5 August 1858: the first transatlantic telegraph cable is completed

HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara © Getty Images
HMS Agamemnon (L) and USS Niagara (R)

In the summer of 1858, HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara met in the middle of the Atlantic.

They joined two ends of telegraph cable together, and then sailed away in opposite directions. In their wake, they each paid out hundreds of miles of cable.

Not that a telegraph cable linking Europe to North America was exactly a new idea. Samuel Morse, of Morse code fame, had proposed the idea 18 years earlier. And by 1850, a cable spanned the English Channel. But America, thousands of miles to the west, was another matter altogether. In fact, it wasn’t even certain that a signal could be sent over such a long distance.

But American entrepreneur Cyrus West Field, who had already made his fortune manufacturing paper, was nothing if not ambitious. He set up the Atlantic Telegraph Company with the sole aim of making the idea reality.

The British government subsidised the project to the tune of £1,400 a year, while Field secured funding from the US Congress by the skin of his teeth (there was just one vote in it). He sold shares in the company, and stumped up a quarter of the cash himself.

Laying the cable was far from easy. Two attempts had already failed, because the cable broke, but the third attempt that summer was more successful.

On 5 August 1858, HMS Agamemnon landed at Valentia Island in southwest Ireland, while the USS Niagara had arrived in Newfoundland the day before. The cable was ready for its first transmission.

Enter Queen Victoria. On 16 August, Her Majesty sent the first message down the wire to President James Buchanan, proclaiming that “Europe and America are united by telegraphy” – but as it turned out, not for long.

Electricity was used to propel the message. To overcome a weak signal, the power was turned up too high, and the cable was destroyed. It had been operational for just three weeks.

The setback put off investors from putting more money into the venture, and the transatlantic telegraph cable was abandoned. A more durable cable would be laid in 1866.

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