That Time We Put A Cable Across The Atlantic

On August 16, 1858, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged the first transcontinental message, a formal introduction, and some complimentary patter.

That first cable wouldn’t last more than about a month, but it demonstrated what we could do with a little effort, giving birth to what would enable planetary communication and (way down the road) a little thing called the worldwide web.

Unless you count Samuel Morse, the man who invented the telegraph, the idea that revolutionized communication began with a man named Cyrus Field.

Where Ideas Collide

Frederic Newton Gisborne |

It was Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in 1832. Another man by the name of Frederic Newton Gisborne demonstrated that we could lay cable through the ocean to communicate across great distances.

Gisborne was a Canadian who worked for the Montreal Telegraph Company under Orrin Wood, an associate of Morse’s. He spent his careers connecting Canada with telegraph cables.

When Gisborne learned that two brothers in England, the Brett brothers, had cabled across the English Channel, he laid a cable across the Northumberland Strait. That was in 1852.

Cyrus Field, a one-time entertainer, met Gisborne in 1853. At the time, Gisborne needed backers to complete his new line to St. John’s.

When Field looked at a map, an idea came to him when he realized that St. John’s was much closer to Ireland than was New York. With enough money and cable, they could connect the continents… maybe even get rich in the process.

Building The Team

Cyrus Field |

To test his idea, Field reached out to old man Morse, who confirmed it was possible. Then he enlisted the head of the U.S. Naval Observatory, a man named Lieutenant Matthew Maury.

The Lieutenant was fired up about the idea. He had all the technical data Field needed to confirm that his idea had a route, so long as they had the money and the resources.

Field went about assembling financiers, setting up telegraph companies and buying assets. He even enlisted Samuel Morse as their Scientific Advisor and consulted regularly with the Brett brothers.

Gisborne even stayed on as a consulting engineer for the beginning. For some reason, he did not stay on with the project to the end.

The First Line

The Niagra |

In 1854, they began work on the line, which was to finish in months. Field was back and forth to England, networking the project and overseeing details.

It would take three years of effort just to connect to St. John’s, Canada. By 1857, that much was complete, but Field still had to make it to Ireland.

Before the completion of the St. John’s cable, he’d already started making arrangements, obtaining land grants, contracting for landfalls, and forging the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

To complete the task, the United States proved two ships, the USS Niagra and the USS Susquehanna. The British government supplied three more, the HMS Leopard, the HMS Agamemnon and the HMS Cyclops.

Their first attempt started on August 5, 1857, failed about 400 miles out. The cable snapped. The ships returned to Ireland, but in June of 1858, they sailed again, this time armed with more cable than before.

Unfortunately, the cable broke again. They spliced it back together and tried again, but made it only 40 miles before suffering another break.

With one more splice, they made it 146 miles before losing the cable yet one more time. That last break sent them home again.

In August they made another go of it, starting from the midpoint, and made it to Canada. The continents were officially connected.

Three weeks after the first intercontinental messages passed on August 16, 1858, the cable failed, overloaded from too much current.

It would take two years before they tried again, another failure and a third attempt before, in July of 1866, they finally connected the continents. More than thirty years after Field first conceived of his idea, we finally made it happen for real.