"The Atlantic Telegraph has performed the journey from which so much was expected, and has carried across the ocean, in an incredibly short space of time, the news of its safe arrival on the shores of Newfoundland. The lightning has fairly outdone itself this time."
—The New York Times, 1858
The laying of the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866 was a landmark achievement that revolutionized global communication.
But the decades-long saga leading up to that triumph was filled with setbacks, failures, and audacious dreams.
The vision to unite continents across the seafloor proved far more difficult than early pioneers imagined.
This fascinating history is peppered with determined inventors, quixotic theories, grand technological hurdles, and hard-won lessons.
As we explore some curious and little-known details behind the epic undertaking, we can appreciate how the ultimately victorious transatlantic cable emerged through as much adversity as acclaim.
The pathbreaking project summoned both the noble and the bizarre in humanity, all to shrink the world like never before.
The dream of instant communication between North America and Europe drove inventors and businessmen to obsess over an audacious idea—stretching a telegraph cable across the vast depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
But the epic quest to connect the continents was beset by repeated failures and disasters.
The first attempt came in 1857, when the Atlantic Telegraph Company, led by American businessman Cyrus Field, set out from Valentia Harbor, Ireland, with HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara carefully unspooling cable between them.
After just 380 miles, misfortune struck.
The cable snapped and vanished into the icy abyss.
Far from dampening enthusiasm, this initial defeat spurred the promoters of the cable to redouble their efforts.
In 1858, the same ships tried again, this time starting from the mid-Atlantic island of Newfoundland. But although they succeeded in linking the continents and exchanged opening telegrams, the connection failed within weeks.
It would take over half a decade more before the final, successful cable was laid and put into service.
This time, improved materials and armored cable designs prevented failure.
On July 1866, after 12 arduous years of trial and error, the first reliable telegraph messages finally zipped between the Old World and the New almost instantaneously. What had seemed an impossible dream was now reality.
The brief triumph of the 1858 transatlantic cable was swiftly shattered by disappointment, as the subsea telegraph failed catastrophically within mere weeks.
The high hopes gave way to bafflement, as engineers struggled to explain why the cable had gone silent.
The culprit, they would later comprehend, was a lack of insulation against the watery environment surrounding the cable.
Immersion in the sea induced electrical currents in the unprotected copper wire, interfering with the transmission of the telegraph's dot-dash messages.
At the time, the principles behind underwater electrical shielding were poorly grasped even by the celebrated experts enlisted in the cable project.
The insulation applied to the 1858 cable was tarred hemp and gutta-percha, a natural rubber-like substance. This sufficed for shallow stretches near land, but proved ineffective across great ocean depths.
The endless cacophony of electrical noise generated by sea currents and chemical reactions essentially drowned out the telegraph signal.
With no remedy available, the 1858 cable was abandoned within months.
Not until 1866 would a new cable with gutta-percha insulation wrapped in an outer metal sheath finally banish the scourge of underwater interference. Only then could messages pass reliably across the Atlantic.
The monumental 1866 transatlantic cable dwarfed its predecessors in scale and represented a towering feat of Victorian ingenuity.
Stretching over 2,500 nautical miles from Valentia, Ireland to Heart's Content, Newfoundland, it was one of the largest man-made objects ever conceived.
This massive telegraphic highway was constructed from seven thin copper wires, each coated in gutta-percha, an insulator made from tropical Asian trees.
These were in turn wrapped in jute and surrounded by 18 galvanized iron wires for armor, weighing around one ton per mile.
In total, the completed cable tipped the scales at an astonishing 5,000 tons.
Its tremendous weight made handling, even with steamships and specialized equipment, a logistical nightmare. Coiling the endless cable into holds, paying it out at the prescribed slow speed, and keeping tension within strict limits taxed sailors and engineers to their limits.
Yet these Herculean exertions succeeded in linking the New and Old Worlds.
The 1866 cable entered service and almost instantly revolutionized communications. In just minutes, messages that previously took over a week by fastest steamship could flash between continents.
The visionaries behind the project were vindicated after 12 grueling years of effort.
To unfurl the massive transatlantic cable across thousands of miles of harsh ocean required intricate maneuvers by the cable laying ships.
The work proceeded with excruciating slowness and utmost care to avoid disaster.
The cable was so heavy and thick, a single misstep could snap it like a thread and doom the entire enterprise.
It was coiled in immense drums deep in the holds of the cable ships, which had to steam ahead at barely a few miles per hour. Paying out the cable faster risked pulling too much tension and breaking it.
Navigating rough seas only compounded the challenge.
The ships pitched and rolled yet had to maintain perfect coordination. The cable curled off its spool, guided by equipment to keep the tension steady, running through measuring instruments up on deck and finally down into the sea.
Miles of additional cable had to slowly play out to account for its curvature on the ocean bottom and prevent excess tension.
The crews worked in shifts around the clock on the grueling voyage, knowing that one moment of inattention could unravel years of effort. It was precision seamanship on a grand scale never attempted before.
When the transatlantic telegraph cable was finally completed in 1866, its successful operation was greeted with unrestrained jubilation on both sides of the Atlantic.
The fulfillment of a long-held dream of near-instant communication between Europe and America seemed nothing short of miraculous.
The cable partners marked the occasion with fitting pageantry and solemnity.
A celebratory inauguration message was exchanged between the two heads of state overseeing the project, the Queen of England and the President of the United States.
The Queen's telegram of congratulation was met with a biblically inspired reply paying tribute to the achievement: "Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men."
This famous first official telegraph across the Atlantic captured both the wonder and the idealistic hopes surrounding the advent of practically instantaneous messaging between nations separated by an ocean.
In cities across Europe and America, pealing bells and cheering crowds greeted the news that the cable linking their worlds was at last a reality.
For those who had tirelessly advanced the audacious scheme for over a decade through repeated defeats, the fulfillment of their visions of global communication was a profoundly moving moment.
The jubilation that greeted the first transatlantic telegraph messages in 1858 proved short-lived.
Despite earlier congratulations and fanfare, the underwater cable completely failed after just a few weeks of sporadic operation. The goal of linking North America and Europe via instant telegraph had to be postponed once more.
The 1858 cable had functioned just long enough to prove the concept before going silent.
The reason, investigators later determined, came down to the inadequacy of the electrical battery power used to transmit signals.
The simple chemical batteries available at the time quickly ran out of strength when attempting to push messages the full transatlantic distance.
With its power source exhausted, the cable was rendered useless.
It would take almost a decade more before improved cable design and more robust steam-powered alternators finally provided electricity that could keep messages flowing reliably across the Atlantic.
Only after this technical milestone was reached in 1866 could the decades-long dream of permanent telegraphic connection between the Old and New Worlds be rekindled.
The transformative impact of the transatlantic telegraph cable for both commerce and society cannot be overstated.
Practically overnight, communication that once plodded along at the speed of wind and wave was accelerated to the speed of electricity.
Before the cable, even the swiftest mail steamships took at least six days to ferry letters and tidings across the Atlantic. Diplomatic missives, business deals, and family correspondence all had to endure over a week's transit for a reply.
The telegraph slashed this lag from days to minutes.
Once connected by cable, a message could flash between London and New York in the blink of an eye. The time to finalize contracts, share news, and exchange ideas shrank dramatically.
For individuals, the sense of isolation from loved ones abroad was diminished.
For institutions, the ability to take rapid action with up-to-date information was revolutionary. The globalizing consequences of instant communication took time to unfurl, but it was clear a milestone had been reached.
While ships were but the fastest mode of transportation then available, the telegraph represented the first true annihilation of distance.
It knitted together continents in a way thought impossible just years earlier.
In the years before the successful laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable, some skeptics clung to their belief that instant communication across oceans would remain forever impossible.
In their pessimism, they proposed fanciful alternative pseudo-scientific methods for bridging the Atlantic.
The most eccentric of these suggestions involved trying to use the earth itself as a conductor.
It was theorized that if large coils were buried deep in the ground on both shores, perhaps telegraph signals could be transmitted through the planet's crust, circumventing the need for actual cables.
Advocates of so-called "earth circuit" telegraphs claimed that subterranean mineral deposits could act as electrical relays for Morse code pulses. They even conducted experiments that supposedly sent signals across rivers and bays via the ground beneath.
While intriguing in imagination, such wild conjectures had no basis in genuine geology or physics.
In reality, the earth's crust is a hopelessly chaotic and inconsistent conductor over long distances. But in an age when underwater telegraphy seemed nearly as fanciful, a few dreamers entertained these bizarre loopholes.
Of course, once genuine cables started operating, eccentric theories faded away.
But for a time, some clung to outlandish alternatives rather than accept that joining continents by telegraph was possible. The idea of harnessing the earth itself showed the lengths skeptics went to avoid admitting underwater cables could work.
The huge investment of resources and hopes tied up in the transatlantic cable made its physical security a matter of international importance.
Once functioning, any damage that severed communication between North America and Europe could have momentous consequences.
As a result, the cable's operators took strict precautions to keep its location concealed and protect it from harm. Its path along the ocean floor was considered highly sensitive information.
Only a few trusted senior employees knew the cable's exact route.
There were real concerns it could be inadvertently disrupted by passing ships.
The cable had already been broken multiple times during failed laying attempts. Anchors dragging along the bottom or fishermen's nets were seen as risks.
If vessels crossing the Atlantic knew where the cable lay, the thinking went, they might avoid it to prevent costly and embarrassing interruptions to service. But secrecy bred rumors that the cable path was guarded by warships, which was untrue.
For decades, maps showed only conjectured lines for the cable.
Its true course remained obscure until well into the 20th century. While secrecy may seem excessive, it reflects how the cable was viewed less as a mere tool, but as a fragile thread tying together the world.