The first transatlantic telegraph cable

Before SMS, smartphones and Wi-Fi, the first permanent connection between America and Europe was a transatlantic telegraph cable. It passed through the sea, between southern Ireland and the North American coast. Through it, you could now send messages between the two continents in just minutes.

Early dreams of faster communication

It was shortly after the first electric telegraph was invented that Samuel Morse began to dream of a transatlantic cable. One that could, effectively, communicate across the continents.

In 1850, the longest telegraph cable of the time, was laid between England and France. Shortly thereafter, a cable was laid from the United States northeastern coast, through Nova Scotia, and on to Newfoundland. It was Frederick Gisborne who led the project. Unfortunately, the cable between the US and Canada was not very profitable and the company went bankrupt.

Fortunately, the dreams of a transatlantic cable did not die there. Frederick Gisborne met Cyrus West Field, a wealthy paper merchant, who had financing in place for a transatlantic cable. Samuel Morse was also a part of the project as their technical advisor. The three started the company New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph company.

Now you could save on the fourteen days it otherwise took to send a message by boat, from one coast to another.

Many failed attempts

In 1857, the first attempt was made to place the cable in the water. The cable was made of copper coated with latex. This was then covered with hemp dipped in tar. The whole thing was backed by a chain of iron wire. A combination that made the cable relatively flexible and at the same time very strong. This, the engineers thought was enough to protect the cable from the high strain, the cold water and the wildlife therein.

The HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara ships were used to haul heavy loads. On the 5th of August, 1857, the voyage took off from southern Ireland. Unfortunately the trip was not successful as the cable went off after 610 kilometers and needed to be picked up from the sea. On the next attempt, the cable went off because it ended up in too deep water.

On the third attempt they decided instead that the two ships would meet in the middle and put the cables together. Unfortunately, the cable snapped after only 6 kilometers. Several attempts were made without success.

In 1985, the first message was sent

But shame on the one who gives up. Another attempt was made on July 29, 1858. Despite the problems of navigation, the ships managed to get into their ports on the 4th and 5th of August, finally with a full cable. Shortly thereafter, they managed to send the first message across the Atlantic. However, it was not like when we send an SMS today. The reception in the cable was very poor and each letter took about 2 minutes to send.

The first message sounded as follows:

”Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”

A longer message between the Queen of England and the US President took about 18 hours to send.

Because it took so long to send telegraphs, the engineers tried to raise the tempo by increasing the voltage from 600 to 1200 volts. Unfortunately, this resulted in the cable, again, breaking, just 3 weeks after its completion.

A new cable was added a few years later and finally there was a stable communication between the different continents. This communication laid the foundation for modern globalization and the world we live in today. It is easy to forget the hard work that has led to the communication we can enjoy today. Imagine if it still took two minutes to send a single letter.


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