The Trans-Atlantic Cable

There are several very interesting historic sites which commemorate what was arguably the most ambitious and world changing project of the mid 1800’s. By the same token, this daunting project is one of the most under publicized feats of the entire nineteenth century.

first atlantic telegraph cable route

Route of first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable

Must See Trans-Atlantic Cable Museums

A visit to the Hearts Content Cable Station at the town of Hearts Content Newfoundland has all the information and exhibits you need to fully understand the significance of the first submarine transportation cable laid across the Atlantic Ocean. This was the cable that was responsible for the joining of the New World with the Old World. The town of Hearts Content, at the time a small fishing village, became the western terminus of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is located in the small coastal village of Porthcurno Cornwall, United Kingdom. It was at this location that many of the trans-Atlantic cables came onshore on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Among the exhibits found at the Portcurno Telegraph Museum are displays showing the history of submarine cable laying ships and telegraphy. You’ll also see a variety of cable designs. You’ll be amazed at the engineering involved during the mid 1800’s in not only designing an undersea cable that could carry an electric pulse over thousands of miles but also the designs of cable laying equipment that made the entire project possible.

cyrus field

Cyrus Field

 A Determined Man

By the mid 1850’s telegraph lines stretched across much of the United States and England. This certainly allowed people in those countries to quickly communicate with one another. The questions was…how can these same people communicate quickly between countries.? The fact was they couldn’t. The only option was through the mails via ocean vessels and this certainly was not quick communications.

There were many people responsible for the success of the first undersea telegraph cable and the names are too numerous to detail in one article. The name of Cyrus Field however stands out from the rest. For those really desiring to explore this fascinating story and the story of Cyrus Field further, one very good book is A Thread Across the Ocean by author John Steele Gordon.

It was Cyrus Field who, beginning in 1854, began work to sell his idea and obtain the enormous financing required. It was also Cyrus Field who persevered with the project after several costly cable laying failures and when others suggested abandoning the effort altogether.

More Than One Attempt

If there’s one thing that can be noted about the laying of the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s that there were several attempts. The initial failures of course made it even harder to obtain further financing. During the year prior to the successful completion, another failure occurred when the cable snapped and fell to the ocean floor. Interestingly enough, grappling equipment was used to snare the broken cable and bring it up for repair. Sometimes this worked, other times it didn’t and often it took quite a while to complete.

After the successful attempt in 1866, the ships went back to the area of the 1865 failure and did indeed pull up the broken cable, made the necessary repairs and in so doing completed the second transAtlantic telegraph cable. Now two Atlantic cables could theoretically carry twice as much traffic.

telegraph ticker tape machine

Early 1900’s telegraph ticker tape instrument

To Solve Everything That Could Go Wrong

If you think laying an undersea telegraph cable off the back of a ship was relatively easy…think again. Of all the tasks involved in doing this job successfully, probably the most important was to prevent the Trans Atlantic cables from snapping due to strain. When a ship bobs in the ocean while extending a cable off it’s aft end the chances of it’s snapping from the sudden increase in pull pressure was quite real. Engineering had to solve this problem and they did.

There were a few different pieces of equipment that were designed to let out cable from behind an ocean vessel. The most successful apparatus was designed by chief engineer William Everett in London. Everett’s “paying-out machine” as it was called was designed with brakes that some would say acted as if it were human. The brakes could be set with maximum pressure and they would automatically release if the pressure exceeded that limit. Everett’s design kept the cable from snapping and being lost to the bottom of the sea. To give you an idea of just how successful William Everett’s paying-out machine was, cable laying ships to this day still use much of his original design.

atlantic telegraph cable postage stamp

Atlantic cable centenary U.S. Postage Stamp

How about the cable itself? When you consider just how long the trans-Atlantic cable was, you can appreciate the work done to actually make it work. Remember, this was mid 1800’s technology and unlike the cross country telegraph system in the United States, the electrical pulse had to be carried within a cable strung along the ocean’s floor. The cable that was developed for the successful attempt in 1866 was manufactured at a rate of  twenty miles per day. This cable had galvanized iron armoring that was rustproof and the wires were coated with a zinc-iron alloy which allowed the cable to take a half ton more strain before snapping. Amazingly, all of this 1800’s technology was developed at a time when America itself was going through a Civil War.


great eastern atlantic cable ship

Great Eastern cable laying ship

The Historic Ship Great Eastern

The “Great Eastern“, was first a passenger ship and in addition to that was the largest man made vessel afloat during the 1860’s. Because of her enormous size, the ship was ideal for laying a telegraph cable clear across the Atlantic Ocean. It was also the vessel that used the paying-out equipment developed by William Everett.

It was the Great Eastern that had the distinction of being the first vessel to successfully lay the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866. It was the ship, along with her escort vessels, that steamed into Hearts Content Newfoundland on July 28, 1866.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting is the story of Marconi’s Trans-Atlantic Wireless SuccessBuilding of America’s Transcontinental Telegraph and a Visit to the Historic Paul Revere House in Boston MA

undersea cable maps

Undersea cable links as of 1901

Learn More About This Amazing 1800’s Accomplishment

The history of the 1800’s is filled with various wars both in North America and in Europe. The American westward migration beginning in the 1840’s onward was another significant event. The successful laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable may indeed have eclipsed all other events in regards to the impact it had on people from both sides of the ocean. The very fact that messages could be transmitted in a matter of minutes as opposed to the time it took a ship to cross the ocean changed many lives.

The commercial impact where commodity prices alone could be merged in both the London and New York markets might be called the start of globalization. From 1866 onward, these telegraph cables would go on to connect nearly all parts of the world. This 1866 event had the effect of making the world a smaller place. Soon wireless telegraphy would emerge as well as telephony. Today we have the internet. The laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and the drive and imagination of Cyrus Field to make it a reality ushered in an entirely new era that continues to be improved upon to this day.

As mentioned earlier in this story, the museums in both Hearts Content Newfoundland and the one located in the small coastal village of Porthcurno Cornwall, United Kingdom are great places to start. If you have the opportunity to be near either location I’m confident you’ll be fascinated.

Yet another interesting site to visit is Valentia Island Ireland which was the eastern terminus of the first Atlantic cable. Valentia Island made it the ideal spot for the first cable to land in the United Kingdom. Today some of the buildings of the old Valentia Cable Station can still be viewed from the outside along the main street of Knightstown. You’ll also see a plaque commemorating the event. Original items from the cable station are on exhibit at the Valentia Heritage Centre. Valentia Island is located just off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland.

More interesting information on the Trans Atlantic cable story can be found in the book mentioned earlier, A Thread Across the Ocean by author John Steele Gordon and also in The First TransAtlantic Cable by author Adele Gutman Nathan.

(Telegraph ticker tape photo from author’s collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)

Building the Transcontinental Telegraph Lines / Westward Expansion America

When you research western history, one of the most significant events that helped the United States solidify itself was the creation of a transcontinental telegraph system. In fact, the telegraph system was the sole reason the Pony Express had such a short existence. The Pony Express ended at about the same moment that the last telegraph wires were joined together. It wasn’t even a surprise. Everyone well knew that the telegraph system to California would be completed more sooner than later. Pony Express riders would pass work crews stringing the lines.

Building of the Telegraph Lines

Pony Express rider passing telegraph line work crew

Very similar to how the transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, the telegraph lines built to transmit the Morse code translation, would be constructed from both ends simultaneously.

At the start of the Pony Express in 1860, lines from the east reached St. Joseph Missouri. From the west they reached Placerville California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A Pony Express rider carrying a mochila with telegrams heading west from St. Joseph would drop them off in Placerville where they would then be telegraphed to San Francisco. St. Joseph Missouri would be the terminus for telegrams to be sent further east.

As you might expect, building the telegraph lines between Missouri and California was not the easiest job in the world. It all began in earnest with the passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act by Congress in 1860. So why was 1860 a pivotal year for communications?

The Telegraph and the Civil War

The public domain map below shows the route of the first Transcontinental Telegraph line. The lines used to send and translate Morse code to text would change America’s communication systems forever.

The year 1860 marked the beginnings of the American Civil War. California became a state in 1850, at a time when the California Gold Rush was in full swing. The United States was spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a lot of frontier in between. The federal government needed some way to communicate rapidly with it’s far flung state of California.

To demonstrate the problem, a letter sent from Washington D.C. to San Francisco California in 1860, prior to the Pony Express, had two options to be delivered. In the 1850’s, the method was by Pacific Mail ship from San Francisco to Panama, then through the Panamanian jungles to another ship on it’s east coast, then on to Washington D.C. or New York. This was a journey of perhaps two months. If the ship happened to be using the Cape Horn route, it would take longer.

he second method came into being in 1858. This was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line which ran from Missouri to California via the southwest. The Butterfield route via El Paso and San Diego was scheduled to take about twenty-five days covering it’s 2,795 mile distance. Not fast, but a marked improvement over the steamer mail service. What was fast was the Pony Express system which made the Missouri to California trek through the middle of the country in ten days. In fact, prior to the telegraph, this was considered lightning speed.

Pony Express Postmark

Several other telegraph bills were passed by Congress, and one of those appropriated $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the building and maintenance of a telegraph line between the Atlantic and Pacific States.

The mergers and consolidations that would be the history of the later railroads, were similar to what was being set up to construct the transcontinental telegraph. The various California telegraph companies would merge together to build the line from California to Salt Lake City. The Western Union, who was awarded the contract, would build from Salt Lake City eastward. The California companies did formally  meet and agree on their consolidation. The new California telegraph company was named the Overland Telegraph Company with capital of $1,250,000. They would complete a telegraph line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Building the telegraph lines between Omaha Nebraska and California presented a host of problems. Materials were put together in the latter part of 1860. Major problems in supplying the construction crews were overcome but there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the Midwest plains and the deserts of the western portions.

The Civil War made heavy demands on both labor and supplies. Add to this the task of completing the line over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. Materials for the western section were shipped around the Cape Horn to San Francisco, a similar route as taken by many prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier.

In addition to the geographic difficulties, there was always some threat of Indian attack. The Indians were a bit perplexed as to what exactly was going on. Watching work crews stringing wire from pole to pole raised there curiosity. It was reported that many Indians thought that the wire represented some sort of mystical powers not really understanding the concept of electricity flowing over wires. As a side note, there was an effort made prior to the construction of the line to try to explain to the Indians what was about to occur and why.

Western Union Telegraph Key, circa 1900

Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders, one to work on the line from the West , the other from the East. On October 18, 1861, the workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co. reached Salt lake City. This completed the eastern section of the line out of Omaha. The western section was shorter in mileage but the terrain was quite different. The western section of the telegraph was finally completed on October 24, 1861. This date marked the time that the Pony Express system was considered obsolete.

An historic event took place immediately upon completion of the line. Using the key telegraph system in Morse code, a message was telegraphed to President Abraham Lincoln from the president of the Overland telegraph Company which officially read, “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” Truly, this was a major milestone in communication and unified the country as never before. The Morse code sound traveled across the country at virtually the speed of light.

Here are links to two other articles you should find interesting regarding the westward expansion in America. The Pony Express Trail in California and the story of the Central Pacific Railroad, a part of the first transcontinental railroad.

On our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy the article on The Great Train Robbery and the Union Pacific Posse.

Visit the Locust Grove Museum

There’s an interesting historic site tied in with the transcontinental telegraph system. Locust Grove is a villa in the Italianate style designed in 1850 for artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse by architect Alexander Jackson Davis. None of the original furnishings survive from the Morse family’s years at Locust Grove. Of special interest however is that the Museum Pavilion is the home of a permanent exhibit that explores Samuel Morse’s two careers, first as an artist and later as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code.

William and Martha Young brought a new vision to Locust Grove after acquiring the estate from Morse’s heirs in 1895.  According to the Locust Grove Museum, In 1975 Annette Innis Young, the last member of the Young family to live at Locust Grove, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve the estate for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”  Her bequest included more than 125 acres of gardens and grounds. The Locust Grove Estate is located at 2683 South Road, Poughkeepsie, NY .

(Western Union telegraph key photo is from author’s private collection. Other images shown are in the public domain)



Crossing the Atlantic With Marconi’s Wireless / A Trip Into History

I have always found the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s success in transmitting the first wireless communication across the Atlantic Ocean very fascinating. You could say that Marconi’s first successful radio experiment activated a bell over a short distance. The experiment most remember Guglielmo Marconi for today was his transmission of a telegraph radio signal over thousands of miles between the United States and England. It was a first. It was also an event which many at the time thought impossible. It was an experiment which was built upon experiments already conducted by others. Whatever parts of other peoples works Marconi did or did not employ in his experiments, the act of transmitting a wireless signal over thousands of miles from one continent to another had never before been accomplished.

When you learn of the story you will learn how tremendous of a project this was.This was the era before transistors and semiconductors. Radio equipment in Marconi’s day was quite cumbersome.While Marconi was born and raised in Italy, much if not all of his fame was achieved while on English soil. He went to England in 1896 along with his mother. Marconi felt that the chances of advancing his wireless technology were better in England than in his native Italy. In fact, Marconi, in an effort to gain funding for his wireless projects, reached out to the English ministry of Post and Telegraphs. We do know that they did not reply to his request and it has been inferred in various historical pieces that they felt Marconi was off his rocker. They understood the telegraph system but apparently couldn’t grasp the wireless part of it. This however would change soon.

Like any inventor, the way to create public awareness and support was through actual demonstrations. Marconi, who could speak both Italian and English, set up a series of demonstrations for the British government which did begin to offer assistance. In early 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code close to four miles. In May of that same year he was successful in transmitting the first signals over open sea, also at a distance of close to four miles. This was between South Wales and Flat Holm Island. That was quickly followed by an experiment that sent a wireless signal about ten miles. The British were impressed.

Marconi’s “Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company” was started in 1897 after he was granted a British patent for wireless. It was renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900. His radio experiments continued with the aim of commercialization.

Marconi was getting noticed and was invited to give several lectures concerning wireless telegraphy. During 1897 he also put on several demonstrations back in his home country of Italy. At this point he was starting to get noticed internationally. This of course was key because to continue what Marconi had in mind required funding. The surest chance of obtaining funding was to be written about by the media.

At about the year 1900, Marconi turned his attentions to finding a way to transmit wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, telegraphy was being sent via the undersea cables which had been laid initially in 1858 and was made permanent and much more successful in about 1868. The laying of this cable is an entire story in itself. There were many setbacks initially having to do with cable snapping off as well as rough weather conditions. The undersea cable ran from western Ireland to eastern Newfoundland. This first transatlantic cable was quite some thing. Prior to this, communication between Europe and America could only happen by ship. The transatlantic cable sped up communication to within minutes and this had a big impact, especially in regards to financial market data. Exchange rates and prices were communicated daily. The effect the transatlantic cable had on communications between North America and Europe was very similar to what the first transcontinental telegraph did for communication between Washington DC and San Francisco California.

In order for Marconi to realize his vision, much had to be worked out regarding the technology. Signal strength and the antenna apparatus was key. There were many doubters. The prevailing theory from many scientists of the era was that it was impossible since it was believed that radio signals traveled the same as light, in straight lines and this would limit the distance to the curvature of the earth. As far as Marconi was concerned, he knew that wasn’t true since he had exceeded that distance in prior experiments. His theory was that the curvature of the earth could be exceeded with sufficient power. Based on his theory, one should be able to span the Atlantic Ocean if a station of proper size could be built.

Based on this belief, Marconi went ahead and built a powerful new station in Cornwall England. His ideal receiving site would be Newfoundland.The station in Poldhu Cornwall would also be used for his ship to shore communications and continuing experiments. Actually, Marconi’s first customers were the marine industry since prior to radio ships could only communicate by line of sight. If you have the opportunity to read the book “Thunderstruck” by author Eric Larsen, there’s an interesting story of how Marconi’s ship to shore service helped capture a wanted murderer trying to escape England.

The stations built for both transmitting and receiving were quite large. The picture at right show the antenna array at the Poldhu site in Cornwall. As you can see in the photo at right, Marconi chose a point at the very end of the land. he transmitter built here usually operated at a power of about 13 kW and a wavelength estimated at 170 meters. The four masts built had a height of 215 feet. This station continued to operate to the year 1933.

The construction on Newfoundland for a suitable receiving station was the other side to Marconi’s equation. At first he constructed the four tower array on Cape Cod. During this time his antennae in Cornwall was blown down by gale force winds. There was pressure from investors to see results so Marconi decided to build a temporary receiving station on Newfoundland. As it turned out, the cape Cod array also was blown down so Newfoundland became the site to concentrate on. Up to this point, Marconi had been successful in transmitting wireless for about 225 miles, so even though the Newfoundland station was a shorter distance than Cape Cod, it did represent a 2,100 mile challenge. The site on Newfoundland, shown in the photo below, picked for the experiments was known as Signal Hill, a point near the mouth of the harbor of St. Johns. The receiving equipment, was installed in a room in a former hospital building.

Marconi used what was called a “coherer” as the receiving apparatus in Newfoundland. A coherer is simply a tube with two electrodes. Metal filings were placed between the electrodes and when a radio signal was received the resistance between the electrodes would be reduced and a signal were pass between the two. Developed by an inventor in France by the name of Branly, the coherer was the first receiving device used to detect a spark gap transmitter signal. It was actually a relatively simple piece of equipment. It was the device that enabled the very first radio signal receiving.

The history books give a bit of confusing information as to the precise time and date Marconi was to receive the first transatlantic signal at his receiving station in Newfoundland. The popular version places it on the 12th hour of the 12th day of the 12th month in 1901. It’s been written that Thomas Edison thought Marconi may have heard static instead of signals. Some contended that in daylight it was not practical for the signals to travel such a distance. With that in mind, there are questions as to what exact frequency Marconi was using. Some say 100 Khz and others say 800 Khz. There is also the question as to how accurate frequencies could be measured in this early era. The photo below is a model of a Marconi wireless station, courtesy of the National Park Service.

The 1901 event has been debated even to today. Most radio scientists concluded that if a signal was indeed received at Signal Hill Newfoundland in 1901, it would most likely would have had to be a short wave signal. The debate centered on exactly what type of signal was used and how the receiver and antennae were tuned. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the 1901 attempt, what is most important is that a transatlantic signal and a complete message was, without a doubt, transmitted by Guglielmo Marconi from Glace Bay Nova Scotia to Poldhu in 1902. The experiment took place in Nova Scotia in 1902 rather than in Newfoundland due to the Anglo-American Cable Company ordering the Signal Hill site to be closed down. This just demonstrates the commercial competitiveness of the whole wireless endeavor at that time.

Today, it is possible to travel to these same historic sites to learn more about Guglielmo Marconi and his amazing transatlantic radio experiments. These are excellent trips into history.

The Marconi National Historic Site of Canada, in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, is the site of Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless station and the first wireless message sent from North America to Europe. The site features the remnants of Marconi’s transmission towers, along with a museum chronicling Marconi’s achievements.

In 2001, the Marconi Centre was opened in Poldhu Cornwall. The Marconi Centre features a video presentation showing the significance of Poldhu and Marconi’s work. There are also much additional information on wall panels. The Centre is owned by the National Trust and run by the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club. Admission is free.