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Undersea Cable

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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 telegraph cable.

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 one-and-a-half kilometres.

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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