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The first undersea telegraph cable—or marine cable—was laid
between England and France in 1850. The success of this venture
inspired even bigger dreams of laying the world's first
intercontinental telegraph line.
A consortium of entrepreneurs and government officials from
Canada, Great Britain, and the United States — the Atlantic
Telegraph Company, headed by the wealthy adventurer Cyrus W.
Field—banded together for the purpose of funding a transatlantic
Unfortunately, the man they chose to design the wire was Dr.
Edward Whitehorse, an early electrician ignorant of telegraphy.
The first transatlantic cable was 10 millimetres in diameter,
stretched 4600 kilometres in length, and weighed one ton for every
Only the largest ships in the world from the United States and
Great Britain were capable of hauling its giant spools. With so much
cable to haul, the length was split in two and loaded onto the
military vessels USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon.
In July 1857, the ships set out to sea. The Niagara would unroll
its cable, grounded at Valentia Harbour in Ireland, as it headed for
a rendezvous point in the mid-Atlantic. The Agamemnon would then
connect its half and complete the journey to a port on the other
side of the ocean.
It did not work out that way, however. After about 650 kilometres
of cable had been rolled out from the Niagara, the cable snapped and
sank deep into the rolling water.
After several months of fundraising, Field tried again, but with
a different strategy. The two ships would meet in the middle of the
vast Atlantic, this time planning to link their halves of the cable
before sailing back to their respective ports.
An attempt in June 1858 was unsuccessful. The ships spliced their
cables together and set out for their ports, only to have the cable
snap. They would return to the rendezvous twice more, and have the
cable snap again on both attempts, before they abandoned the cable
altogether. In a following attempt made on 5 August 1858, however,
these efforts finally proved successful, and the 3300 kilometres of
cable laid out between them held.
People on both continents hoped the celebrated transatlantic
connection would result in closer relations between the United
States and England. Indeed, some hailed it as the breakthrough that
would lead to global peace and fraternity. Queen Victoria herself
sent a message across it to the US president.
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