August 5

This Day in History

General Interest

Aug 5, 1858:

First transatlantic telegraph cable completed

After several unsuccessful attempts, the first telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean is completed, a feat accomplished largely through the efforts of American merchant Cyrus West Field.

The telegraph was first developed by Samuel F. B. Morse, an artist-turned-inventor who conceived of the idea of the electric telegraph in 1832. Several European inventors had proposed such a device, but Morse worked independently and by the mid 1830s had built a working telegraph instrument. In the late 1830s, he perfected Morse Code, a set of signals that could represent language in telegraph messages. In May 1844, Morse inaugurated the world's first commercial telegraph line with the message "What hath God wrought," sent from the U.S. Capitol to a railroad station in Baltimore. Within a decade, more than 20,000 miles of telegraph cable crisscrossed the country. The rapid communication it made possible greatly aided American expansion, making railroad travel safer as it provided a boost to business conducted across the great distances of a growing United States.

In 1854, Cyrus West Field conceived the idea of the telegraph cable and secured a charter to lay a well-insulated line across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Obtaining the aid of British and American naval ships, he made four unsuccessful attempts, beginning in 1857. In July 1858, four British and American vessels--the Agamemnon, the Valorous, the Niagara, and the Gorgon--met in mid-ocean for the fifth attempt. On July 29, the Niagara and the Gorgon, with their load of cable, departed for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, while the Agamemnon and the Valorous embarked for Valentia, Ireland. By August 5, the cable had been successfully laid, stretching nearly 2,000 miles across the Atlantic at a depth often of more than two miles. On August 16, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged formal introductory and complimentary messages. Unfortunately, the cable proved weak and the current insufficient and by the beginning of September had ceased functioning.

Field later raised new funds and made new arrangements. In 1866, the British ship Great Eastern succeeded in laying the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Cyrus West Field was the object of much praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his persistence in accomplishing what many thought to be an impossible undertaking. He later promoted other oceanic cables, including telegraph lines that stretched from Hawaii to Asia and Australia.

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