A Section Of The Transatlantic Cable
This piece corresponds closely with examples produced by Tiffany following the first successful expedition in 1858, without having the Tiffany provenance. The example in the Powerhouse Museum Collection in Sydney has a special presentation box and letter signed by Cyrus Field.
The Atlantic Telegraph Company was registered in 1856 with a capital of £350 as a direct result of the efforts of Charles Bright, John Watkins Brett and his brother Jacob and the American Cyrus W. Field. Manufacture of the cable was started in 1857 and attempts to lay it began the same year from the British ship Agamemnon and the American ship Niagara. These were warships that had been lent to the project by the British and American governments. A number of unsuccessful attempts were made with the cable breaking, but in 1858 they achieved success, the ships meeting in the mid-Atlantic. The cable was spliced together and the ships proceeded in opposite directions, the Niagara heading for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, and the Agamemnon to Valentia Island, Co. Kerry, arriving on August 5th. This was a distance of 2000 nautical miles.
On 20th August at 5 pm. a first attempt was made by the Atlantic Telegraph to enquire about the collision of two ships off Newfoundland but no answer was received. The first message sent through wires was from Queen Victoria to the United States President, James Buchanan. The Saturday Review for August 1858 carried the headline,-"The Old and New Worlds are brought into instantaneous communication". The Gentleman's Magazine, 1858, Vol. 11, pp.179 and 407 gives a description of the event.
News of the success resulted in major celebrations and souvenirs found a keen and enthusiastic market. Remainders of the cable from the expedition were purchased by Tiffany, the jewellery company, which made them into little four-inch souvenir pieces.
The first cable only operated for three weeks. Until the early twentieth century, all the cables were a single wire.
Cyrus Field was an extremely industrious figure and he did not give up. In 1864 he set up another company, bought Isambard Kingdom Brunel's steamship Great Eastern, then the largest ship afloat, and converted it to lay cables.
By May 1865, 2,600 miles of new cable was ready.
The Great Eastern sailed from Ireland westwards, carrying the full length of cable.
But more than halfway through the journey, the cable snapped and was lost on the ocean floor.
Undeterred, the team led by engineer Samuel Canning tried once more.
The Great Eastern set sail again on 13 July 1866 and reached Hearts Content, Newfoundland, on 27 July. This time the cable's insulation held out, and the transatlantic link was established.
On 9 August the steamship set sail again for the point in the Atlantic where the cable had broken the previous year, which the crew had marked with a buoy. After over two weeks of trying, at the end of August, they managed to hook the end of the cable successfully and bring it aboard.
Early on Sunday 2 September, they took it to the instrument room. Silence fell as the electricians attempted to call Ireland. Daniel Gooch, chairman of the company, recorded in his diary, "I think my heart ceased to beat during those few minutes".
At last, an answering signal arrived from Ireland and the crew celebrated their amazing feat. The engineers spliced new cable to the end, and the Great Eastern steamed back to Hearts Content.
The 1866 expedition saved the investment in the 1865 cable, as well as doubling the capacity for signal traffic across the Atlantic.
In a matter of years, long-distance submarine cables linked continents and in 1902, a telegraph cable from Canada to New Zealand completed a network that encircled the globe.
Instantaneous global communication had finally arrived.
The undersea cables carrying our bytes of data are laid in much the same way today as the first Victorian telegraph cables.
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