Blast From The Past
A “Non-Technical” Perspective on the First Trans-Atlantic Submarine Cable
By Chris van Zinnicq Bergmann
March 22, 2021
A 170 years ago, the world’s first working submarine telegraph cable was laid across the English Channel, followed by cables from England to Holland and Ireland and, in 1854, from Italy to Sardinia and Corsica. At that time, an American businessman named Cyrus W. Field came up with the plan to lay a cable across the Atlantic Ocean and thereby connect the United States to Europe. This article will mainly highlight the financial and organizational side of what was then an astonishing project, given the fact that the longest operating submarine cable at that time ran 110 miles and at a depth of no more than 300 fathoms (1 fathom = 6 feet). The Atlantic cable would have to be 2,000 miles long and reach a depth of 2,600 fathoms. Field realized that owning the means of instant communication between North America and Europe (instead of having to send messages by ship which took weeks) could potentially generate formidable profits. But as will be described, the project encountered numerous setbacks and failures and it ultimately took twelve years and a very large dose of perseverance to bring it over the finish line.
The first part of the plan was to build a link from New York to Newfoundland as that island was the closest point in North America to Europe (Ireland in fact). This meant completing an existing line from St. John’s across southern Newfoundland, laying a submarine cable across the Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island and building a new line on Cape Breton Island to connect to the existing telegraph system in Nova Scotia and from there to the United States.
Field managed to attract a group of wealthy American investors to back the new venture and they committed themselves to rais
e $1.5 million in capital. At that time, this was a huge amount (the entire federal budget in 1854 came to $58 million and in those days $1,000 per year was enough income for a family to live a modest, middle-class life), but it would turn out to be nowhere near sufficient.
Having formed the “New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company” and having obtained a charter from the government of Newfoundland for the exclusive right to lay cables touching the island (for a period of fifty years) in the spring of 1854, it would take well over one year to finish just the construction of the terrestrial cable on the island at a cost of $500,000, which was already one third of the company’s capital. Meanwhile, Cyrus Field went to England to arrange the manufacturing of cable for crossing the Cabot Strait. At that time only Britain had the capability to produce submarine telegraph cable, which was mainly due to its monopoly on gutta-percha (which came from trees native to Malaysia), a polymer similar to rubber with the crucial property that – unlike rubber – it does not deteriorate when immersed in water for long periods. As such, in the mid-19th century gutta-percha was the perfect material for insulating submarine cables.