On August 16, 1858, Britain sent the United States an inaugural message via a transatlantic telegraph cable. In it, Queen Victoria congratulated President James Buchanan on their countries’ mutual success at building the very cable she was using to talk to him. Newspapers covered the event as an important and exciting technological achievement with massive potential. News would spread faster. Nations would communicate and coordinate more quickly around evolving world events. Business and trade would accelerate.

So it was a bit disheartening when, just a few weeks later, the cable stopped working.

U.S. and British ships had already struggled to figure out how to lay the cable in the first place, and it took a few attempts before they’d been able to install it successfully. After the cable stopped working, it would take another eight years before the countries laid a working transatlantic cable that provided reliable communication across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Message in a Cable

Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse
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Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, the electrician behind the first failed attempt at lay the Atlantic telegraph. His experiments led him to conclude, inaccurately, that messages should be sent over the cable using high voltages and that the conducting wire should have a small diameter.

Telegraphic messages were still a relatively new technology when the United States and Britain set out to lay a transatlantic cable. One of the developers of this technology was the American inventor Samuel Morse, who also co-developed Morse code. Morse sent the world’s first telegraphic message—What hath God wrought?—from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore in 1844.

With this new technology, the U.S. and Britain began transmitting messages over land and small bodies of water faster than ever before. But what about a very large body of water? Delivering a message by ship across the Atlantic could take about 10 days. If scientists and engineers could figure out how to connect Europe and North America by cable, the average transatlantic message delivery time could shrink from days to hours.

In 1856, an American investor and two British engineers formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with funding from both countries’ governments, to do just that. In August 1857, two ships—the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara—set out from Valentia, Ireland in the hopes of laying a cable that went all the way to Heart's Content, Newfoundland.

During the process, part of the cable broke off in the ocean and couldn’t be recovered, so the ships had to sail back, says Cassie Newland, a lecturer in heritage and public history at Bath Spa University who curated an exhibit at London’s Guildhall Gallery for the cable’s 150th anniversary.

When the Atlantic Telegraph Company made its second attempt to lay the line in the summer of 1858, it used the same cable—which had deteriorated while sitting out for nearly a year, unprotected from seasonal temperature changes.

The workers who handled the cable “noticed it was all completely gone to crap, and so they cut lots of bits out and had to splice ends together,” Newland says. “When they load it on board [the] ship, it’s got damage they couldn’t find. It’s also got a lot more splices...so the cable is basically half shot before they even get it back on the ship.”

This time, the Agamemnon and the Niagara planned to meet at a point in the middle of the Atlantic and then set out in opposite directions to lay the cable. A raging ocean storm delayed the plan when it blew the Agamemnon off course, injuring 45 men and further damaging part of the cable. While laying the cable in opposite directions, the ships again experienced cable breaks and had to meet back in the middle a few times. Finally, in early August, the ships arrived at their respective destinations in Ireland and Newfoundland.

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A Historic Disaster

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Cartoon from Punch, 1858, at the time of the laying of the Transatlantic telegraph cable.

Now that the cable was laid, the Atlantic Telegraph Company’s chief engineer in Britain, Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, was ready to send a message through it. Believing that a high voltage was necessary to send the message successfully, Whitehouse pumped up to 2,000 volts into the cable, writes Allison Marsh, a history professor at the University of South Carolina.

This level of voltage was unnecessary, and damaged the already-damaged transatlantic cable. Although Marsh writes that the cable was able to send a total of 732 messages during the three weeks it was active, it clearly wasn’t working very well even before it died.

The British government and British investors were still interested in laying another transatlantic cable even after this failure, in part because the British Empire had colonized many islands in the Caribbean Sea. In the United States, the government and investors were less interested, particularly between 1860 and 1865, when the country was in the midst of its Civil War.

William Thomson, one of the British engineers who worked with the 1858 cable (who later became Lord Kelvin, the namesake for the temperature unit), continued to work with telegraphic cables and refine their construction. In 1866, the Atlantic Telegraph Company installed another transatlantic cable.

The 1866 cable worked much more reliably. Though first used for government and military purposes, this technology later allowed European immigrants to North America to communicate with their families on the other side of the ocean. Over the next three decades, workers added five more cables between Valentia and Heart's Content, where a transatlantic communications station operated continuously until 1965.