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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The First Permanent Atlantic Cable, July 27, 1866

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Today in 1866, the laying of the second trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was completed. While submarine cables were not new, this cable marked the first permanent method of quick communication between North America and Europe.

The idea of a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean was almost as old as the telegraph itself. Samuel Morse, the man who brought the world the Morse Code, publicly acknowledged the possibility in 1840. Shorter distances would be covered in the next two decades, such as the linking of England and France in 1850 and the linking of St. John's Newfoundland and New York City in 1856 by a combination land and sea cable. This last job was undertaken by the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, a concern started by Cyrus Field with the intention of laying a telegraph line across the Atlantic. It would later become the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

Laying cable on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1850's was something akin to 21st century mankind traveling to the moons of Jupiter. There was much to learn about electrical insulators, salt water's corrosive effects over time and the best way to actually deliver the cable. The first attempt, in 1857, utilized two converted warships, the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara. The two vessels began their journey at Valentia Island on the southwest coast of Ireland, but did not get very far before the cable parted, was retrieved, and parted again.

The second attempt found the two ships meeting in the middle of the Atlantic, splicing their cables together, and sailing in opposite directions. The two cables parted three times before the journeys were called off. About three weeks later, the two crews tried again. This time, their efforts were successful and both ships arrived at their respective ports one day apart, having paid out cable the entire way.

There was much enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic over the completion of this first trans-Atlantic cable. Queen Victoria sent a message of congratulations to President Buchanan, who returned a message in kind. The world had suddenly become much smaller.

Unfortunately, the thrill of this victory over distance was short-lived. Less than a month after it sent its first message, the cable went silent due to rapid deterioration of the insulation surrounding the conductors. The dream was shattered, and events in the United States would soon put another cabling attempt on hold.

While the Civil War raged in America, much experience was gained with submarine cable. By 1864, cables ran under the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Cable design advanced rapidly, meaning that the next cable layed across the floor of the ocean would probably last for years. In 1864, the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company was founded to manufacture and lay the cable.

The ship chosen for this attempt at crossing the divide was the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world at that time. In July, 1865, the great ship left Valentia Island and headed west carrying 2,300 nautical miles of cable. Two weeks into the journey, the cable snapped. More than 1000 miles of copper and insulation lay useless on the ocean floor.

Almost one year to the day after her last journey, the Great Eastern started west once again. On July 27, 1866, she arrived in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. A new Atlantic cable had finally been completed. To add to the ship and her crew's success, the Great Eastern almost immediately set forth to find the cable lost the previous year. Two weeks of searching and another near loss later, there were two working telegraph lines under the ocean.

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