Tag Archives: Wiring the Atlantic

Bellaghy Historical Society – March 2006

The speaker, who is Chairperson of the Glens Historical Society was, a submarine Cable engineer for 20 years and consequently had a great knowledge of his subject.

He pointed out that the development of submarine cables in Victorian times had led to a world wide network of hundreds of undersea lines which enable us now to communicate by international telephone and internet. In the early days communication by speech over long lines was impossible and messages were sent by lighting beacons and by using smoke signals.

By 1840 various land based telegraph systems had been set up, some of them using copper wires as the conductor and there were other systems using semaphore towers with large arms which moved to denote certain letters of the alphabet. In America Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code had sent the first public message from Washington to Baltimore in 1845.

About the same time Charles Brett and his brother Jacob obtained permission from the French Government to lay a cable across the Channel, a project requiring £2,000 which it took five years to raise from a sceptical public. The main problem in these early days was in insulating the wire but a breakthrough came in 1843 when Dr. William Montgomery discovered gutta percha from a tree in Malaya. This was collected in the same way as rubber and was used as a sort of plastic. In 1850 the Bretts laid their first cable to France, signals were exchanged for a few hours when the line went dead.

In 1851 the Bretts laid a much stronger cable to France which lasted for 80 years. This started men thinking about laying a transatlantic link. The first attempt was made in 1857 promoted by an American called Cyrus Field who formed a company with John Brett, Charles Bright, Edward Whitehouse and Willliam Thompson, later Lord Kelvin.The chosen terminals were Valencia in Co.Kerry and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.

Cable laying began on 6th August, 1857 and after many frustrating attempts when the cable broke and the Directors were becoming increasingly disillusioned and financial backing was hard to generate, success was achieved on 5th August 1858 when the two ships involved, the Agamemnon and the Niagra arrived at Valentia and Trinity Bay respectively thus at last linking Europe and America.

Many expensive failures occurred in the ensuing years until using I.K. Brunel’s “Great Eastern”, the largest ship afloat at the time and a re-designed cable which could be spliced if broken, communication with two Atlantic cables now laid was successfully accomplished on 27th July,1866.

Mr.Graham Gault

Mr.Graham Gault from Ballycastle was the speaker at the March meeting of the Bellaghy Historical Society when he spoke on “Wiring the Atlantic”.