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International telegraph connections

Transatlantic cable investors meeting

First proposal for undersea cable (1844) : '...across the atlantic ocean'

In 1844 Samuel Morse declared that 'a telegraphic communication line could certainly be established across the Atlantic Ocean'. It was to be over 20 years before he was proved right.

For one thing there was no proven method of insulating such a cable - apart from wrapping it in cloth and dipping it in pitch tar - not realistic for a line many hundreds of miles long which would be laid thousands of feet deep.

There was also the question of money - a transatlantic cable would cost a fortune. Who would finance it - and how could the enterprise ever make a profit?

The coming decade would provide answers to both questions.

Illustration of local people extracting gutta-purcha from trees in the Far East.

Gutta-percha developed (1847) : 'the wonder material of the age'

The formation of the Gutta-Percha Company, which began producing cables in 1847, was a leap forward for submarine cables.

Gutta-percha was an inelastic substance based on a special type of latex, extracted from trees from the Far East, that had been introduced to Britain eight years earlier by Dr William Montgomerie, who sent samples from Singapore.

Experiments in London demonstrated that the material could be moulded after heating in hot water and that it retained its tough state on cooling. Michael Faraday discovered that it was an excellent electrical insulator in water.

The company used a revolutionary new machine that allowed gutta-percha to be moulded into sheaths wrapped around copper cores. Suddenly, properly insulated cables had become possible.

The 1851 and 1850 Channel cables - Connected Earth artefacts, now at the Porthcurno Museum of Submarine Telegraphy

First cross channel cable (c1850) : forging links with Europe

The spread of early telegraph lines continued to extend across Europe. However, until a reliable underwater cable could be developed, the British Isles were cut off from the progress.

This exclusion was overcome with the discovery of gutta-percha.The submarine cable was about to become a reality. Although when it came to linking Britain and France there was considerable hesitation.

The British government and business circles cautiously took a "wait and see" attitiude but, in the end, the entire initial funding for the 1850 project came from four British investors, each of whom put up £500.

In 1850 the world's fist international submarine telegraph cable was laid in the open sea across the Channel between Dover and Cap Gris Nez. It was laid by a naval tug, the Goliath, accompanied by HM Packet Widgeon.

Unfortunately the cable failed after only a few messages.

This illustration is described as being the 'Newfoundland Telegraph Station' in 1855. A more permanent installation will have been created for the completed line.

First Atlantic attempt : well, it's a start...

The first moves towards an undersea Atlantic telegraph cable were made by Frederick Gisborne who tried to link Nova Scotia and Newfoundland by a combined overland and undersea cable. The idea was to link the island to the mainland in order to capture shipping news from vessels arriving from the East.

Gisborne failed, defeated by the harsh terrain and inadequate cable technology and, mostly, sheer lack of funds. But his brave attempt inspired a wealthy New York merchant named Cyrus Field to try his hand. Field put together a powerful syndicate and an aerial line was completed across Newfoundland in 1856.

The Agamemnon laying the first successful transatlantic cable, 1858

Field's first transatlantic venture (1857) : is anyone interested?

Cyrus Field saw the submarine cable as a means of getting commodities information rapidly from passing ships, before they landed in their home ports. After an initial venture to lay a line between the USA and Newfoundland, Field set his sights on bridging the Atlantic, with a cable from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Although Field was the prime 'mover and shaker' behind the idea, he was not personally responsible for the financing. He was able to organise landing rights and secure government backing and involvement in his scheme. The funding mostly came from British investors, such as John Pender and Elliot, the cable manufacturers.

The cable was made in the UK but the attempt was not a success. The ship set off from Britain with the cable connected, sending intermittent messages to check it still worked. The cable broke before they had got even halfway however, and the venture was postponed until the following year.

After the first attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic failed in 1857, a new attempt was made, in 1858. Once again the venture was organised by Cyrus Field who persuaded the British and US navies to provide ships to carry the cable. The US Navy supplied the USS Niagara and the British HMS Agamemnon.

The ships met in the middle of the Atlantic, connected up and sailed back towards their respective continents, sending messages throughout. When the connection was lost, they could immediately investigate, repair or replace the cable and continue on their journey.

After several months, the cable was successfully laid and connected, but regrettably stopped working after just six weeks. Some blamed an overloading of the cable whilst others thought that cable left over from the previous venture might have deteriorated in the rain during the intervening year. It would be seven years before the next attempt was made.

The first transatlantic cable was laid between Newfoundland and Valentia in Ireland.

Valentia, a small island off the west coast of Kerry, is the most westerly point of Europe and also the closest point to Canada, 1,900 miles across the ocean. As a result it was chosen to be the eastern landing for the transatlantic cable.

The cable itself was laid by two ships steaming away from each other from the middle of the ocean to their respective ports. It was no easy task and the cable snapped several times, however on August 5, 1858, the 'Agamemnon' finally sailed into Dingle Bay shortly before the 'Niagara' coasted into Newfoundland and the first transatlantic message was transmitted.

Strangely, Valentia wasn't actually linked to the mainland by telegraph at the time and messages had to be taken to and from the island by boat until it was. This cable failed after about 6 weeks having sent very few messages.

After the short-lived success of the second transatlantic cable seven years before, Cyrus Field was determined a permanent cable should be laid.

The American Civil War had intervened but technology had moved on and cables had successfully been laid in the North Sea. The new cables were thick and strong but required an enormous ship to carry them so the S.S. Great Eastern was bought for the job.

The vessel, designed by Brunel, was the world's largest steamship. It had failed as a passenger liner but its size made it perfect for the new job. It meant that only one ship was needed to lay the cable instead of two.

The expedition had gone most of the way when tragedy struck again and the cable was lost into the ocean depths and the ship had to wait for another year before a new attempt could be made. The Great Eastern, however had proved its worth and went on to lay cable to India in 1872.

Sample of Atlantic Cable and Certificate of Authenticity - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Porthcurno Museum of Submarine Telegraphy

First successful transatlantic cable (September 18.1866) : the big breakthrough

In 1866 the S.S. Great Eastern was loaded with a new cable and tried again. This time, it worked. The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, 1,852 miles in length, was laid between Valentia Island, Ireland and Newfoundland between July 13 and September 18.

On arrival in Newfoundland, Field cabled his team in Ireland: 'We arrived here at nine o'clock this morning. All is well. Thank God, the cable is laid and is in perfect working order.'

This time the cable - enhanced by a new device called a mirror galvanometer - remained in service for several years, transmitting up to 20 words per minute.

And, as a bonus, the defective cable that had been laid the previous year was located and repaired - providing two routes for telecommunications between Great Britain and North America.

'Eastern' match dispenser (1910s) : a light reminder

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Eastern' match dispenser (1910s) : a light reminder

When it comes to securing your business, companies have been trying different sorts of marketing gimmicks for years and the Eastern Telegraph Company was no exception.

Although the Eastern was the biggest by far, there were other companies operating rival telegraph networks so when you sent a telegraph, you had a choice between which company you used.

This ceramic match dispenser and ashtray was given to international sales managers and dispatch managers to remind them to choose the Eastern when they sent their messages. It was a simple gift, which showed the international telegraph routes of the company on the globe.

It was definitely a gift created in a world where smoking was a much more acceptable habit than it is now and today you're more likely to receive a pen or a mouse mat with a corporate message on.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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