The next time you’re frustrated by a slow wi-fi connection or a voicemail that doesn’t show up on your phone until hours after it was sent, consider snafus of the first Transatlantic Cable.
On August 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a message of approximately 100 words to U.S. President James Buchanan. It took nearly seventeen hours to transmit by Morse code through about 2,500 miles of cable at a depth of often more than two miles. The shorter reply from Buchanan back to the Queen took only ten hours.
Nevertheless, the message was one of congratulations on the “successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest.”
At last! The U.S.A. was connected to the mainland of Europe. Until then, it took ten or more days to send a message by ship, depending on the weather and ten more for a reply.
With the Queen’s first text message, we were no longer a distant island that was considered “out of touch” with the civilized world.
The laying of the transatlantic cable that made the Queen’s message a reality was one of the most exciting, eagerly anticipated developments of the nineteenth century.
From 1857 to 1858, Harper’s Weekly and countless newspapers ran stories and editorials with maps, charts, sketches, and portraits. Readers had an endless appetite for information about the project – from its promoters and investors to its complex logistics, emerging technology and heated politics between Congress and Britain.
An extensive history of the laying of the cable and the original art work created to document the event can be seen in the History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.
People celebrated when the text message was finally sent. According to the New York Times, over the several weeks that followed, 271 messages were transmitted.
Sadly, the dispatches became increasingly difficult to decipher and transmission slowed to the pace of snail mail. When Wildman Whitehouse, the cable’s chief engineer, cranked up the voltage to increase speed, he fried the cable.
Naysayers reemerged louder than ever, questioning the feasibility of a transatlantic cable.
As with all great disruptive technologies, many people contributed incrementally to the concept of transatlantic communications since the 1830s. With the development of Morse Code in 1840 the idea gained speed and a number of players tried to push it forward.
Cyrus Field, a self-made millionaire from the paper industry, had become obsessed with wiring the world, despite the fact that he had no knowledge of submarine cables or deep-sea ventures.
Investing a considerable sum of his own money and raising funds from investors, he formed The Atlantic Telegraph Company, which built the first transatlantic cable starting in 1854. With the help of American and British naval ships Agamemnon and Niagara, the cable was laid and Queen Victoria sent the first text message.
Cyrus Field had gone overnight from hero to laughing stock,. All investments were lost. Still, Field refused to give up. Convinced they could learn from their mistakes, he and a few others closest to the project were more convinced than ever that a transatlantic telegraph could work.
Field raised more money and redesigned his plan. In 1860, the British government finished laying a Red Sea cable. The American Civil War delayed plans for the transatlantic telegraph, but patience and persistence paid off. The cable was successfully laid for good with the help of the Great Eastern ship in July of 1866.
After more than a dozen years, Field once again became on “overnight” success and was praised on both sides of the Atlantic. He went on to promote other oceanic cables, including one that connected Hawaii to Asia and Australia.
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The World’s First Transatlantic Cable: This Documentary is about an hour long and worth every minute of it!