August 5, 1858: First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Completed
After four failed attempts, American merchant Cyrus West Field succeeded in completing the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable utilizing a shallow submarine plateau that ran between Ireland and Newfoundland. Completed approximately two months after construction began, the cable is only operational for just over a month. However, this cable proved the feasibility of transatlantic communications and Cyrus West Field raised new funds to complete the first permanent telegraph line in 1866.
For the first time in history, communication times over land fell dramatically; from days and weeks to seconds and minutes. The capacity to move news and data quickly over large geographic scales had profound political, military, economic, financial and social impacts.
Previously, communications between Europe and the Americas could only happen by ships which were, on occasion, delayed for weeks due to severe winter storms. The transatlantic cable reduced communication time considerably, allowing a message and a response in the same day.
The cable was officially opened on August 16, 1858, when Queen Victoria sent President James Buchanan a message in Morse code. The jubilation at the feat was widespread.
The first message sent via the cable was, “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.”
Queen Victoria then sent a telegram of congratulation to President James Buchanan at his summer residence in the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania and expressed a hope that it would prove “an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem.”
The President responded that, “it is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle. May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.”
These messages engendered an outburst of enthusiasm. The next morning a grand salute of 100 guns resounded in New York City, the streets were decorated with flags, the bells of the churches were rung, and at night the city was illuminated.
In 1866, Field laid a new, more durable trans-Atlantic cable which provided almost instant communication across the Atlantic. On his return to Newfoundland, he grappled the cable he had attempted to lay the previous year and which had parted in mid-ocean, reattached it to new wire, thus allowing for a second, backup wire for communication.
Additional cables were laid between Foilhommerum and Heart’s Content in 1873, 1874, 1880, and 1894. By the end of the 19th century, British-, French-, German-, and American-owned cables linked Europe and North America in a sophisticated web of telegraphic communications.
The cable consisted of seven copper wires, each weighing 26 kg/km (107 pounds per nautical mile), covered with three coats of gutta-percha, weighing 64 kg/km (261 pounds per nautical mile), and wound with tarred hemp, over which a sheath of 18 strands, each of seven iron wires, was laid in a close spiral. It weighed nearly 550 kg/km (1.1 tons per nautical mile), was relatively flexible and was able to withstand a pull of several tens of kilonewtons (several tons).