5 August 1858: the first transatlantic telegraph cable is completed

On this day in 1858, HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara completed the mammoth task of laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

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 US 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.

Recommended

28 January 1958: the Lego brick is patented
This day in history

28 January 1958: the Lego brick is patented

Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of the Danish founder of Lego, patents the famous eight-stud Lego brick, on this day in 1958.
28 Jan 2021
27 January 1606: the trial of Guy Fawkes begins
This day in history

27 January 1606: the trial of Guy Fawkes begins

On this day in 1606, the trial of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators began, accused of high treason by trying to blow up the king and parliament.
27 Jan 2021
25 January 1947: the world’s first video game is patented
This day in history

25 January 1947: the world’s first video game is patented

On this day in 1947, Thomas T Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann submitted a patent application for their “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device” – the world's …
25 Jan 2021
23 January 1967: Milton Keynes founded
This day in history

23 January 1967: Milton Keynes founded

The most famous of Britain's garden cities, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, was founded on this day in 1967.
23 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Bitcoin does consume a lot of energy – but here’s why it’s worth it
Bitcoin

Bitcoin does consume a lot of energy – but here’s why it’s worth it

Some people question bitcoin’s legitimacy because it uses huge amounts of electricity to maintain its network. But that’s not a failing, says Dominic …
27 Jan 2021
Joe Biden’s spending spree will lift American spirits and markets – but it comes with a sting in the tail
US stockmarkets

Joe Biden’s spending spree will lift American spirits and markets – but it comes with a sting in the tail

New US president Joe Biden is planning to throw trillions of dollars in stimulus at his country’s economy. Markets will love that. But it comes with a…
25 Jan 2021
Think Tesla is a bubble? This might be the best way to bet on it bursting
Oil

Think Tesla is a bubble? This might be the best way to bet on it bursting

The huge rise in Tesla’s share price means that, by market value, it’s now the sixth-largest company in the US and and the world’s biggest car-maker. …
25 Jan 2021