The Nineteenth century in…Objects. Object 2. The First Transatlantic Cable

The Nineteenth Century

in … Objects


A series of postings of objects from PUNCS members, selected as representative, significant, or downright eccentric expressions of themes, topics and concerns related to the nineteenth century.

Object 2. A section of the first transatlantic cable (1857 – 1858)


 Images © PUNCS, 2014.

Artefact Description

A section of the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable of copper and charcoal iron with insulating material around core (without exterior insulating material). Mounted with brass ferules.  Length: 4 inches / 10.2 cm.

Sold by Tiffany and Co., jewellers, of 550 Broadway, New York, 1853.

[ Tiffany’s also produced a medal commemorating the Cable, see National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, for an example. ]



Transatlantic communications; globalisation; imperialism; technology; public interest in science

This object is a piece of the first transatlantic submarine cable (laid 1857‒1858), and was sold by the New York retailer Tiffany and Co. The section, secured with brass ferrules or bands at either end, and 4 inches / 10.2 cm in length, bears a brass band with the embossed lettering:





This reflects the public interest in this wonder of the nineteenth century: the ability to communicate over vast distances, including across oceans.

There had been successful submarine cables laid already, for instance between Dover and Calais in 1851, and the 1850s saw many other cables laid under water, such as across the Mediterranean. The poet R.H. Horne predicted in 1851:


                                                               … the means

Of thought-swift messengers beneath thy waves,

Till England whispers India in the ear,

America – north, south from pole to pole –

And words of friendship may pass round the world

Between the dawn and noon.

 (published in The Great Peace-maker: a Submarine Dialogue, London: Robson, 1871)


The American scientist Samuel F.B. Morse, who had experimented on the feasibility of submarine telegraph cables, had predicted a transatlantic cable in August 1843. This was to be the next big challenge.

After experiments in 1856 and 1857 under the auspices of a New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, a cable was laid by the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

Key figures in the project included the chief promoter, the wealthy New Englander Cyrus W. Field (who became Vice-President of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company), the scientists Professor Samuel Morse (who had previously been a portrait painter and sculptor) and Professor Thomson, and the engineer-in-chief Charles Tilston Bright, who had been chief engineer to the Magnetic Telegraph Company at the age of twenty and would be knighted for his contribution to the laying of the deep sea transatlantic cable, when only twenty six.

In all, some 3000 nautical miles of cable was manufactured. The cable when laid was 1660  nautical miles or 2050 geographical miles in length.

The cable was made in Britain. The core of the telegraph cable was made by the Gutta Percha Company at Wharf Road, City Road, London: of strands of copper conducting wire, one strand being wrapped around by six other strands. This was covered in three layers of gutta percha, a natural rubber, then a layer of jute rope yarn which had been soaked in a mixture of beeswax, linseed oil, pitch and tar.

This was then protected by a further layer, the ‘armouring’, which was manufactured in Britain by R.S. Newall and Co. ( of Gateshead),  and Glass, Elliott and Co. (at Enderby Wharf, Greenwich) made of 18 strands of charcoal annealed iron, each strand of this layer itself being made from seven strands: in the first image you can see the cross section. This was then protected by a further layer of tar, pitch, beeswax and linseed oil.

The cable cost $500 per mile. Some 100 nautical miles of unused cabling was brought back after the cable was laid (the balance of the cable from USS Niagara was sold by Cyrus Field to Tiffany and Co. in 1858, which manufactured souvenir sections and also transformed pieces into walking stick handles and fobs). The 4 inch sections retailed at 50 cents each.

The cable connected Newfoundland to Ireland. On the first expedition the land end was laid at Ballycarberry in Ireland in 5 August 1857, splitting on 10 August; and the cable was stored in Plymouth in the summer of 1858.

The cable was laid by the USS frigate Niagara and HMS Agamemnon: the two ships setting out from Plymouth on 10 June 1858. Eventually, after enduring the dangers of a week of gales, a collision with a whale, and several broken splices, the cables laid down by both ships were spliced together successfully on 29 July 1858.

Both ends of the cable reached land on 5 August, at Valentia in County Kerry, Ireland, and Bull Arm Bay, Trinity Bay, in Newfoundland. From the telegraph station at Knightstown the cable would connect with Cork, Dublin, and cross to mainland Europe via England.

Popular celebrations took place in New York and across the United States, sermons discussed the significance of the development, and it is said ‘never had an event more deeply touched the spirit of religious enthusiasm’ (Bright, Story of the Atlantic Cable, p.144).

The Mayor of New York’s public response was the following: ‘while itself the offspring of science, and that civilization which is founded on Christian principles, it announces to the whole world the reign of lasting peace and good-will to all men.’ (Daniel Tiemann, as quoted in the lengthy Detailed Report of the Proceedings held in Commemoration of the Successful Laying of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, p.2). Poets celebrated the occasion.


… Unfortunately the working life of the cable was to be short – a mere three weeks.


Messages were clearly received in 13 August from Newfoundland: the Irish side of the cable transmitted a clear message three days later. Later the President of the United States and Queen Victoria communicated on 16 August. There was the brief opportunity to send continental European news to the United States, and use the cable to military orders sent by mail to Canada in relation to the Indian mutiny: in all some 732 messages had been conveyed. Transmission of the messages was slow.

The cable functioned until late October 1858: failing as result of the high-potential currents produced by Whitehouse’s induction coils, and the damage to the insulation caused in August 1857. ‘Forward’ was reported to be the final words uttered.

The years that followed this attempt, would see the globe interconnected by telegraphy: as the biography of Sir Charles Bright noted, ‘shortly after the laying of the … Cable, the attention of the Government had been directed to the importance of establishing direct lines of telegraphic communication between Great Britain and her dependencies.’ (Life Story of the Late Sir Charles Tilston Bright, Civil Engineer, II, p.1).

The transoceanic telegraphic communications that followed have been seen by popular historians such as Tom Standage (The Victorian Internet, 1998), and others, as a precursor to the internet.


It cannot but be regarded by every wise and good man as a fortunate circumstance, that this great enterprise of the sub Atlantic Telegraph is the joint work of England and America. This circumstance ought of itself to serve as a guarantee to the world that, in case of war – should war unhappily ever be waged between these two nations – that cord is never to be broken, or to be used otherwise than freely and fairly alike by the two nations, their citizens and subjects.

Lieut. M.F. Maury, US Navy, Observatory and Hydrographic Office, 31 December 1856,

quoted in The Story of the Telegraph, p.226


… The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now already connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the two nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.


…  May the Atlantic Telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.

From the message of Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan, and his reply,

transmitted by transatlantic electric telegraph, 16 August 1858

quoted in The Story of the Telegraph, pp.187-188


Further Reading



Anon,               The Story of Cyrus Field the Projector of the Atlantic Telegraph (London: Nelson, 1877)

Field, C.W.      Atlantic Telegraph

A 20 pp. pamphlet promoting the Company, 1857

Knight, C., and E.B. Knight, Life Story of the Late Sir Charles Tilston Bright, Civil Engineer : With Which is Incorporated the Story of the Atlantic Cable, and the First Telegraph to India and the Colonies, 2 vols (London: Constable, 1899).

Illustrated, this includes portrait of Bright as frontispiece to vol.1.

McClenachan, C.T.,     Detailed Report of the Proceedings held in Commemoration of the Successful Laying of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, by Order of the Common Council of the City of New York (New York: E. Jones, 1863)

Mullaly, J.,      The Laying of the Cable, or the Ocean Telegraph (New York: Appleton, 1858)

Account by the special correspondent of the New York Herald

Van Rensselaer, C.,     Signals from the Atlantic Cable. An Address Delivered at the Telegraphic Celebration, September 1st, 1858, in the City Hall, Burlington, New Jersey (Philadelphia: J.W. Wilson, 1858)

Via Google books

Anon.,              Proceedings at the banquet held in honor of Cyrus W. Field, esq., of New York, in Willis’s rooms, London, on Wednesday, 1st July, 1868 (London: Metchim, 1868)

Briggs, C.F., and A. Maverick,            The Story of the Telegraph, and a History of the Great Atlantic Cable (New York: Rudd and Carleton, 1858)

Includes portrait of Cyrus W. Field as frontispiece, p.63 provides profile and cross sectional views of the cable, p.72, a vertical section of the shore end of the cable.

Field, H.M.,     History of the Atlantic Telegraph (3rd edn; New York: C. Scribner, 1869)

Higginson, F.   Laying down the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, and Sounding Ocean Depths (London: Partridge, 1850)

A 39 pp pamphlet by a naval officer and inventor, Francis Higginson.



Hearn, C.G.,    Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004)

Standage, T.,   The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers (first published 1998)

Wenzlhuemer, R.,       Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)



Bright, C.         The Story of the Atlantic Cable (London: Newnes, 1903)

An account by Charles Bright FRSE, Sir Charles Bright’s son, published at the dawn of wireless telegraphy as a means of international telecommunications, via Marconi’s experiments. Illustrations include, p.145, a facsimile of the first public news message received through the Atlantic cable.



‘Cabot Strait Cable and 1857-58 Atlantic Cables’, an account by Bill Glover published at the major, non-commercial site, on atalnatic cable history:


‘The 145th Anniversary of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable’


Some archival material relating to the Gutta Percha Company is detailed in the following:



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