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No. 59:
A Transatlantic Cable

Today, Queen Victoria sends a telegram to President Buchanan. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

After Samuel F.B. Morse showed that long-distance telegraphy was workable, we quickly wove a spider web of lines over America. One of the first was Morse's cable under New York Harbor. Taking telegraphy into the inky ocean depths opened a mare's nest of problems. Still, a cable was run under the English Channel by 1851 -- 14 years after Morse's first demonstration.

cyrfield.jpgThree years later, in 1854, an English engineer named Gisborne went to the young American financier Cyrus Field with plans to lay a cable from America to Newfoundland. Field went home to think it over and decided to go for broke. He set up a company to lay telegraph cable all the way to England. The line to Newfoundland was finished in two years. The waters were fairly shallow with a silt bottom that protected the cable.

But the 2200-mile stretch under the Atlantic posed terrible difficulties. The first cables were stranded copper, insulated with gutta percha and tarred hemp. They were wound with 300,000 miles of iron wire to protect them. They were about half an inch in diameter. No ship was big enough to carry 2200 miles of cable, so it had to be spliced in mid-ocean. The cables broke twice and were lost, but a third try succeeded in 1858.

And all the while, scientists and engineers argued about how much voltage it would take to carry a signal over the terrible distance. The high-voltage people won out with a 2000-volt system. After a month of operation, it burned through the insulation off the coast of Ireland.

While it lasted, the cable was met with euphoria. A 98-word message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan took 17 hours to send on the failing cable. But New Yorkers celebrated the linkup with fireworks in the street.

Then the cable failure, followed by the Civil War, ended the project until 1865. But in 1865, another failure came to the rescue. The Great Eastern -- the largest ship ever built -- had failed as a passenger ship because it burned too much fuel. But it was big enough to carry a single strand of one-inch reinforced cable 2700 miles long -- a single strand that weighed 5000 tons.

The cable broke in 1865, but the Great Eastern succeeded a year later. A once-bitten public wasn't so excited this time. But now a stronger cable -- operating under low voltage -- survived to change the very character of commerce between America and Europe.

It's hard to digest, but success in technology is almost always the offspring of failure. Things just don't work the first time, and success is usually hard-earned.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Chiles, J. R., A Cable Under the Sea. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Fall 1987, pp. 34-41.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1425.


(From the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica)