“but the cable itself soon ceased to function..”

Trans Atlantic Cable StampAn Post have issued a new stamp to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the first Trans Atlantic Telegraph Cable by Cyrus West Field, a US paper merchant. The new stamp features the British battleship HMS Agamemnon and the US Navy’s Niagara. But the anniversary is not as straight-forward as it might appear.. For a start, the cable had failed by September that year due to a lack of understanding of the processes involved by the chief electrical engineer on the project, Edward Whitehouse – who ignored the advice of Belfast-born scientist William Thomson – later Lord Kelvin. The first official message, 99 words long, from Queen Victoria to James Buchanan, President of the United States, was sent on 16th August 1858 from Valentia Island and took over 16 hours to send due to technical issues with the cable. And according to David Bodanis’ excellent Electric Universe – “It took more than thirty hours of struggle with sending and resending to transmit Buchanan’s equally brief telegram back to the Queen.”It wasn’t until 1866, after the US Civil War, that a second cable was successfully laid by the SS Great Eastern.

This time, as the PBS site says, – “It reflected the engineering influence of William Thomson instead of Edward Whitehouse, and it would not fail the way the Whitehouse cable had.”

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  • Nice one, Pete. I reckon, at its best, An Post produces some of the nicest stamps around.

    There may be a couple of other wrinkles to the story of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph.

    Although that first link from St Johns to Valencia worked, after a fashion (apart from the details you give, it only ever transmitted 723 messages before it finally failed), there was no link onwards from Valencia. As a result, messages received at the Valencia station had to be rowed across to the mainland.

    Cyrus Field (who made enough money out of the paper-making industry to retire in his mid-30s) gets the credit for being the inspiration. A couple of others deserve kudos.

    Thomas Brassey was one of the great railway-builders: the Chester-Holyhead line of 1845 was one of his early efforts. He later constructed the harder parts of Bazalgette’s London sewers, and the Victoria Embankment. In part he financed Brunel’s Great Eastern, which is why the ship was acquired for the 1864-6 Cable. His plans for a Channel Tunnel and a Panama Canal went unfulfilled.

    Brassey brought to the 1858 cable project another practical man-of-affairs, the Dumbarton-born John Pender. Pender branched out from cotton in Manchester to join the board of the English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company (cotton and “gutta percha” were essential to the cable insulation). This company established the first telegraph link between Portpatrick and Donaghadee as early as 1853 (the following year a second cable was run between Whitehead and Portpatrick).

    The second Trans Atlantic cable project, of 1864-66, only became possible when Pender personally guaranteed £250,000 of investment.

    When Pender died in 1896, his companies (which, much later, became Cable and Wireless) controlled some 75,000 miles of cables around the world and were worth in excess of £15m.

    Eat your heart out, Bill Gates.

  • Brian Walker

    Thanks Pete for an interesting backgrounder to my first visit to Valencia and Mizen Head where the radio and weather stations are preserved. As was your review of Van Morrison to see him live at Kenwood in Hampstead Heath on Saturday night. Valentia is a magic place which for me had been a poetic-sounding centre of weather reports on the shipping forecast. On Valentia, you can see the 380 million year old or so tracks still in situ of the first four footed creature to emerge from the sea. Strangely moving. Also worth visiting on the island are the tropical gardens of Glanleam House, laid out by the late Knight of Kerry and rescued, to my eye, just about in time. Although Valentia cannot be spared the Atlantic gale, it is frost free, thanks to the nearby Gulf Stream. But you wouldn’t have thought so last week!

    Incidentally, Mizen Head signal station from where Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio message is preserved in all its glory as a heritage centre and offers a clear view on a good day of Fastnet light nine miles out to sea. All in all, the area and its transatlantic links are worth a whole book of stamps.

  • Brian Walker

    P.S . and thanks too to Malcolm for more remarkable erudition on the area. Incidentally, I won’t forget his memoir of a Somerville lady, presumably not at first hand:
    ” St Barrahane’s CofI Church, overlooking the village and close to the castle,(which) was where Dr Edith played the organ each Sunday (the degree was honorary, from TCD, in 1922).”
    I can vouch for the fact that Mary Anne’s is still going strong as what the English call a gastropub. Its worth noting very quietly that a plaque in the bar of all its previous owners was unveiled by one CJ Haughey, the squire of Inishvickillane.

  • Pete Baker

    Excellent additional comments, guys!

    Wrinkles galore, Malcolm.

    The first few messages were problem free.. but when the problems started Whitehouse decided that bigger was better, against Thomson’s advice, and upped the voltage.. melting the cable’s already inadequate insulation.


    Plenty of fossils out there. ;o)

  • joeCanuck

    Have to agree; David Bodanis’ book is an excellent great read. As are all of his works.