A High Tech Relic and the Other “Cable Guy”

American industrialist Cyrus W. Field was celebrated for his determination to make the transatlantic cable a success. The music sheet of "The Ocean Telegraph March" featured his portrait.

American industrialist Cyrus W. Field was celebrated for his determination to make the transatlantic cable a success. The music sheet of “The Ocean Telegraph March” featured his portrait.

The long, frustrating search for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 serves as a reminder that the deepest parts of the ocean remain largely unexplored, as much terra incognita as the New World was to European explorers five centuries ago. In fact, we are told, scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do the pelagic depths of the world’s seas.

The need for communication across large, deep bodies of water had long depended on vessels of all sorts, until the mid-Nineteenth Century when governments, scientists and entrepreneurs like Cyrus W. Field joined in the effort of physically linking Old World and New with what came to be known as the Atlantic Submarine Telegraph Cable. The length of the initial cable, in excess of two thousand miles, was amazing enough; but being able to lay the cable in often stormy waters exceeding two miles deep was simply mind boggling. By 1857 the cable terminals were located on the shores of County Kerry, Ireland and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland respectively, but due to technical problems and bad luck they would have to wait an extra year before the cable was successfully completed. Field’s unwavering financial support for the project saw it through a series of failures until the link was at last completed in August 1858. You might say he was the original “cable guy.”

Now, the CHS collection includes a nondescript category of objects referred to as “relics”, items given in commemoration of historic people, places and events, both local and national. Frankly, they are one of my favorite groups of objects because they don’t always fit neatly into established collections hierarchies. Bits of famous buildings and vessels, or random items associated with the (in)famous are two of the kinds of “relics” in the collection. Just as interesting, I suppose, is speculating as to why someone felt CHS should have a particular object of this type. Well, like many similar institutions at the time, we apparently never asked the question.

sample of cable made for the first Atlantic Submarine Telegraph Cable by Glass, Elliot & Co. in London. It measures slightly more than 1/2 inch in diameter. CHS 1950.576.0

sample of cable made for the first Atlantic Submarine Telegraph Cable by Glass, Elliot & Co. in London. It measures slightly more than 1/2 inch in diameter. CHS 1950.576.0

Which brings me back to the Atlantic cable. CHS has two samples of the original 1858 cable in the collection, each donated well over a century ago. Arguably their connection to Connecticut is not significant, though Field was a Yale graduate and his clergyman father hailed from Madison. And yet despite the short-lived success of this first Anglo-American cable attempt (it failed within three weeks!) cable technology would ultimately have a fundamental impact on the nation’s role in the world at large.

Unlike today’s fiber-optic cables, the original Atlantic cable was constructed of tightly wound seven strand copper wire covered with a rubberized (gutta-percha) insulating sheath, tarred hemp and finally spiral iron wire. Modern British and American naval vessels were outfitted for laying the cable, but repeated breaks sometimes required starting anew, setting back completion by a full year. Once the connection was complete each government sent congratulatory messages to the other, replete with praise for the Almighty. The event was commemorated in prints and paintings, including one by the New Haven-born artist George W. Flagg showing the cable being landed at the terminal in Newfoundland.

American naval personnel from the USS Niagara brought the cable ashore at the western terminal at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland in August 1858. A partially conserved painting by George W. Flagg depicted the scene for posterity. CHS 1919.2.0

American naval personnel from the USS Niagara brought the cable ashore at the western terminal at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland in August 1858. A partially conserved painting by George W. Flagg depicted the scene for posterity. CHS 1919.2.0

In time multiple transatlantic cables connected North America and Europe, creating closer political and economic links that played an increasingly important role in America’s emergence as a significant player on the world stage. Today the instantaneous communication (most of it wireless via satellites) we have become accustomed to is just the latest incarnation of a dream embodied in that first Atlantic cable. So it looks like the “cable guy” was on to something, and just maybe the two cable samples really do have a story to tell.

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One thought on “A High Tech Relic and the Other “Cable Guy”

  1. An excellent post on the history of the first Atlantic cable! Just one
    technical note: the majority of today’s communications traffic is *not*
    carried by satellite; over 95% of it goes by undersea fiber optic cable.
    This map shows the vast extent of the modern cable network:
    http://www.submarinecablemap.com/

    For anyone interested in further reading on the Atlantic cable and the rest
    of the industry’s 165-year history, my cable history research website is
    extensive and comprehensive: http://atlantic-cable.com/

    One further connection of the early Atlantic cables to Connecticut is a
    satirical broadside published in Hartford in 1865 after the failure of the
    third attempt to lay the Atlantic cable. A copy of the broadside is in the
    collection of the Connecticut State Library at Hartford, and an illustration
    and description of it may be seen here:
    http://atlantic-cable.com/Ephemera/Broadsides/index.htm#i1865

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