Two men shaking hands

Transatlantic Cable: Connecting the Continents

In Industry History by Fred Arnold

The transatlantic cable began our journey in communication with the world. Last post we talked about an overhead view of communication’s history. Some of those moments brought about serious change (the Internet) in how we perceive our world. One of the largest breakthroughs came from Cyrus Fields, the businessman who connected the United States to Europe via telegraph.

It started and ended with infrastructure

Communication remains one of the most expensive industries to dive into due to the expense of new infrastructure. Many factors like type of cable, natural boundaries, amount of subscribers and legal red tape create a hassle for new companies. A prime example of this is Google Fiber.

“CEO Larry Page ordered the cuts since Google Fiber has failed to attract as many subscribers as originally projected, according to the report. It is unclear if the cuts have happened,” quoted from the Business Insider.

Google’s problems continue with pricey infrastructure installations and legal problems barring them from utilizing current infrastructure. Communications is a tough industry, and it has always been that way, even at the beginning.

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and Morse code in 1837. Washington and Baltimore featured the first telegraph lines in 1844. Cyrus Fields kick started his telecommunications career in the 1850’s. This journey brought Fields close to losing the respect he earned from his other successes. Due to the immense scale and price tag that instant communication demanded, he relied heavily on investors.

“The telegraph really transformed the market place in the US really quickly. The market was nationalized. It was no longer dependent on space, and space was, in effect, annihilated,” said Daniel Czitrom, a Historian who spoke on PBS about the Transatlantic Cable.

Cyrus Field’s was the 33rd richest man of his time. His charismatic attitude pushed him through investor meeting after meeting. After securing investments ($1.5 million) he started the Atlantic Telegraph Company and began to lay the transatlantic cable to Newfoundland. That $1.5 million, however, only built infrastructure to Newfoundland due to trees, mountains and rivers. With little capital left, he ventured to Europe. Through a new series of demonstrations, meetings and discussions, he acquired more capital as well as a British ship that would help lay cable across the Atlantic Ocean.

The transatlantic cable is a success

At this point in time, majority of field experts (navigators, engineers and doctors) dismissed the idea of a cable that long being able to send a signal. It also took Fields quite some time to lobby the United States Congress to pass the Atlantic Cable act.

“God knows none of us were aware of what we had undertaken,” said Cyrus Fields during the voyage where he laid the miles of cable.

Made from a gutta-percha exterior (a sappy substance with great molding properties) with copper wiring beneath, these cables weighed one ton per mile. 2,000 miles separated Newfoundland from Britain, and specialized vessels from the British and US governments carried the cable. The USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon met on July 29, 1958 in the middle of the Atlantic where they linked the two cables together before parting ways.

Each ship slowly laid the transatlantic cable over an eight day period of time. Many issues arose such as currents, speed of the ship being too fast which could have led to the cable snapping and the navigational equipment malfunctioning from the iron within the cable on board. this navigational failure almost led to the possibility of the cable being too short.

A message from the queen of Britain was the first to arrive in New York. It marked the start of instant communication between continents once hampered by miles of ocean. Fields struggled with finding investors. He struggled with the expense of building new infrastructure, and he also struggled with the legalities of his pursuits. In the end, however, his drive for innovation brought in a new way to communicate. As the years go by, that communication is constantly reinvented, tweaked and perfected, and Knight Enterprises will be there to build the infrastructure necessary to promote that innovation.