Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Most of us hardly think about the technical logistics of communication these days. With the touch of a few buttons we can send an email or text message, or pick up the phone and call someone “the old fashioned way.” We receive messages just as seamlessly as we send them. No uniformed messenger rings our doorbell to deliver a succinct, typewritten message sent by a friend or relative far away and transcribed from Morse code by a telegraph operator. Telegraphy, a method of conveying messages across long distances by transmitting and receiving signals by means of an electric current, is considered one of the first telecommunications technologies. A telegraph operator would transcribe a message into code, transmit it over the telegraph cable, and then an operator on the other end of the line would decipher the code back into a message that was then delivered to the intended recipient. By 1870 over 9 million messages were transmitted by telegraph annually, growing to nearly 212 million in 1930 when telephone use began to replace the use of the telegraph. Despite the availability of telephones, telegraphs remained an affordable alternative to long-distance and international calls; as recent as 1970, nearly 70 million telegraph messages were exchanged. 157 years ago this month, however, marks the end of the short-lived success of the first functioning transatlantic telegraph cable, the brainchild of American businessman Cyrus W. Field.
Field was born the eighth of ten children in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1819, and first lived in New York City during his teens, working as an errand boy for a dry goods store. He eventually moved back to Stockbridge, returning to New York City in 1840 where he opened his own paper manufacturing company and quickly became one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen. By the 1850’s he had amassed a fortune of $250,000 (over $7 million by today’s standards), purchased a home in Gramercy Park, and turned his attention to the arts and sciences, primarily telegraphy. Field partnered to found the American Telegraph Company with New York businessmen Peter Cooper, Abram Stevens Hewitt, and Moses Taylor; and proponent of telegraphy and co-founder of the Morse code, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse had improved upon devices in use in Europe, and developed and patented the first single-wire electronic telegraph in 1838. He obtained a grant form the United Statesl government to run an experimental line from Baltimore, Maryland, to Washington, DC, and the first public transmission was sent in 1843. By 1851 ten telegraph firms operated out of New York City alone, with over 75 companies throughout the country, and a total 21,147 miles of telegraph wire.
Field and his partners in the American Telegraph Company began by laying a 400 foot cable in Canada, starting at the terminus of existing American lines, and buying up an extensive amount of cable in the United States. While the American Telegraph Company seconded only Western Union in size, Field had set his sights on a transatlantic cable that would allow communication between North America and Europe. In 1856 Field founded the Atlantic Telegraph Company, based out of London, with backing from a number of British investors and a board comprised of British, American, and Canadian directors. With the added support from both the British and American governments, who provided the ships HMS Agamemnon and US steam frigate Niagara, the Atlantic Telegraph Company began to lay a transatlantic cable in 1857.
The 1857 expedition started out in Ireland, and headed toward Newfoundland in August. A recently completed survey of the Atlantic Ocean by the United States Navy identified a relatively flat plateau between Valentia, Ireland and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland at a depth of 2 miles, and this path was selected as the route for laying the transatlantic cable. The Gutta-Percha Company in London was contracted to manufacture the nearly 2,500 miles of telegraph cable necessary to span the distance of nearly 2,000 miles. 133 miles of wire was necessary to produce a single mile of telegraph cable, and each mile weighted approximately a ton. After laying approximately 380 miles of cable, however, the very weight of the cable prevented its success: and the cable snapped as the cable laying machinery could no longer bear the load. The ships returned to shore and resumed their normal duties while Atlantic Telegraph held an inquiry and discussed next steps. While some parties felt the entire project should be aborted, over 2,000 feet of telegraph cable remained, and ultimately, the Atlantic Telegraph Company decided to try again.
The second expedition set out in June 1858, this time with Agamemnon and Niagara departing separately from Ireland and Newfoundland with redesigned cable-laying machinery, and meeting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where they would splice their cables together in order to decrease the load of the cable. Shortly after setting out, the ships met with rough weather, severely damaging Agamemnon, and though the ships still met at the rendezvous point and successfully spliced the cable together, it broke three more times. The first two times the ships were able to reconvene and assemble the cables, but after the third, Niagara returned to port due to lack of communication, and eventually Agamemnon followed. The third attempt, launched in July 1858, was successful, and the first transmission along the cable was from Newfoundland to Ireland, on August 12, 1858.
Due to the length of the cable transmissions were slow and the signal was weak by the time it reached the other end of the line. Additionally, telegraph operators had to allow for a longer than normal pause between the “dots” and “dashes” of the Morse code, as the delay in transmission caused them to become drawn out and bleed into one another. Queen Victoria and American President James Buchanan exchanged mutual messages of congratulations over the Atlantic telegraph cable; though less than 100 words long, Queen Victoria’s message began transmission on August 16th and was not complete until August 17th. Clearly, the transatlantic cable still had a few bugs to be ironed out.
Despite all of the setbacks and functionality issues, the successful transatlantic transmissions inspired numerous celebrations. Cyrus W. Field was the man of the moment, and many events in New York honored his dedication to the project. As described in a previous post, “Company Songs,” 19th- and early 20th-century New Yorkers had a penchant for composing songs to mark important events or honoring individuals. The laying of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable was no exception, as documented by “The Telegraph Song!” This song was likely performed at the celebration held at the Crystal Palace, described in the program below, or at a dinner such as the one at the Metropolitan Hotel.
Transmissions across the Atlantic Ocean abruptly ceased on September 18th, and the source of the problem was traced to about 300 miles west of the Irish coast. The problem proved to be irreparable, and was attributed either to damage from the excessively high voltage necessary to transmit messages, or to exposure to heat from the sun before the cable was laid. The cable was active just 23 days, during which time 400 messages were exchanged between Newfoundland and Ireland. Despite the failure, while functioning, the cable proved just how useful it could be. In 1866, the first permanent telegraph cable was laid below the Atlantic Ocean.
For further reading, take a a look at Professor Nigel Linge’s article “The Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable 150th Anniversary Celebration, 1858-2008,” and the History Chanel’s “This Day in History,” post for August 5th from which this post draws heavily.
The ephemera from the Atlantic Telegraph Cable celebration will be soon be joining over 1,300 other ephemera items recently released via our online Collections Portal, as part of Illuminating New York City History through Material Culture, made possible with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Keep an eye on the Portal, or follow this blog, to stay up to date share more ephemera online. To learn more about celebrations such as those surrounding the laying of the Atlantic Cable, take a look at the finding aid for the Museum’s Collection on Civic Events.