First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed

This new communications link between North America and Great Britain opened a new era of political and economic cooperation by making possible nearly instantaneous communications.

Summary of Event

Among the most important developments of the nineteenth century were the invention of the magnetic telegraph, a simple electrical Electricity;and telegraph[Telegraph] device that revolutionized the field of communications, and the launching of the steamship Great Eastern, which made possible the laying of the first transatlantic cable. Samuel F. B. Morse Telegraph;invention of invented the electric telegraph in 1837. In less than a decade, his telegraph made possible almost instantaneous communication over long distances. In 1845, Morse secured a congressional appropriation of thirty thousand dollars to set up the first telegraph line in the United States, between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Transatlantic cable
Telegraph;transatlantic cable
Great Britain;and United States[United States]
Field, Cyrus West
Steamships;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable]
[kw]First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed (July 27, 1866)
[kw]Transatlantic Cable Is Completed, First (July 27, 1866)
[kw]Cable Is Completed, First Transatlantic (July 27, 1866)
[kw]Completed, First Transatlantic Cable Is (July 27, 1866)
Transatlantic cable
Telegraph;transatlantic cable
Great Britain;and United States[United States]
Field, Cyrus West
Steamships;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable]
[g]United States;July 27, 1866: First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed[3990]
[g]Great Britain;July 27, 1866: First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed[3990]
[c]Communications;July 27, 1866: First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed[3990]
[c]Engineering;July 27, 1866: First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed[3990]
[c]Science and technology;July 27, 1866: First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed[3990]
Gisborne, Frederick N.
Brunel, Isambard Kingdom
Field, Matthew D.
Maury, Matthew Fontaine
Morse, Samuel F. B.

The first successful underwater cable of any substantial length was completed in 1850; it connected Dover, England, and Calais, France, across the English Channel English Channel;telegraph cable . That accomplishment inspired similar projects in Scandinavian waters and in the Mediterranean Sea. The English engineer Frederick N. Gisborne Gisborne, Frederick N. was the first person publicly to propose a transatlantic communication cable. In 1854, he encouraged the English engineer Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel Brunel, Isambard Kingdom to visit New York to persuade the young businessman Cyrus West Field to form a cable company, after being assured by Morse Morse, Samuel F. B. that great distances would not hinder the telegraph’s operation. Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury Maury, Matthew Fontaine , now regarded as the founder of oceanography, had previously surveyed the Atlantic depths between Newfoundland Newfoundland;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] and Ireland Ireland;transatlantic cable and was able to offer precise recommendations for the best route.

The task of promoting capital and organizing a company to carry forward the venture was taken up primarily by Field, who had risen to a junior partnership in a New York wholesale paper business. In 1841, after the firm declared bankruptcy, he established his own company. Within ten years he had amassed one-quarter of a million dollars—enough to enable him to retire at the age of thirty-three. His interest in the possibility of a transatlantic cable was stimulated by his meeting, in 1854, with Gisborne. Gisborne, Frederick N.

After that meeting, Field organized a company to connect St. John’s, Newfoundland, Newfoundland;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] telegraphically with New York and the eastern seaboard. That telegraphic link alone would shorten by forty-eight hours the time required to bring European news to the United States. Field then pondered the next step: direct communication with Europe through a twenty-three-hundred-mile-long cable between Newfoundland and Ireland. This project received the support of a group of wealthy businessmen, and in May, 1854, the New York, Newfoundland, and London Electric Telegraph Company was organized and financed with $1.5 million in subscriptions. In the summer of 1856, the company established a telegraph link between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia Nova Scotia;and telegraph[Telegraph] , under the direction of engineer Matthew D. Field Field, Matthew D. .

In 1856, Cyrus Field went to England to seek the assistance of the British government for his latest project. He was favorably received, and the British promised to supply both ships and funds. Field then was able to obtain similar commitments from the U.S. government. He immediately set up the Atlantic Telegraph Company, a joint stock company in England, which took over the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company’s monopoly for the laying of cables. Possessing capital of more than £350,000, and the support of both governments, the Atlantic Cable Company was ready to begin its herculean task. Field commissioned three British companies to make three thousand miles of heavily insulated steel Steel;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] thread cable, which weighed 1,860 pounds—nearly one ton—per mile.

Field’s first attempt at laying the cable began on August 5, 1857, when a flotilla of nine ships sailed from Valentia Bay on the west coast of Ireland. One American ship, the Niagara, and one British vessel, the battleship Agamemnon, were assigned the difficult task of paying out the cable as the British-American ships moved westward. All went well for six days, but when the flotilla was 355 miles out to sea, the inferior cable snapped in a heavy swell, and the operation had to be abandoned. Experts from the two nations blamed the failure on each other, but Field and his associates remained confident of ultimate triumph.

Arrival of the Great Eastern at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

For the next attempt, in the summer of 1858, it was decided that the two cable ships should start by meeting together in mid-ocean. There, they would splice together the separate ends of two lines, and each would go in an opposite direction, thereby cutting in half the distance over which any one ship would have to lay cable. On June 26, 1858, the Agamemnon proceeded toward Ireland and the Niagara toward Newfoundland. Newfoundland;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] When the ships were some forty miles apart, the cable again broke after six recovery attempts, with the loss of 290 miles of cable. By that time, Cyrus Field’s company had lost $2.5 million.

Improved equipment was installed, another attempt at splicing was initiated, and the Agamemnon and the Niagara again gingerly steamed away from each other and in opposite directions. This time the cable held together. After the Niagara safely reached North America, the Agamemnon completed the line when it reached Ireland on August 4, 1858. The English directors of the Atlantic Cable Company sent the first message: “Europe and America are united by telegraphic communication.”

Later on that same day, U.S. president James Buchanan Buchanan, James
[p]Buchanan, James;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable]
Victoria, Queen
[p]Victoria, Queen;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] and British queen Victoria exchanged congratulatory remarks, and messages of all sorts were communicated between England and the United States. Most messages expressed the hope that the Atlantic cable would unite the two countries in eternal friendship. After a brief period, however, signals over the cable grew faint and finally gave out completely, after only three hundred messages had been transmitted. It was later determined that the cable failed because of inadequate insulation, but Field was accused of fraud, and his company faced financial collapse for a time. Without conceding defeat, Field continued to promote his idea, but the intervention of the Civil War (1861-1865) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable] caused a delay in restarting.

In 1864, Field joined with Brunel Brunel, Isambard Kingdom and secured the now infamous twelve-thousand-ton steamship Great Eastern, Great Eastern, SS “the unappeasable whale that ate men and gold.” Often called “an elephant spinning a cobweb,” the Great Eastern was the daily subject for caricatures and malicious press cartoons. By July 14, 1865, however, everything was ready as the ship lay at Sheerness, England, after taking on great spools of wire cable wrapped in a tar-manila insulation that was carried by navy hulks down from London. Even the Prince of Wales came aboard and said, “I wish success to the Atlantic Cable,” a taped message that took two seconds to travel the 1,395 nautical miles of still-coiled, blemish-free cable. With fifteen hundred tons of coal and a dead load of twenty-one thousand tons, the Great Eastern left its berth, accompanied by a flotilla of English steamer ships to the accompaniment of fiddles, bagpipes, and cheering crowds.

Initially, the ship laid the new cable at a speed of six knots, but the entire operation was fraught with gales, broken cable, and even “flagrant evidence of mischief.” On many occasions, long sections of the cable were lost and had to be laboriously retrieved from the ocean bottom with five-pronged anchors. Each section had to be carefully inspected for flaws, which then required tedious splicing.

On August 2, the Great Eastern crossed the Atlantic’s halfway point. Then the operation, which was beset by rumors of sabotage, had to stop until an improved cable could be manufactured and the weaknesses and problems of laying the cable had been eliminated. The ship had laid 1,186 miles of trailing cable that was only partially alive. The area was marked with a red sea buoy with a black ball before the Great Eastern left.

On July 13, 1866, after Field reorganized the cable company, the Great Eastern resumed laying new cable and joined its new cable to the shore end off Valencia, and completed laying the cable in fourteen days. On Friday, July 27, the final splice was made successfully, after the cable was carried ashore at Heart’s Content relay station in Newfoundland. On its return voyage, the Great Eastern
Great Eastern, SS located the red buoy with the black ball, and after grappling thirty times, the lost cable was retrieved. One crew member said, “Only God can know the sensation of this moment.”


The social, economic, and political effects of the transatlantic cable were almost immediate in both the United States and Great Britain, as government communications and growing numbers of commercial messages increased. Meanwhile, technical improvements in telegraphy permitted growing numbers of messages to be sent simultaneously on the same lines, including messages traveling in opposite directions. By the end of the century, numerous undersea cable lines were connecting virtually the entire globe.

Further Reading

  • Babcock, F. Lawrence. Spanning the Atlantic. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. Sold narrative of the efforts to lay the first Atlantic cable.
  • Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse’s Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993. Well-researched history of the development of the telegraph by a former telegrapher. Gives special attention to the telegraph’s role during the Civil War—the period during which the laying of the transatlantic cable was delayed.
  • Emmerson, George S. The Greatest Iron Ship: S.S. Great Eastern. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1980. Thorough account of the world’s then largest iron ship, which was converted to lay the first Atlantic cable.
  • Fox, Stephen. Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Narrative history of transatlantic steamships that looks closely at the builder of the Great Eastern, which completed the first transatlantic cable.
  • Hearn, Chester G. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. History of the eleven-year effort to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable, including Brunel’s participation in the process. Describes the ships used, the technology involved, and the initial failures of the venture.
  • _______. Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans. Camden, Maine: International Maritime/McGraw-Hill, 2002. Comprehensive biography of the pioneering American oceanographer who plotted the route for the first transatlantic cable.
  • McDonald, Philip B. A Saga of the Seas: The Story of Cyrus W. Field and the Laying of the First Atlantic Cable. New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1937. History of the first transatlantic cable that emphasizes the obstacles that had to be overcome.
  • Tyler, David B. Steam Conquers the Atlantic. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1939. Places the laying of the Atlantic cable in the wider context of the early years of the transatlantic steamships.

Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage

Morse Sends First Telegraph Message

Brunel Launches the SS Great Eastern

Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail

Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed

Marconi Patents the Wireless Telegraph

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Telegraph;transatlantic cable
Great Britain;and United States[United States]
Field, Cyrus West
Steamships;and transatlantic cable[Transatlantic cable]