865 cable had parted. Then began a grueling effort to hook and raise the severed cable. On the thirtieth attempt success was achieved. The Great Eastern had brought 600 miles of cable from Newfoundland; this was spliced to the recovered line and the great ship turned westward again, bringing her second transatlantic cable into Heart’s Content only four weeks after she had arrived with the first. “The long and weary battle was ended,” Mr. Clarke concludes. “From that day to this, America and Europe have never been out of touch for more than a few hours at a time.”]