Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Transatlantic Telegraphy

Posted on | January 22, 2011 | No Comments

While Western Union was consolidating its power over the widespread US market, others dreamed of using the telegraph to connect with other continents. The dream of electronically connecting North American with Europe was held strongest by Cyrus West Field, a Massachusetts entrepreneur. Born sickly in 1819, Field developed a fierce temperament and drove himself intensely. An underwater cable had already been tested in New Harbor by Morse but it was encased in a heavy and potentially leaky lead pipe. In Europe, an undersea cable had been placed between England and France in November 1851 and to Ireland in 1853.[19] Field sought to link the easternmost part of the North American continent, St. Johns, Newfoundland to Boston, New York and Washington by cable covered in a type of rubber. The plan was to forward messages from steamers from Europe refueling at St. John’s. Field quickly saw the potential of connecting Newfoundland, but asked why not England as well?

Samuel Morse had already predicted the transoceanic telegraphic crossing in 1853, but Field attracted the investment capital and had the drive to see it through. He received additional inspiration from a meeting with Lt. Matthew Maury, who had surveyed the Atlantic Ocean’s floor with sonar soundings and found a narrow plateau stretching across it. The relatively shallow elevation meant less cable would be needed and it was in less danger of snapping while being laid. The first step was to connect cables over land to the center of US commerce, New York City. Then they would lay the transatlantic cable from Newfoundland to Ireland, the closest part of the United Kingdom. Field formed the New York, Newfoundland, and London Electric Telegraph Company with Moses Taylor to lay the cable along the northeastern coast from St John’s Newfoundland to Nova Scotia where it connected to existing lines. This cable “pared forty-eight hours off the time required to transmit messages to and from Europe.” In 1855 Field and his associates formed the American Telegraph Company, which soon became the largest telegraphic company in the eastern United States. [20]

In 1857, the plan got underway. Over 2,600 miles of wire were coated with gutta-percha, the gum of a tree found in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A natural rubber imported from Malaysia, gutta-percha is a very bad conductor of electricity and was used to insulate the cable and prevent the electric current from being shorted by the seawater.[21] President Franklin Pierce signed a resolution on his last day in office supporting the expedition with ships from the US Navy. Two ships left Ireland with the intention of having the first ship lay cable halfway across the ocean and then the second ship splicing its cable on to the first and proceeding the other 1500 miles. Unfortunately, the cable snapped and the first mission was halted.

The failure of Field’s first expedition fed the motivation of Western Union, who had opposed the transatlantic plan and attracted capital to build their own cable to Europe through Alaska and over the Siberian plains. In 1867, the US bought Alaska from Russia, prompting Western Union to begin to build its lines through to the Bering Sea. To derail the motivation for going transatlantic, they wanted their cable to go under the much shorter (56 miles) Bering Sea. But the company ran into trouble in Siberia where they experienced a lack of trees needed for the telegraph poles. In Alaska, the forestry had proved abundant and the cable expanded rapidly, but vast stretches of eastern Russia were covered with Arctic tundra and provided little support for the materials-intensive endeavor. A similar problem would be experienced by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which would later supply poles for the vast eastern telegraph line. But it would not be completed until 1905. In the meantime, Field persisted with his plan to cross the Atlantic.

In July 1858, on their fourth attempt, the connection was made between Newfoundland and Ireland. A few weeks later, on August 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a 96 word congratulatory message to US President James Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln. Despite the massive celebrations that accompanied the news of the first transatlantic transmission (a fireworks mishap resulted in the burning down of the City Hall tower in New York City), joy turned to suspicion. It soon stopped working. It is generally considered that the cable was fried when too much electricity, over 2,000 volts, was injected into it. So disconcerting was the breakdown that much of the American public grew to conceive of the first transatlantic transmissions as a hoax. To make matters worse, it did not go into operation again for another ten years.

The Civil War preempted further attempts. The Union confiscated the use of all telegraphic cables and Field offered his expertise to helping the North win the war. This included working with the War Department and other government agencies. At the conclusion of the war, Field resumed his transatlantic attempt. He had been raising capital on both sides of the Atlantic. His new attempt would cost over $5 million and the cable would ultimately weigh over 9,000 tons. It was decided to lay only one large cable. He enlisted the use of the S.S. Great Eastern, a gigantic ship so large that it bankrupted its original backers, who could not find a suitable market for it. But it proved perfect for this objective as it was built to circumnavigate the Earth with 15,000 tons of coal in its belly. Ultimately the cable weighed 21,000 tons when the ship took off in 1865. On the first attempt the cable broke about 300 miles from its destination. Field regrouped. On June 13, 1866, The Great Eastern left Ireland again and this time it laid the cable all the way to its destination in Newfoundland. Since the giant ship landed at Newfoundland on July 17, 1866, Europe and the North America have been in constant electrical communication. [22]

It was the British, with its vast colonial empire and maritime resources, who established the first far-ranging undersea telegraph network. During the 1850s, they connected to Germany, the Netherlands and Russia as well as France. In1870, they laid a cable to their colony in India, allowing London to send a message to Bombay and get a reply in a matter of minutes. In 1871, their outpost in Australia was connected, and three years later the Great Eastern linked Europe to Brazil.[23] International communications moved from the primacy of mails through land carriage and water-faring ships to a new realm of relatively immediate telegraphic intercourse.

Explore a more recent view of global undersea network cables.


[19] Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. NY: Berkley Books. pp. 69-73. Cables laid between England and France and Ireland.
[20] The formation of Cyrus W. Field’s American Telegraph Company from Citibank 1812-1970. p. 21.
[21] Clarke, A. (1992) How the World was One. New York: Bantam Books. p. 103. Gutta-percha as a natural insulator for undersea cables.
[22] I want to thank Darrell Roe for his class notes on the transatlantic cable.
[23] Clarke, A. (1992) How the World was One. New York: Bantam Books. p. 102. Globalization of undersea cables.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.


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