Today, Queen Victoria sends a telegram to President
Buchanan. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
After Samuel F.B. Morse
showed that long-distance telegraphy was workable,
we quickly wove a spider web of wires over America.
One of the first was Morse's cable under New York
Harbor. Taking telegraphy into the inky ocean
depths opened a mare's nest of problems. Still, a
cable was in use under the English Channel by 1851.
That was only 14 years after Morse demonstrated his
first telegraph. By 1853, England was linked to
A year later, an English engineer named Gisborne
went to the young American financier Cyrus Field with plans to lay a
cable from America to Newfoundland. Field went home
to think that one over. He came back having decided
to go for broke. He set up a company to lay
telegraph cable all the way to England. The
segment to Newfoundland was finished in two years.
The waters were fairly shallow with a silt bottom
that protected the cable.
But the 2200-mile stretch under the Atlantic posed
terrible difficulties. The first cables were
stranded copper, insulated with gutta percha
and tarred hemp. They were wound with 300,000 miles
of iron wire to protect them. They were about half
an inch in diameter. No ship was big enough to
carry thousands of miles of cable, so it had to be
spliced in mid-ocean. The cables broke twice and
were lost. A third try succeeded in 1858.
All the while, scientists and engineers argued
about how much voltage it would take to carry a
signal over the terrible distance. The high-voltage
people won out with a 2000-volt system. After a
month of operation, it burned through the
insulation off the coast of Ireland. But while it
lasted, the public greeted the failing cable with
euphoria. A 98-word message from Queen Victoria to
President Buchanan took seventeen hours to send.
New Yorkers celebrated the linkup with fireworks in
But the cable's failure was followed by the Civil
War. That ended any hope of reviving the project
until 1865. Then, in 1865, another failure came to
the rescue. The Great
Eastern, the largest ship ever built, had
failed as a passenger ship because it burned too
much fuel. Still, it was the only ship on the ocean
big enough to carry a single strand of one-inch
reinforced cable 2700 miles long. It could carry a
single strand that weighed 5000 tons.
That cable broke in 1865, but the Great
Eastern succeeded a year later. The public,
once bitten and twice shy, was not so excited this
time. But this stronger cable, operating under low
voltage, survived to change the very character of
the relationship between America and Europe. It
changed much more. It changed the character of life
on Planet Earth. Some years later, author William
Saroyan wrote in his book, The Human
Comedy, "How much does is cost to send a
telegraph to New Jersey?" The wonderfully apt
answer, of course, was, "Not nearly as much as it's
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds