SUCCESSFUL LAYING OF THE TELEGRAPH CABLE ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN — 1866
Unnecessary would be the task of detailing, in this place, — additional to those pages already devoted to Professor Morse’s grand discovery, and its practical application the world wide, — the technical principles and operations involved in the science of telegraphic communication.
It was early declared by Professor Morse, and by other distinguished investigators of the nature and powers of the electric current, that neither the ocean itself, nor the distance to be traversed, presented any insuperable obstacle to the laying of submerged oceanic lines from continent to continent, and the confident prophecy that such lines would eventually be undertaken was freely uttered and discussed in learned circles.
It was not, however, until the year 1857, that an attempt was made to stretch a telegraphic wire across the bed of the Atlantic. The cable was coiled half on board the United States steamship Niagara, and half on the British steamer Agamemnon. They began to lay it in mid-ocean on the 26th of June, the Niagara proceeding toward the American coast, the Agamemnon toward Ireland. After the wire had three times broken, the attempt was given up. The following August it was renewed on a different plan. The shore-end was made fast at Valentia Bay, and the Niagara began paying out on the seventh, the arrangement being that the Agamemnon should begin operations when the Niagara had exhausted her half of the cable. On the eleventh, after three hundred and thirty-five miles had been laid, the wire broke again. The third attempt was made with the same vessels in 1858. The ends of the cable were joined in mid ocean, July 29th, and, August 6th, the two vessels arrived simultaneously at their respective destinations. This cable worked for a time, but the electric current grew weak and finally failed altogether.
But these repeated failures, though a severe disappointment to those engaged in the great and costly enterprise, did not destroy their faith in its feasibility, and the mighty task was begun anew, advantage being taken of whatever instruction past experience could furnish or suggest.
Especial care had, it is true, been exercised in the previous undertaking, to have the construction of the cable itself as perfect as possible. It was the result of many months’ thought, experiment, and trial. Hundreds of specimens were made, comprising every variety of form, size, and structure, and most severely tested as to their powers and capabilities; and the result was the adoption of one which, it was believed, possessed all the properties required, in a far higher degree than any cable that had yet been laid. Its flexibility was such as to make it as manageable as a small line, and its strength such that it would bear, in water, over six miles of its own weight suspended vertically. The conducting medium consisted not of one single straight copper wire, but of seven wires of copper of the best quality, twisted round each other spirally, and capable of undergoing great tension without injury. This conductor was then enveloped in three separate coverings of gutta percha, of the best quality, forming the core of the cable, round which tarred hemp was wrapped, and over this, the outside covering, consisting of eighteen strands of the best quality of iron wire, — each strand composed of seven distinct wires, twisted spirally, in the most approved manner, by machinery specially adapted to the purpose. Such was the exquisitely constructed cable used on this occasion.
Great attention was also paid to the arrangement of the apparatus for paying out. The machine for this purpose was placed on deck in the after-part of the vessel, and somewhat on the starboard side, to be clear of the mast, etc. The cable, as it came up from its enormous coils in the hold, passed first through a guiding groove and over a deeply grooved wheel, on to the drums, each of the latter being furnished with four deep grooves, each groove being cut one-eighth of an inch deeper than the former to allow for slack. The cable, after winding round these drums, passed on from the last groove over another guiding wheel, to a distinct piece of machinery, also standing on the deck, and half-way between the brakes and the ship’s stern. Here a grooved wheel worked on a sliding frame, furnished with weights fixed on a rod, which ended in a piston, inside of a cylinder, full of water. This piston, being made not quite large enough to fit the cylinder, the water had room to play about it, but with difficulty — so that, yielding freely to every alteration of pressure, it could do so to none with a jerk, as the piston required some little time to dislodge the water from one side of it to the other, it acting, in short, as a water cushion. From this last piece of machinery the cable passed over a wheel or sheave projecting well over the stern of the ship, and so down into the ocean depths.
So intelligent and powerful an association as that which had this great enterprise in charge — an association composed of some of the leading merchants and capitalists of England and America, guided by the wonderful genius of Mr. Cyrus W. Field, — might well be supposed incapable of yielding to defeat, and thus it was that, until success finally and beyond all peradventure crowned their efforts, they continued their tests and trials of improved machinery and cables, availing themselves of every resource of science, and even bringing into requisition, at last, the magnificent conveniences of conveyance afforded by that “leviathan of the deep,” the steamer Great Eastern.
In this way, certain facts and principles were arrived at, and demonstrated by trials and expeditions conducted in accordance therewith, which showed plainly what had been the errors of the past, and what should be the governing rules of future operations. Among these facts and principles were the following:
It was proved by the expedition of 1858,that a submarine telegraph cable could be laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, and messages transmitted.
By the expedition of 1865 — when the cable was lost — it was demonstrated that the insulation of a cable improves very much after its submersion in the cold deep water of the Atlantic, and that its conducting power is considerably increased thereby; that the steamship Great Eastern, from her size and constant steadiness, and from the control over her afforded by the joint use of paddles and screw, rendered it safe to lay an Atlantic cable in any weather; that in a depth of over two miles, four attempts were made to grapple the lost cable, in three of which the cable was caught by the grapnel, and in the other the grapnel was fouled by the chain attached to it; that the paying-out machinery used on board the Great Eastern worked perfectly, and could be confidently relied on for laying cables across the Atlantic; that with the improved telegraphic instruments for long submarine lines, a speed of more than eight words per minute could be obtained through such a cable as that sunk between Ireland and Newfoundland, as the amount of slack actually paid out did not exceed fourteen per cent., which would have made the total cable laid between Valentia and Heart’s Content nineteen hundred miles; that the lost Atlantic cable, though capable of bearing a strain of seven tons, did not experience more than fourteen hundred-weight in being paid out into the deepest water of the Atlantic between Ireland and Newfoundland; that there was no difficulty in mooring buoys in the deep waters of the Atlantic between Ireland and Newfoundland, and that two buoys even, when moored by a piece of the Atlantic cable itself, which had been previously lifted from the bottom, had ridden out a gale; that more than four nautical miles of the Atlantic cable had been recovered from a depth of over two miles, and that the insulation of the gutta percha covered wire was in no way whatever impaired by the depth of water or the strains to which it had been subjected by lifting and passing through the hauling-in apparatus; that the cable of 1865, owing to the improvements introduced into the manufacture of the gutta percha core, was more than one hundred times better insulated than cables made in 1858, then considered perfect; that the electrical testing could be conducted with such unerring certainty as to enable the electricians to discover the existence of a fault immediately after its production or development, and very quickly to ascertain its position in the cable; and, finally, that with a steam-engine attached to the paying-out machinery, should a fault he discovered on board whilst laying the cable, it was possible to recover it before it had readied the bottom of the ocean, and have it repaired at once.
Still led on by that master-spirit of the enterprise, Mr. Field, its friends formed themselves into a new company, with a large amount of capital, and the summer of 1866 was fixed upon for another effort, the Great Eastern to be employed for the purpose. By the time (says Dr. H. M. Field, the admirable historian of the enterprise,) the big ship had her cargo and stores on board, she was well laden. Of the cable alone there were two thousand four hundred miles, coiled in three immense tanks, as the year before. Of this, seven hundred and forty-eight miles were a part of the cable of the last expedition. The tanks alone, with the water in them, weighed over a thousand tons; and the cable which they held, four thousand tons more; besides which she had to carry eight thousand five hundred tons of coal and five hundred tons of telegraph stores — in all some fourteen thousand tons, besides engines, rigging, etc., which made nearly as much more. So enormous was this burden, that it was thought prudent not to take on board all her coal before she left the Medway, especially as the channel was winding and shallow. It was therefore arranged that about a third of her coal should he taken in at Berehaven, a port on the south-west coast of Ireland. The time for her departure, was the last day of June; and in four or five days she had passed down the Irish coast, and was quietly anchored in the harbor at Berehaven, where she was soon joined by the other vessels of the squadron. The Terrible, which had accompanied the Great Eastern on the former expedition, was still there to represent the majesty of England. The William Corry, a vessel of two thousand tons, bore the ponderous shore end, which was to be laid out thirty miles from the Irish coast, while the Albany and the Medway were ships chartered by the company. While the Great Eastern remained at Berehaven, to take in her final stores of coal, the William Corry proceeded around the coast to Valentia, to lay the shore end. She arrived off the harbor, July 7th, and immediately prepared for her heavy task. This shore end was of tremendous size, weighing over eight tons to the mile. The cable was to be brought off on a bridge of boats, reaching from the ship to the foot of the cliff. All the fishermen’s boats were gathered from along
the shore, while the British war-ship Racoon, which was guarding that part of the coast, sent up her boats to help, so that, as they all mustered in line, there were forty of them, making a long pontoon-bridge; and Irish boatmen with eager looks and strong hands were standing along the line to grasp the massive chain. All went well, and by one o’clock the cable was landed, and its end brought up the cliff to the station. The signals were found to be perfect, and the William Corry then slowly drew off to sea, unlimbering her stiff shore end, till she had cast over the whole thirty miles. At three o’clock, the next morning, she telegraphed through the cable that her work was done, and she had buoyed the end in water a hundred fathoms deep.
The joy of the inhabitants on witnessing this scene was earnest and deep-seated, rather than demonstrative, after the lesson taught by last year’s experience. The excitement was below, instead of above the surface. Nothing could prevent the scene being intensely dramatic, but the prevailing tone of the drama was serious, instead of boisterous and triumphant. Speech-making, hurrahing, public congratulations, and vaunts of confidence, were, as it seemed, avoided as if on purpose. The old crones (says an English paper) in tattered garments who cowered together, dudheen in mouth, their gaudy colored shawls tightly drawn over head and under the chin — the barefooted boys and girls, who by long practice walked over sharp and jagged rocks, which rut up boots and shoes, with perfect impunity — the men at work uncovering the trench, and winding in single file up and down the hazardous path cut by the cablemen in the otherwise inaccessible rock — the patches of bright color furnished by the red petticoats and cloaks — the ragged garments, only kept from falling to pieces by bits of string and tape — the good old parish priest, who exercises mild and gentle spiritual sway over the loving subjects of whom the ever-popular Knight of Kerry is the temporal head, looking on benignly from his car — the bright eyes, supple figures, and innocent faces of the peasant lasses, and the earnestly hopeful expression of all — made up a picture not easily described.
On the thirteenth of July, the fleet was ready to sail on its great errand, and lay the cable in the heart of the wide and deep ocean. Previously to the departure, however, a devotional meeting was held, participated in by the company, the officers and hands, at which the enterprise was solemnly commended to the favor of God. In a short time after leaving the shores of Ireland, the Medway reached the buoy to which the shore-end was attached, and immediately the operation of splicing that end with the main coil on board the Great Eastern was performed.
At about three o’clock, P. M., the telegraph fleet was on its way to Newfoundland, in the following order: The Terrible ahead of the Great Eastern on the starboard bow, the Medway on the port, and the Albany on the starboard quarter. The weather was thick and foggy, with heavy rains. Signals were sent through the cable on board of the Great Eastern and to the telegraph house at Valentia, and the two thousand four hundred and forty nautical miles were found perfect in condition, and only waiting their final destination in the vast womb of the ocean.
All went well until noon of July 18th, when the first real shock was given to the success that had hitherto attended them, and caused considerable alarm. A foul flake took place in the after-tank. The engine was immediately turned astern, and the paying of the cable stopped. All hands were soon on the decks, and there learned, to their dismay, that the running and paying out of the coil had caught three turns of the flake immediately under it, carried them into the eye of the coil, fouling the toy-out and hauling up one-half turns from the outside, and five turns of the eye of the under flakes. This was stopped, fortunately, before entering the paying-out machines; stoppers of hemp with chains were also put on near the wheel astern, and orders were given by Mr. Canning, to stand by to let go the buoy. This was not very cheering to hear; but, though the calm and collected man inspired those around him with confidence that his skill and experience would extricate the cable from the danger in which it was placed, no fishing line was ever entangled more than the rope when thrust up in apparently hopeless danger from the eye of the cable to the deck.
There were at least five thousand feet of rope lying in this state, and in the midst of thick rain and increasing wind, the cable crew set to work to disentangle it. The Dolphin was there, too, patiently following the lights as they showed themselves, the crew now passing them forward and now aft, until at last the character of the tangle was seen, and soon it became apparent that ere long the cable would be saved and uninjured down to the tank. Captain Anderson was at the taffrail, anxiously, watching the strain on the rope (they could scarcely make it out, the night was so dark), endeavoring to keep it up and down, going on raising with paddle and screw. In view of the rise of the great ship, and the enormous mass she presented to the wind, the difficulty of keeping her stern, under the circumstances, over the cable, can be appreciated. The port paddle-wheel was disconnected, but afterward there was a shift of wind, and the vessel came-to the wrong way.
Welcome voices were now heard passing the word aft from the tank, that the bights were cleared, and to pay out. Then the huge stoppers were quietly opened, and at 2:05 AM to the joy of all, the cable was once more being discharged. They veered it away in the tank to clear the screw, and the paddle-engines were slowed so as to reduce the speed of the ship to four and a half knots. During all this critical time, there was entire absence of noise and confusion. Everything was silently done, and the cable men and crew worked with hearty good will.
On the morning of Friday, at eight o’clock, July 27th, the ship arrived at
Heart’s Content, the American terminus, the distance run being one thousand six hundred and sixty-nine miles, and the length of cable paid out, one thousand eight hundred and four miles. The average speed of the ship from the time the splice was made until they came in sight of hand was a little less than five nautical miles per hour, and the cable was paid out at an average of five and one-half miles per hour. The total slack was less than twelve per cent. The fleet was in constant communication with Valentia since the splice was made, July 13th, and news was daily received from Europe, which was posted up outside of the telegraph office, for the information of all on board of the Great Eastern, and was signaled to the other ships. It would be difficult to describe the feelings with which Mr. Field, who, with his associates on board, had watched the progress of the undertaking with intense solicitude, day and night, — penned the following announcement to his friends in New York, and which was received throughout the whole land with unbounded delight: —
“HEART’S CONTENT, July 27. We arrived here at nine o’clock, this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid, and is in perfect working order.
CYRUS W. FIELD”
Strangely and happily enough, too, the first European tidings flashed across the cable to the western hemisphere, was, that a treaty of peace had just been signed between Austria and Prussia, and that the black war cloud which had gathered over all Europe was fast fleeing away; — a fit celebration of the grandest of human enterprises, the successful establishment of telegraphic communication between the Old world and the New.
Congratulatory dispatches were immediately forwarded, by Mr. Field, to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, and to the honorary directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The queen of England sent her salutations to the president, as follows: “The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of union between the United States and England.” To this, the president responded by saying: “The President of the United States acknowledges with profound gratification the receipt of Her Majesty’s dispatch, and cordially reciprocates the hope that the cable which now unites the eastern and western hemispheres may serve to strengthen and to perpetuate peace and amity between the Government of England and the Republic of the United States.”
Heart’s Content, the American terminus of the cable, is a little fishing hamlet, hitherto unknown, but destined to an enduring reputation hereafter, as one of the most interesting geographical points in the history of the age. The bay on which it is situated is a very safe and capacious one, and on this account was selected.
Among the complimentary messages sent to Mr. Field, on the consummation of his great and magnificent scheme, was one which came to hand on Monday, July 30th, from M de Lesseps, the renowned projector of the Suez Canal. It was dated in Alexandria, Egypt, the same day, at half-past one o’clock, P.M., and reached Newfoundland at half-past ten, A. M. By looking at the globe, one can see over what a space that message flew. Remarking upon the wonderful fact, a New York paper graphically said that it came from the farthest East, from the land of the Pharaohs and Ptolemies; it passed along the shores of Africa, and under the Mediterranean, more than a thousand miles, to Malta; thence it leaped to the continent, and shot across Italy, and over the Alps. and then through France, under the Channel, to London; then across England and Ireland, till from the cliffs of Valentia it struck straight into the Atlantic, darting down the submarine mountain which lies off the coast, and over all the hills and valleys of the watery plain, resting not till it touched the shore of the New World. Thus, in its morning’s flight, it had passed over one-fourth of the earth’s surface, and so far outstripped the sun in his course, that, by the dial, it reached its destination three hours before it was sent! Curiously enough, too, in this latter connection, it was found, when considering the propriety of not sending messages on Sunday, that, supposing no delay in transmission, Sunday in the United States is Saturday in Calcutta, and thus the adoption of such a rule would be — working eastward and westward — to exclude Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, from telegraph operations.
As illustrating the moral uses, too, sub-served by land and ocean telegraph lines connecting different countries and continents, the following case, given in a New York journal — by no means an extreme case in this present day of increased telegraphic facilities — will be found in point: A knavish Chinaman in California having contracted the barbarian vice of swindling, has been cheating sundry merchants in San Francisco out of eighteen thousand dollars, and, getting on board the Pacific Mail steamship, fled to the Central Flowery Kingdom, in this way he hoped to put between himself and those whom he had robbed, first, some ten thousand miles of ocean. But, a telegram from San Francisco bears the tidings of his crime to New York. New York sends it by cable across the Atlantic to London, London through France and under the Mediterranean to. Alexandria, Alexandria by the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to Bombay, Bombay to Ceylon, and Ceylon by the Peninsula and Oriental steamers to China. So that, when Hong-Kee trips lightly down the ship’s gangway at Hong Kong or Shanghai, dreaming of much opium and many almond-eyed daughters of the Sun in the Land of flowers, his placid soul will be disconcerted by the tap of a bamboo on his shoulder, and a voice of doom will murmur an ungentle summons in his ear. Poor Hong-Kee! The bad morals of the Christians have corrupted him, and in the steam-engine of the Christians has he put his trust. But the literal ‘chain-lightning’ of those same Christians is after him, to outstrip their steam-engine, and to teach him in sorrow and in shame how much better he might have done.
Not less curious, in a scientific point of view, is the following incident, as related by Mr. Field, at the magnificent banquet given in his honor, in New York, on the triumphant completion of what has justly been pronounced the grandest of human enterprises. “The other day,” said Mr. Field, in his speech on this occasion, “Mr. Lattimer Clark telegraphed from Ireland, across the ocean and back again, with a battery formed in a lady’s thimble! And now Mr. Collett writes me from Heart’s Content: “I have just sent my compliments to Doctor Gould, of Cambridge, who is at Valentin, with a battery composed of a gun cap, with a strip of zinc, excited by a drop of water, the simple bulk of a tear!'”
Too great credit can never be awarded to Mr. Field, for his persevering devotion to this enterprise, through ten years of disheartening failure. In the early stages of the enterprise, few encouraged him in his expectations, though all personally wished him well. On preparing, therefore, for one of his trips across the Atlantic, in connection with the business, one of his friends said to him, “When shall we see you again?” “Not until I have laid the cable” was Mr. Field’s reply. So, too, on presenting the subject to Lord Clarendon. The latter showed great interest and made many inquiries, but was rather startled at the magnitude of the proposed scheme, as well as at the confident tone of the projectors, and pleasantly asked the lion-hearted man —
“But, suppose you don’t succeed? Suppose you make the attempt and fail — your cable is lost in the sea — then what will you do?”
“Charge it to profit and loss, and go to work to lay another,” was Mr. Field’s quick and characteristic response to his noble friend.
On another occasion, when dining at the residence of Mr. Adams, the American ambassador, in London, he was seen for an instant to nod his head. John Bright, who sat next to him, turned to him with a smile, and said, “I am glad to see you sleep; I didn’t know that you ever slept!” — a most pertinent and deserved tribute to the man whose indomitable faith and energy was finally crowned with immortal success.