Laying the First Transatlantic Cable

Matthew Alexander


In the early 1800s the electrical telegraph was developed to transmit written messages through a wire. By 1850 there was a submarine telegraph cable laid beneath the English Channel followed by a cable across the Cabot Strait in 1856. By this time Cyrus West Field formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company with the purpose of laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
The telegraph cable was intended to reduce the time required to send messages across the ocean. Previously, it would take 10 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean by ship to deliver a message, but with a telegraph cable it would take only minutes.
The cable began to be laid in 1857 off the coast of Ireland where the cable broke over the telegraph plateau which is over 3000m deep. Following this failure construction was abandoned for the year and the ships; HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara were refitted for a second attempt. Three more failures occurred in June of 1858 where a maximum of 300 km of cable was laid before failure. Finally, on July 29 1858 the cable was spliced in the middle of the ocean and the ends of the cables reached Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Knightstown, Ireland on August 4th and 5th respectively.
The first message was sent on August 16th 1858 from Queen Victoria to US President Buchanan and took 16 hours to send. The cable only lasted for three weeks and the insulation failed due to poor handling practices when laying the cable and the use of high voltages by one of the engineers on the project.
Ultimately the first transatlantic cable was a failure but the persistence of Cyrus Field a successful cable was laid in 1866. The new cable used the lessons learned from the first attempt regarding the cable construction, handling practices and operation to ensure its success. The manner in which these lessons were learned over the course of laying the first cable will be discussed in detail in the following paper along with a more in depth history.

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M. Schwartz, J. Hayes, "A history of transatlantic cables," Communications Magazine, IEEE , vol.46, no.9, pp.42,48, September 2008

G. Saward, “The Trans-Atlantic Submarine Telegraph Cable”, 1878

B. Crossland, “Kelvin and Engineering”, Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy, Oxford, UK, OUP, 2008, Ch. 9

M. Kelly, G. Radley, "Transatlantic communications: A historical résumé," American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Part I: Communication and Electronics, Transactions of the , vol.75, no.6, pp.841,842, Jan. 1957


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