When They Laid the First Transatlantic Cable

By Schuessler, Raymond | Sea Classics, March 2003 | Go to article overview

When They Laid the First Transatlantic Cable


Schuessler, Raymond, Sea Classics


After a series of failures spanning nine years, two great continents were finally linked by submarine cable in 1866. The story of the final triumph is a tribute to the determination and ingenuity of the men who saw the project through

The laying of the first Atlantic cable was one of the great engineering marvels of the mid-19th century, as remarkable a feat in its day as reaching the moon today. No engineering feat required as much ingenuity and faced as many setbacks as this task.

It all began in the fertile mind of Samuel F.B. Morse in 1832. Already, insulated cables had been laid across New York Harbor with apparent success. So why not across the Atlantic?

But the Atlantic was another story. This was a stretch of more than 2000 miles between

Newfoundland and Ireland. And in some places the water was 2.5 miles deep and would place a heavy burden on the machinery and ship. Cyrus W. Field, a wealthy retired businessman at 33, decided to take the gamble and in 1854 formed the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Co.

Two English scientists played an important part in the planning: William Thompson, a mathematical genius and professor at Glasgow University at the age of 21, was so respected that he became the first scientist ever to be knighted; and 24-yearold Charles Bright, the chief engineer, a brilliant man of science who had 24 patents by the age of 20.

On 12 November 1856, the board of scientists met in Liverpool and outlined their plans. The sum of 350,000 pounds was easily raised, and the American Telegraph Co. was born.

Now, there were scores of technical problems. Soundings had to be taken so the cable would not be hung over deep chasms which would cause the strand to break from its own weight.

Fortunately, the deepest point was found to be a gradual descent to 2.5 miles. The cable also would have to be protected from rotting under the ocean. Just in time, gutta percha was found in Malaya and proved to be a perfect insulating material.

The cable consisted of sevenstrand copper conductor, four layers of gutta percha, a wrapping of tarred hemp and a protective armor of ten steel wires, each wrapped in impregnated hemp. The cable was built in 1200 pieces, each about two miles long, which were later joined into eight 300-mile-long pieces.

The cable was stored on board two ships, the 5200-ton Niagara, the largest steam frigate in; the world, and; the Agamemnon, a British man-of-war of 3200 tons. It took 120 men three weeks to store the cable on board.

The two ships met at Valentia, Ireland, and prepared to sail in 1857. The plan was for the Niagara to lay the first half of the cable to mid-ocean, splice it to the Agamemnon's cable and have that ship proceed to Newfoundland.

The Niagara was only five miles out when the cable caught in the deck machinery and broke. On the second try, the ship moved more slowly.

Two hundred miles of cable were laid without incident. Then, suddenly for 2.5 hours all current was disrupted, later returned, and all was well again - until dawn. The drum had been letting out the cable too fast, and when it was slowed too quickly the braking effect forced the stern of the ship out of the water and under the pressure and snapped the cable! Some 350 miles of cable now lay dead under the sea. All efforts ceased until the following year.

Undaunted, American Telegraph improved the drum apparatus by installing self-release brakes. A better method of storing the cable also was devised.

A second expedition was ready in 1858. This time the cable carried by two ships was in mid-Atlantic on 26 June, and the ships proceeded to their respective coasts. They had sailed only three miles when the cable caught on the machinery of the Niagara and broke.

The ships returned to mid-ocean, spliced and sailed away. For two days there was no serious trouble. On 5 August, the Niagara anchored in Newfoundland after laying 1016 miles of cable. …

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