A New Transatlantic Telegraph Cable – July 13th, 1866

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The Route of the 1858 Transatlantic Telegraph Cable.

Once upon a time, in the early 19th century, it used to take ten days for a message from the United States to reach Europe, and then came the Internet . . . well, not quite yet, but close to a century before the Web came the Transatlantic telegraph cable! The first was laid across the floor of the Atlantic from Telegraph Field, Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart’s Content in eastern Newfoundland, and on August 16, 1858 the first message was transmitted across (or rather under) the Atlantic Ocean. It was a letter of congratulations from Queen Victoria to the President James Buchanan; the 98 word message took sixteen hours to send . . . remember those days of dial up modems? Three weeks later, however, Wildman Whitehouse accidentally destroyed the Transatlantic cable while applying extra voltage in an attempt to speed up the connection; this initial failure spooked many investors and the public, but that did not deter those who continued the work.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Over the next seven years four failed attempts were made to lay new cable, but then in 1865 along came Britain’s favorite engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his crew. His first attempt to install the new cable began on July 15th, 1865, but failed when after 1,062 miles of laying cable it snapped and was lost, but this did not stop Brunel. 363 days later, on this day in 1866, Brunel’s ship the Great Eastern, captained by Sir James Anderson, began another two week voyage to lay a new and improved telegraph cable between Britain and the United States. This time, success! On July 28, 1866 a transmission was sent and the new cable proved more durable and much faster. The 1866 cable was actually 80 times faster than its 1858 predecessor; the first telegram from the Queen to Buchanan took two minutes to transmit just one character, whereas eight years later the new cable was sending eight words per minute.

Between 1873 and 1894 four more cables were laid, and by the end of the 19th century British, French, German, and American cables were linked to create the first world wide web, sort of . . . so in some ways, the birth of the Internet occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria.

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The Great Eastern about to set sail.

The Transatlantic telegraph cable was cutting edge science, so it comes as little surprise that is mentioned in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as it is observed by the crew and passengers of the Nautilus. 

Then in 2012, British SteamPUNK band The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing released “Brunel” in celebration of this totally kick ass engineer!

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One Response to “A New Transatlantic Telegraph Cable – July 13th, 1866

  • The earliest attempts at laying a transatlantic cable met with a strange problem. Pieces of metal that looked like spikes kept turning up as if they had been driven into the cable with a hammer by a saboteur. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne had Captain Nemo imply, but never state, that he had driven those spikes into the cable.

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