“The Atlantic Telegraph” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, October 1858; pp. 103-108)
The telegraph has told its own story everywhere, and I do not suppose that I can surprise any of the Merrys, even in the most retired corner of the land, by telling them that the cable is laid. They have all felt the electric joy and wonder which shot through the country, in all directions, when the word came through the air, “the Atlantic cable is landed.” Uncle Hiram, seated quietly in the sanctum, started up and shouted, brandishing his hatchet, with an air of triumph, as if he would say, Who but a Yankee could have done that? But he did not say it. He thought rather of the Divine hand and power that had planned and guided it all. Uncle Merry, a thousand miles off, in Illinois, and Uncle Frank, in Connecticut, almost at the same moment received the startling tidings which, for wonder and joy, they could hardly believe; while here and there, in thousands of places all up and down our broad land, our twenty thousand nephews and nieces were catching up the word, as it flew, and catching with it the enthusiasm and joy of their fathers and brothers, and mingling their shouts in the universal jubilee. And now, what is all this noise about? Are not many of us in the condition of a boy, who, after hurrahing and screaming for half an hour or more, with his companions, took advantage of the first pause to ask, “What are we shouting for?”
Let us look at it a moment, and take
a glance at its history. Here is a cable, as it is called, though it is not larger round than your finger, which is now stretched from the shores of Ireland to those of America, a distance of 2,000 miles. The cable is about 2,500 miles in length, 500 miles being required to meet the great depth of the ocean, the unevenness of the bottom, and the action of currents, swaying the cable out of a straight line. Messages are now passing and repassing on this cable, so that persons in London and New York may converse together, as they have done heretofore, in New York and Washington, or any other places in the country. Just think of it—for you must think, and think hard, to take in the full idea—talking across the Atlantic! If any one had undertaken and accomplished a bridge across this mighty abyss, it would have been wonderful, truly. But that, at railroad speed, would have required several days for a passage. This requires but a few minutes. And this is the difference between thought-travel and the tardy movements of the body. And the cable may well be called the bridge of thought.
The project of constructing a submarine telegraph between England and France, across the Strait of Dover, unsuccessfully attempted in 1850, was again undertaken, and accomplihsed in 1851. The line or cable at present in use is much more substantial than that formerly employed, and was constructed in the following manner: Four copper wires, known as the 16 wire gauge, each encased in a covering of gutta-percha, of a quarter of an inch in diameter, constituted the first layer. These several lines are twisted and plaited about each other, in spiral convolutions, in the manner of an ordinary cable or rope. The next superincumbent coil to this consisted of hempen yarn, previously saturated in a reservoir of prepared pitch and tallow, and, in its turn, is tightly twisted and compressed, impermeably and by steam power, over the gutta-percha, with its inclosed copper wires. This is overlaid again with a series of hempen yarns, five or six in number, and about an inch in diameter, saturated in the pitch and tallow, with a view of what the workmen call “worming” the gutta-percha. The gutta-percha thus protects the wire, and the hempen yarn in addition acts as a cementitious material to the gutta-percha, which, ultimately, has thrown over it a coat of galvanized wire. This completes the first process, and the manufacture of the rope in the spiral form is for the purpose of giving flexibility. The second process consists in hauling off the cable, so far completed, and passing it on to another wire-rope machine, where the cord is completely covered over with ten galvanized iron wires, each wire being about the thickness of a lead pencil, and known as “No. 1 galvanized wire g[au]ge.” This galvan-
ized iron sheathing is to protect and preserve the interior layers from the action of the sea, and the weight is considered to be sufficient to sink the cable.
In undertaking the Atlantic telegraph about 3,000 miles of cable were made, one half of which was placed on board the Agamemnon, a British war steamer, and one half on board the Niagara, an American war steamer. These vessels met in the middle of the ocean. The two cables were joined carefully, and the middle part dropped into the sea. The vessels then parted, one making for the coast of Ireland, the other for the coast of Newfoundland, each paying out its cable, as it went, with great care, so that the two were all the while bound together, and often sending messages to each other. On the first trial the cable broke, and the enterprise was abandoned for a whole year. A new cable was made and a new effort undertaken in the early part of this summer. Here again the cable broke, when some 400 miles had been paid out. This was very discouraging, and almost everybody gave up all hope of seeing the great work accomplished at all. But through the indomitable courage and perseverance of Mr. Field, the two vessels came together again, spliced the cable, and started boldly, but cautiously, on another trial. And this trial was successful—a perfect triumph—a marvel—a miracle—for the hand of God was certainly in it. Mr. Field no doubt learned, when a boy, that useful lesson we have so often taught you—“try, try again.” And here is the result. But who knows—who can guess what will be its full effect?
Who is this Mr. Field, you ask, of whom so much is said, and whom the world delights to honor? I will tell. He is the son of a very worthy New England clergyman, and was born in Haddam, Conn., in 1815. His business has been first that of a paper manufacturer, at Westfield, Mass., and afterward of a commission paper merchant, in New York. Sometimes he was successful, and sometimes not so. But he was never disheartened. “Try, try again,” was his motto, and he finally succeeded. He became rich.
Some five or six years ago he seemed
to have conceived the purpose of constructing the ocean telegraph, and at once threw into its consummation all his native enthusiasm, all his acquired knowledge of men and things, all his energy and perseverance, and all his pecuniary means.
There seems to be no divided honor in this enterprise—no possibility of question as to the author of the great achievement of modern civilization. Hundreds may have dreamed and suggested the idea, but Mr. Field was the first to set seriously at work for its realization, and the first to accomplish it. Fortunate is he in having completed his own work.
This great scheme was planned in March, 1854, Mr. Field, his brother, Mr. Morse, and a few other friends being present. The two Fields and Mr. Chandler White went immediately to Newfoundland, and obtained an act of incorporation, with a grant of fifty square miles of land. Out of these arrangements has grown that magnificent enterprise, whose successful accomplishment has astonished the world.
If all the myths of the old poets were realized to-morrow, not one of them would stand a chance with the hard, practical realities of the electric telegraph. The boldest story-teller of Rome or Greece never dreamed of annihilating time and space, even for the express purpose of making two lovers happy; and the most extravagant metamorphose ever imagined by Ovid might have been readily believed a century ago by the sternest philosopher of the age, if he could first have been made to swallow and accredit the prophecy that his descendants could walk down to Cornhill and receive a reply to a message to Paris in a minute. The celebrated Hibernian bird which contrived to exist in the flesh in two places at once must have encountered difficulties to which the magnetic current is a stranger, and, except that ornithological phenomenon, of which no specimens at present exist, there is certainly in art or in nature nothing more wonderful than this mastery, which man, by the aid of a few plates of metal, some acid and wire, has obtained over the subtle fluid, the effects of which are as patent and striking as its source is mysterious. The electric flash, the type of all that is swift and destructive in the elements, is here chained to the car of commerce, or wielded by curiosity or caprice. The message flies “ere one can say ‘it lightens.’ ” The electric
fire is bottled up in little wooden cases with brass knockers and screws, or is served out at will from oblong jars under the counter, moulding itself into the inflections of every language, and adapting itself to the exigencies of every thought, and beating that old, but remarkably fast, person, Old Time, hollow, whenever the race is long enough. There are some dissatisfied people who wish they had been born a little later; they want to see the full development, they say, of the twin giants, steam and electricity.
It is privilege enough for us to live in an age when science, having ceased to be empirical and impious, devotes itself to the practical wants of man, and, astonished at its success, confesses still how little it knows of its future, without our grudging to those who may come after, the fruits of its more matured enterprise and experiment.
And now, having said so much about the cable and the telegraph, it seems necessary to explain, in a few words, how it operates. Some of the Merrys understand it already. To others it is, probably, a great mystery still.
You all know that Dr. Franklin, by flying a kite near a thunder-cloud, and decoying down the lightning through the string, made the great discovery, that lightning is only the play of electricity. When it was thus found that man could handle lightning, and control it, it was immediately attempted to see to what use it could be turned. Dr. Franklin suggested the idea that messages might be sent by it from place to place. Many experiments were made, for many years, in different parts of the world. The Electric Telegraph was felt to be a possibility. Steinheil, a German, was probably the first person who succeeded in using one on a small scale. But Samuel F. B. Morse, of New York, was the first to complete the work, and put it in operation for practical purposes. This great achievement is not yet twenty years old, and now the whole earth is being covered with a network of wire.
In working the telegraph, the first thing is a battery. This consists of two or more jars, or cups, which are filled with a weak acid. Into each of these jars, or cups, a pair of metallic plates, one being platina and the other zinc, are dipped, all the plates being connected together by a rod at the top. The action of the acid on these plates immediately produces a galvanic current, which passes out through the rod, and acts upon and through any wire to which it may be attached. The galvanic or electric current thus obtained is conveyed to the “recording register,” when it is so controlled by this ingenious mechanical contrivance, that it is made to write at the other end of the wire, no matter how far off, any message which the operator chooses to send.
The laying of the cable was celebrated with great splendor in New York, on the 1st of September. It would be impossible even to begin to describe it here. The torch-light procession, the fireworks, and the various and splendid decorations of the buildings, public and private, would occupy more than a full number of the Museum. We had a fine opportunity to see the procession and fireworks, from the windows of Meade Brothers, Daguerreotypists, No. 233 Broadway, which were tastefully decorated and illuminated. Prominent in front was a globe, encircled by a coil of the Atlantic cable—prophetic of what may yet be done.