NotesBy 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.
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]