The 145th Anniversary of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

This month we celebrate the transatlantic telegraph cable.

Join us on a journey through the National Maritime Museum’s collections to explore a story that has been long forgotten.

The transatlantic telegraph cable was the first cable used for telegraph communications, laid down across the bed of the Atlantic Ocean over a period of nine years (between 1857 and 1866). It crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Valentia Island in western Ireland to eastern Newfoundland. The National Maritime Museum holds a detailed chart showing the Cable Terrace, which belonged to the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, from where the first cable was laid in 1857. Nowadays a memorial marks the laying of the transatlantic cable on the top of Foilhomerrum Cliff in Valentia Island. Made of Valentia slate and designed by a local sculptor, the memorial commemorates the history of the cable and of the telegraph industry itself. You can find out more about the memorial at The Telegraph Field website

However, you don’t have to go to Valentia Island to pay tribute; there are several items in the National Maritime Museum’s collection to help you to discover more. The beautiful gold medal shown here celebrates the cable and shows a large globe with the Atlantic Ocean, across which Science (right) and a sailor (left) draw a cable. Below it are three round medallions. On the larger, central one, is Mercury; the other two bear the British Royal arms (right) and the American eagle (left). Above the globe is a dove with an olive branch in its beak symbolising peace between the two nations.

Another decorative object, a cable-shaped Atlantic Cable jug, celebrates the final transatlantic cable of 1866. Moulded in relief and coloured with pale blue slip, the body of the jug represents the diagonal construction of submarine telegraph cable. Either side of the lip are representations of the Victorian Royal Standard and the American Stars and Stripes. 

Altogether five attempts were made to lay the cable before permanent connections were finally completed by the SS Great Eastern

Originally designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a passenger ship, the SS Great Eastern was built at John Scott Russell’s yard on the Thames at Millwall opposite Greenwich, and after many technical difficulties was finally launched on 31 January 1858. This watercolour drawing by John Wilson Carmichael shows the building of the SS Great Eastern.

Measuring 692 feet in length by 83 feet in the beam and with a tonnage of 18,915, it was the largest ship in the world and would not be surpassed in length until 1899 by the SS Oceanic. Although it was considered to be ground-breaking in many ways - an iron doubled-bottomed hull driven by sail, screw and paddles - the Great Eastern was a commercial failure as a passenger ship. After being laid up in 1864, it was sold to the Anglo-American Telegraph Company based in Greenwich and converted as the cable layer. The Caird Library holds several modern or antique books published on the SS Great Eastern - try searching by keywords using classification number 629.123GREAT EASTERN in the Library online catalogue to find out more. 

The ship model of the SS Great Easternshown here is a contemporary full hull model (scale: 1:44); it is decked, fully rigged and complete with a working steam engine. There are two other models in the National Maritime Museum collection of the SS Great Eastern, a diorama showing the building of her (NMM Ref. SLR0904) and another full hull model showing her as a cable layer (NMM Ref. SLR2146).

The SS Great Eastern, under Captains James Anderson and later Robert C. Halpin, laid over 30,000 miles of submarine telegraph cable. Captain Halpin, Chief Officer of the SS Great Eastern in 1866, kept a detailed log book during the positioning of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable from 30 June to 18 September 1866.  A microfilm copy of this fascinating story is available for viewing in the Caird Library. 

A second log book also kept by Halpin, who by this time was commissioned as commander of a cable-laying voyage to Newfoundland and back between May and September 1873, can also be requested from the National Maritime Museum’s Archive Collection. And if you are still eager to learn more about an ordinary crew member’s life, you can also browse the diary written on board the SS Great Eastern during the 1866 cable-laying voyage by able seaman James Ford.

The oil painting titled From Sheerness to Valentia is a rare view of life on deck aboard the SS Great Eastern. It was made by Robert Dudley during the first transatlantic cable-laying voyage of the ship. Dudley was amongst the dignitaries and journalists invited to travel on the ship and record this momentous journey. In the painting he shows some of the passengers on the upper deck. The four men and three women are grouped on the right, the women hold parasols and shawls, and behind them on the right some men are shown standing on the gantry by the paddle-wheel casing. Dudley was the expedition artist and made watercolour sketches for the Illustrated London News which he sent back by mail packet. Later, many of his original drawings on the trip were turned into lithographs to illustrate several publications such as The Atlantic Telegraph by W. H. Russell (London, 1866). The Caird Library subscribes to the Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003 and readers are more than welcome to search or browse over 260,000 full colour pages using the database in the reading room. Let us finish our story with the first message sent through the successfully working Atlantic Cable of 1866:

‘Our shore end has just been laid and a most perfect cable under God’s blessing has completed telegraphic communication between England & the Continent of America.’ Friday, 27 July 1866

Our journey has led us to a chart, a medal, a jug, a watercolour drawing and a ship model; we’ve glanced at a log book, a diary, an oil painting and a single manuscript. These are all part of the National Maritime Museum’s rich collections, and they all celebrate the transatlantic telegraph cable. Whilst today, telegraph cables have been replaced by transatlantic telecommunications cables, it’s still worth contemplating this fascinating period of historical technological advances. Our Item of the Month demonstrates the evolution of older methods of communication; it is those evolving methods of communication which now allow you to read this article online today.You can now pick up your own story and explore the collection of the National Maritime Museum via our Collections Online website.

Gregory, Library Assistant

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