Transatlantic cable Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The cable reduced communication time between North America and Europe, two of the most important regions in the global economy, from days to mere seconds.

Cyrus Field,CyrusField, an American financier, promoted the laying of a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean to connect Europe and North America. The telegraph was a remarkable invention, capable of sending information almost instantaneously to anywhere wired to receive a signal. The great limitation of the telegraph, however, was its inability to send messages across oceans. Connecting Europe and North America, the leading political and economic regions of the world during the mid-nineteenth century, presented obvious benefits, but because of the necessity to string a wire such a great distance in difficult conditions and at great expense, no one had attempted such a connection. That changed during the 1850’s, when advances in metallurgy and insulators led to the creation of a cable capable of surviving the harsh conditions on the ocean floor.Transatlantic cableTelegraph industry;transatlantic cable

Under the leadership of Field, an investment company received monetary support from the British and American governments to attempt to lay the first transatlantic cable in 1857. Two warships, HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara, converted to temporary cable-layers, rendezvoused in the middle of the Atlantic, connected their cables, and headed toward their homelands, rolling out the cable behind them. The line soon split, and the ships abandoned the project for the year. The next year, the ships tried again, and this time succeeded in laying the cable. On August 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent the first message over a transatlantic cable to President James Buchanan.

An 1858 woodcut celebrating the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable.

(Library of Congress)

The success was short-lived, however, as the cable failed within a month. Investors were hesitant to spend money on another attempt, and the U.S. Civil War disrupted plans to try to lay another cable. Field was ready to try again, however, in 1865. The new cable would use a better, more water-resistant insulation. Field leased the mammoth RMS Great Eastern to lay the cable. At 32,000 tons and nearly 700 feet long, it was by far the largest ship in the world at the time. More important, it could carry the three thousand miles of cable needed by itself, making a mid-ocean rendezvous and the splicing of two cables unnecessary. Its first attempt ended in failure, however, when the cable snapped in mid-ocean. In 1866, Field tried one last time. This time, cable was laid without a flaw, and it proved to be much more durable than the earlier line. The cable became a financial success, justifying Field’s confidence in the new technology.

Further Reading
  • Gordon, John S. A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. New York: Walker, 2002.
  • Hearn, Chester. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
  • McDonald, Philip Bayaud. A Saga of the Seas: The Story of Cyrus W. Field and the Laying of the First Atlantic Cable. New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1937.

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Categories: History