Heart’s Content, Newfoundland (WHTM) After a 14 day voyage across the Atlantic, The S.S. Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world, arrived in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. On board, a very precious cargo-the other end of a 2,730 nautical mile long cable that she starting spooling out on July 13 from Valentia, Ireland, on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The cable end was brought ashore, hooked into the Heart’s Content telegraph station, and with the click of a telegraph key, the time it took to get a message across the ocean dropped from “two weeks to two minutes.”
And it had taken only 12 years and five tries to do it.
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Success has many parents, as the old saying goes, but if there is anyone who can be considered the father of the transatlantic cable, it would be American businessman and financier Cyrus West Field. Born in 1819, he made his fortune manufacturing paper. In 1854 he turned his attention and energies to the idea of laying a telegraph cable between America and England-an idea which began floating around almost as soon as the telegraph was invented. He rounded up backers both in the US and Great Britain, and soon completed the first necessary step, building telegraph connections between St. John’s Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the United States.
Then it was time to lay the big cable. There were no ships available large enough to carry the entire cable, so the load was divided up between two converted warships, HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara.
The ships set out on August 5, 1857 from Ireland, but after only about 300 miles, the cable broke and the end sank in 10,500 feet of water. The loss was due to problems with controlling the cable tension as it payed out. A new braking mechanism was designed and tested in preparation for the next attempt.
The second attempt began on June 10, 1858. The two ships sailed out from Ireland to the mid Atlantic, and on June 25 spliced their two cables together. Then Agamemnon sailed east, Niagara sailed west-and the cable broke again. Three times. The expedition returned to Ireland.
But they still had enought cable for another try. Attempt number three began July 17, The two cable ends were spliced on July 29. Things went perfectly. Niagara reached in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland on August 4, Agamemnon arrived at Valentia Island on August 5, the cable ends were hooked up, and after a few days of testing the first official message was sent August 16:
“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.”
This was followed by a congratulatory telegram from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. The transatlantic cable was working!
But it wasn’t working well. Transmission rate was very slow. Then in September it stopped working altogether, after sending 732 messages.
Attempt Number four wouldn’t take place until 1865. After the 1858 failure, Cyrus Field had trouble finding backers, and there was a little matter of the Civil War distracting people in America. Ultimately, though, the delay worked in their favor. New and better cables had been developed, and they now had the Great Eastern, which could carry the entire load of cable.
(The Great Eastern was a ship before her time. Unfortunately, she was also too big to not fail. Running her turned out to be phenomenally expensive, and she never turned a profit. She cost $5 million to build; a backer of the cable laying company was able to buy her at auction for $125,000.)
The Great Eastern set out on July 15, 1865. Things seemed to be going great. Then, just 600 miles from Newfoundland, with 1,062 miles payed out, the cable snapped, and the end slipped under the waves. Cyrus Field went to work raising money for another attempt.
On July 13, 1866, Great Eastern set out again. This time things went flawlessly, she arrived at Trinity Bay without incident, and transcontinental communication became a reality.
The icing on the cake? Great Eastern carried extra cable in her holds. In August 1866 she sailed with several other ships on an even more daunting mission than laying the cable-recovering the 1865 cable and completing a second transatlantic connection.
Hey, it was only under 2 1/2 miles of water…
But they had a good idea of the cable’s position, and on August 10 the grappling ship Albany brought it up. Then it went down again. This happened multiple times. It wasn’t until early September that the cable’s end was safely on board the Great Eastern, where it was connected to the additional cable. On September 7 the Great Eastern arrived at Heart’s Content, and the world had two transatlantic cables in less than two months.