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B2158 Section of original Transatlantic telegraph cable with presentation box, copy of certificate of authenticity and paperback book, metal / wood / paper, various makers, England / United States of America, 1858. Click to enlarge.

Segment of the original transatlantic cable

Made by Glass, Elliot & Company in Greenwich, England, 1858.
This piece of cable is an original portion of the cable which connected for the first time Europe and America in 1858. It represents a pivotal point in the history of telecommunications.

It may not be a rare item but it is part of an incredible story. It is a story of grand plans, human folly and triumph, advances in technology and communication.

News of the success resulted in major celebrations and souvenirs found a keen and enthusiastic market. Remainders of the cable from the expedition was purchased by Tiffany, the jewellery company, which made them into little four-inch souvenir pieces. This portion is in the most splendid condition. It is still in its original wooden box and it has a little collar in its middle explaining what it is. It comes with a letter signed by Cyrus Field authenticating that it is part of the original cable.

In the 1850s Cyrus Field, an American who by the age of 33 had made a fortune in the wholesale paper business, had decided to invest his energy in a new venture: running a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. After many unsuccessful attempts, two ships - the Niagara and the Agamemnon - set out to join two sections of the cable together in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and each ship proceeded in opposite directions. In August 1858 the transatlantic telegraph cable finally connected Ireland to Newfoundland establishing the first instantaneous communication system between the two continents and hence between London and New York.

This piece of cable is part of the remaining cable from the Niagara.

People were almost hysterical at the idea that the two continents were now joined. Parades, speeches, fireworks and dinners were organised across many cities. Some said it was the greatest scientific and technical achievement of that century. The most famous messages sent over the Atlantic cable were those between Queen Victoria and the American President James Buchanan.

Regrettably a few weeks later, the cable deteriorated and fell silent.

The 1858 expedition might have ended in failure but it proved that it was possible to manufacture, lay and operate a cable across the Atlantic. This cable opened a whole new world of possibilities and elicited a lot of rhetoric and enthusiasm about its profound consequences for communication, politics and commerce.

The same discourse prevails today with our technology and its capacity for developing networks and communities, for improving the chances for peace. There are strong parallels between this Atlantic cable piece and what is happening in the world today with instantaneous global communication and the world wide web.

Rita Orsini, Assistant Curator, 2009

References:
Submarine Telegraphy - The Grand Victorian Technology by Bernard S Flinn - Thanet Press, 1973
The Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable- 150th Anniversary Celebration 1858-2008 by Professor Nigel Linge, University of Salford
Illustrated Newspaper - 1858 Cable News by Frank Leslie
Dr E.O.W. Whitehouse and the 1858 trans-Atlantic Cable - History of Technology, Vol. 10, 1985, pp. 1-15. by D. de Cogan
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage - Phoenix, 2000

Summary

Object No.

B2158

Object Statement

Section of original Transatlantic telegraph cable with presentation box, copy of certificate of authenticity and paperback book, metal / wood / paper, various makers, England / United States of America, 1858

Physical Description

A section of cable, comprising a series of interlaced metal cables with copper core and insulation which are brass bound at the ends and in the middle. The middle brass ring is engraved with the following 'ATLANTIC TELEGRAPH CABLE / ...GUARANTEED BY... / TIFFANY & CO. / BROADWAY. NEW YORK. 1858'.

A rectangular, wooden presentation box comprising a base and slide-on lid which features the following text 'ORIGINAL TRANSATLANTIC CABLE / 1858 / GUARANTEED BY / Tiffany & Co.'

A single piece of paper certifying the authenticity of the Transatlantic telegraph cable. The letter is dated 21 August 1858 and is signed by Cyrus W. Field. The bottom of the letter is marked with the following 'Entd according to Act of Congress AD 1858 by Tiffany & Co in the Clks Offc of the dist Ct of the Sth dist of N.Y.'

Production

Notes

By the 1850s telegraphy on land and underwater was based on the system developed by Samuel Morse. Earlier successes at laying underwater cables on short distances led to the speedy financing of a cable-laying expedition across the Atlantic in 1857.

Cyrus Field raised enough interest and money to invest in this venture. The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed in 1856 and Dr Edward O.W. Whitehouse was appointed Chief Electrician and was responsible for the first Atlantic cable, the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

An order to manufacture 2,500 miles of light core cable was placed with the Gutta-Percha Company in accordance with Whitehouse's specification. The Atlantic telegraph cable was manufactured at its Wharf Road works in London. Gutta-percha was a new natural material found in Southeast Asia. It proved to be an ideal insulator for submarine cables and was used as a coating to protect the cable from sea water corrosion.

The Atlantic cable's insulated core was made of seven copper wires of number 22 gauge twisted together, surrounded by ten to eighteen strands of iron wire and insulated with three layers of gutta-percha, giving an overall cable diameter of approximately three quarters of an inch. For each mile of telegraph cable, a total of 133 miles of wire was needed and the total weight was approximately one tonne per mile. Contracts for providing this outer protective layer were awarded to R.S. Newhall of Birkenhead and Glass, Elliot & Co., Greenwich. Each was responsible for 1,250 miles of cable. Only one cable was required, the electrical return path was to be the earth.

The first attempt to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable was undertaken in 1857. The UK Government provided HMS Agamemnon, a steam and sail powered battleship and the US provided the steam frigate Niagara which was the largest navy ship in the world. The Agamemnon sailed to Greenwich where it collected the portion of cable manufactured by Glass, Elliot & Co., whilst the Niagara sailed to Birkenhead to collect the cable from R.S.Newall.

After many unsuccessful attempts and the loss of a considerable amount of cable snapping underwater, enough additional capital was raised to start again in July 1858. A further 900 miles of cable was manufactured by Glass, Elliot & Co. On the 4th August 1858, the Niagara arrived at Trinity Bay and on the 5th August the Agamemnon entered Valentia Bay; the cable was landed on the Ocean bed and connected to the shore-based telegraph stations at both ends.

Transmitting an electrical signal over this length of cable was difficult and the rate of transmission was very low. Underwater cables acted as long capacitors, storing the electrical pulse and then gradually releasing it, making the signals difficult to read.
The condition of the cable started deteriorating rapidly and in September 1858, and a few weeks after the first connection, the cable fell silent. An investigation blamed faults in the cable.
Two main reasons were widely reported:
The first suggested that Dr Edward O. W. Whitehouse, Chief Electrician for the Atlantic Telegraph Company, had damaged the cable by subjecting it to too high a voltage. In the belief that the quality of the received signal could be improved by increasing the voltage at the transmitter he applied 2,000 volts at the Valentia end.
The second puts the blame on Glass, Elliott & Co., where, it is claimed, the cable was left outside in open air being subjected to the sun. The suggestion was that the gutta-percha used in the cable for its insulation properties degraded by an oxidation process during its prolonged exposure in air.

A new cable was eventually designed by William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, and was laid in 1866, successfully connecting Valentia Bay in Ireland to Heart's Content, Trinity Bay in Newfoundland (27 July 1866). Whereas news of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln had taken 12 days to reach the British press in April 1865, thanks to the Atlantic cable the news of the assassination of American President James Garfield in 1881 only took a few hours to reach the world.

Rita Orsini

References:
Submarine Telegraphy - The Grand Victorian Technology by Bernard S Flinn - Thanet Press, 1973
The Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable- 150th Anniversary Celebration 1858-2008 by Professor Nigel Linge, University of Salford
Illustrated Newspaper- 1858 Cable News by Frank Leslie
Dr E.O.W. Whitehouse and the 1858 trans-Atlantic Cable - History of Technology, Vol. 10, 1985, pp. 1-15. by D. de Cogan

'The Curious Story of the Tiffany Cables', by Bill Burns, https://atlantic-cable.com/Article/Lanello/index.htm, [accessed 10/09/19]

Source

Credit Line

Gift of Silver Creations Ltd, 1974

Acquisition Date

27 September 1974

Cite this Object

Harvard

Segment of the original transatlantic cable 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 8 July 2020, <https://ma.as/211161>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/211161 |title=Segment of the original transatlantic cable |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=8 July 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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