The Transatlantic Cable

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Today the world can communicate with text, images, audio, and video at the speed of light. Most of this is done via undersea fiber optic cables which connect the various continents to each other.

All of this modern long-distance communication has its start with the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The first long-distance submarine communications cable which connected Europe and North America in 1858.

Learn more about the ambitious 19th-century project which reduced the time of information to cross the Atlantic from days to minutes, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

While it may not seem like it now, the telegraph was more revolutionary than the telephone, the fax machine, or even the internet.

Prior to the invention of the telegraph, information couldn’t travel faster than the person who carried it. Advances in information transfer were the same as advances in transportation. The slowness of transmitting information led to enormous lags between people being notified about wars ending, or beginning. The Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 was famously fought after the treaty ending the war had been signed. 

The idea behind the telegraph began almost as soon as electricity was harnessed. In 1753 an anonymous letter to Scots Magazine hypothesized an electrostatic telegraph device that had a cable for every letter of the alphabet.

By 1774 Georges-Louis Le Sage had created a primitive telegraph system that could communicate between rooms in his house in Geneva. 

The first working system which could readily transmit information was built by Englishman Francis Ronalds in 1816. He offered the invention to the British Admiralty who rejected it as being  “wholly unnecessary”.

In 1832 Baron Schilling von Canstatt set up a circuit in St. Petersburg which was 5km long and went underground and underwater.

The system which really allowed the telegraph to take off was the system created by American Samuel Morse.  In 1837 he had created the telegraphy key and the on/off code system which became known as Morse Code.

In Europe and North America, telegraph systems were spreading rapidly in the 1840s. The idea of a transatlantic telegraph cable was first proposed during this time. However, there was still nothing even remotely close to this distance which had been achieved. It was like talking about going to Mars after the first space flight. 

In 1850 England and France were connected via a cable across the English Channel. As much of an accomplishment as crossing the English Channel with a cable was, crossing the ocean was several orders of magnitude more challenging. 

Around this time, Frederic Newton Gisborne, a telegraph operator in Nova Scotia began floating the idea of extending a telegraph cable to Newfoundland all the way to Europe.

In 1854 he was introduced to Cyrus West Field, a businessman and financier. Field did his research and came to the conclusion that a cable across the Atlantic Ocean was feasible. The most logical route would be connecting Newfoundland to Ireland. The shortest route which also followed some of the smoothest terrain on the seafloor.

Field created the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company for the express purpose of raising money and laying a transatlantic cable. He sought out John Watkins Brett who was the world’s foremost expert on undersea cables and the man responsible for the English Channel cable and the first cable from England to Ireland.

The cable which they designed consisted of seven strands of copper wire coated in gutta-percha, which is a natural non-electrically conductive rubber. That was then covered in a covering of hemp cloth covered in tar, which was then surrounded by a helix of iron wires. 

They needed 2,500 miles of the stuff. The problem was, no one could make that much of it, especially in the four months they wanted it by. They gave contracts to two different companies, which was fine except for the fact that the companies wound the outer iron layer in opposite directions. 

Both the British and American governments subsidized the project as they both had a vested interest in improved communications.

In 1857 they set out with ships borrowed from both governments to begin laying the cable.

300 miles out from the coast of Ireland, the cable broke. With the cable 2 miles below the surface, they abandoned the attempt and returned, with a plan to try again and use the remaining cable in an attempt the next year. 

In June of 1858, they tried again. This time, the plan was to start in the middle with both ships and go in opposite directions. They had breaks in the cable almost immediately this time. They had the first break after only 3km and subsequent breaks after that. 

At this point, everyone was getting frustrated. Many investors wanted to give up and sell the cable to recoup some money. Field wanted to press on. On July 29, the two ships met again in the middle of the Atlantic, and this time everything worked.

On August 4 the cable arrived in Newfoundland and the next day it arrived in Ireland.

It was only a matter of days before they were sending messages. On August 16 the first official message was sent by telegraph across the Atlantic Ocean. It read:

Directors of Atlantic Telegraph Company, Great Britain, to Directors in America:—Europe and America are united by telegraph. Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will towards men.

The next message was a congratulatory letter from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. 

The transmission speed was still extremely slow, but still much faster than by ship. The queen’s message which was 98 words long took 16 hours to transmit. 

The next day there was a huge celebration in New York. Church bells rang, fireworks were launched, and there was a torchlight parade in the evening. 

This was a very big deal. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last very long. Within a month, the cable had failed. Attempts to increase the voltage on the cable from 600 volts to 2000 damaged the cable. Also, design flaws in the cable, as well as problems laying the cable, were all identified. 

During the short time, it was active, it proved itself valuable. The British countermanded an order for 2 regiments in Canda to return to England, which saved the government over £50,000.  Even short messages could have enormous value.

732 messages were passed across the cable before it failed. 

It wasn’t until 1865 that another cable was attempted. By this time, much more had been learned about undersea cables, with cables having been strung across the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. 

The new cable would be a thicker, purer core of copper wire coated in a concoction known as Chatterton’s compound, which was 3 parts gutta-percha, 1 part rosin, and 1 part Stockholm tar. This was then covered in more compound, even thicker, stronger iron cables, and a hemp covering. It was twice the weight of the 1858 cable. 

The cable was to be laid by the SS Great Eastern, which was the largest ship in the world. An iron steamer, it was converted to lay cable.

In 1865, the Great Eastern set out and they suffered a break in the cable over 1,000 miles out from Ireland. 

In 1866, the ship set out again to find the broken cable, splice it, and finish the job. They managed to find the broken cable in the middle of the ocean and complete the project.

The 1866 cable was vastly superior to the 1858 cable. The first cable could only transmit 1 character every 2 minutes, or 0.1 words per minute. The 1866 cable could transmit 8 words per minute. An 80 fold improvement. 

With the success of the 1866 cable, more cables were laid. Within a few decades, dozens of cables had crossed the Atlantic at different points.

By the year 1900, transmission speeds had increased to 120 words per minute. A further 15 fold improvement. 

Today, a single fiber optic cable going across the Atlantic, with multiple wavelengths of light and multiple strands of glass, can carry 53 terabytes of data every second, or enough to transmit the entire catalog of Curiosity Stream in the blink of an eye.