Atlantic Telegraph Cable Timeline

The Dramatic Struggle to Connect Europe and North America

Illustration of the Great Eastern laying the Atlantic telegraph cable
The massive steamship Great Eastern laying the Atlantic telegraph cable in July 1865. Getty Images

The first telegraph cable to cross the Atlantic Ocean failed after working for a few weeks in 1858. The businessman behind the audacious project, Cyrus Field, was determined to make another attempt, but the Civil War, and numerous financial problems, interceded.

Another failed attempt was made in the summer of 1865. And finally, in 1866, a fully functional cable was placed that connected Europe to North America. The two continents have been in constant communication since.

The cable stretching thousands of miles under the waves changed the world profoundly, as news no longer took weeks to cross the ocean. The nearly instant movement of news was a huge leap forward for business, and it changed the way Americans and Europeans viewed the news.

The following timeline details major events in the long struggle to transmit telegraphic messages between continents.

1842: During the experimental phase of the telegraph, Samuel Morse placed an underwater cable in New York Harbor and succeeded in sending messages across it. A few years later, Ezra Cornell placed a telegraph cable across the Hudson River from New York City to New Jersey.

1851: A telegraph cable was laid under the English Channel, connecting England and France.

January 1854: A British entrepreneur, Frederic Gisborne, who had run into financial problems while trying to place an undersea telegraph cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, happened to meet Cyrus Field, a wealthy businessman and investor in New York City.

Gisborne's original idea was to transmit information faster than ever between North America and Europe by employing ships and telegraph cables.

The town of St. John's, on the eastern tip of the island of Newfoundland, is the closest point to Europe in North America. Gisborne envisioned fast boats delivering news from Europe to St. John's, and the information quickly being relayed, via his underwater cable, from the island to the Canadian mainland and then onward to New York City.

While considering whether to invest in Gisborne's Canadian cable, Field looked closely at a globe in his study. He was struck with a far more ambitious thought: a cable should continue eastward from St. John's, across the Atlantic Ocean, to a peninsula jutting into the ocean from the west coast of Ireland. As  connections were already in place between Ireland and England, news from London could then be relayed to New York City very quickly.

May 6, 1854: Cyrus Field, with his neighbor Peter Cooper, a wealthy New York businessman, and other investors, formed a company to create a telegraphic link between North America and Europe.

The Canadian Link

1856: After overcoming many obstacles, a working telegraph line finally reached from St. John's, on the edge of the Atlantic, to the Canadian mainland. Messages from St. John's, on the edge of North America, could be relayed to New York City.

Summer 1856: An ocean expedition took soundings and determined that a plateau on the ocean floor would provide a suitable surface on which to place a telegraph cable. Cyrus Field, visiting England, organized the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was able to interest British investors to join the American businessmen backing the effort to lay the cable.

December 1856: Back in America, Field visited Washington, D.C., and convinced the U.S. government to assist in the laying of the cable. Senator William Seward of New York introduced a bill to provide funding for the cable. It narrowly passed through Congress and was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on March 3, 1857, on Pierce's last day in office.

The 1857 Expedition: A Fast Failure

Spring 1857: The U.S. Navy's largest steam-powered ship, U.S.S. Niagara sailed to England and rendezvoused with a British ship, H.M.S. Agamemnon. Each ship took on 1,300 miles of coiled cable, and a plan was devised for them to lay the cable across the bottom of the sea.

The ships would sail together westward from Valentia, on the west coast of Ireland, with the Niagara dropping its length of cable as it sailed. At mid-ocean, the cable dropped from the Niagara would be spliced to to the cable carried on the Agamemnon, which would then play out its cable all the way to Canada.

August 6, 1857: The ships left Ireland and began dropping the cable into the ocean.

August 10, 1857: The cable aboard the Niagara, which had been transmitting messages back and forth to Ireland as a test, suddenly stopped working. While engineers tried to determine the cause of the problem, a malfunction with the cable-laying machinery on the Niagara snapped the cable. The ships had to return to Ireland, having lost 300 miles of cable at sea. It was decided to try again the following year.

The First 1858 Expedition: A New Plan Met New Problems

March 9, 1858: The Niagara sailed from New York to England, where it again stowed cable on board and met up with the Agamemnon. A new plan was for the ships to go to a point mid-ocean, splice together the portions of cable they each carried, and then sail apart as they lowered cable down to the ocean floor.

June 10, 1858: The two cable-carrying ships, and a small fleet of escorts, sailed out from England. They encounter ferocious storms, which caused very difficult sailing for ships carrying the enormous weight of cable, but all survived intact.

June 26, 1858: The cables on Niagara and Agamemnon were spliced together, and the operation of placing the cable began. Problems were encountered almost immediately.

June 29, 1858: After three days of continuous difficulties, a break in the cable made the expedition halt and head back to England.

The Second 1858 Expedition: Success Followed By Failure

July 17, 1858: The ships left Cork, Ireland, to make another attempt, utilizing essentially the same plan. 

July 29, 1858: At mid-ocean, the cables were spliced and Niagara and Agamemnon began steaming in opposite directions, dropping the cable between them. The two ships were able to communicate back and forth via the cable, which served as a test that all was functioning well.

August 2, 1858: The Agamemnon reached Valentia harbor on the west coast of Ireland and the cable was brought ashore.

August 5, 1858: The Niagara reached St. John's, Newfoundland, and the cable was connected to the land station. A message was telegraphed to newspapers in New York alerting them of the news. The message stated that the cable crossing the ocean was 1,950 statue miles long.

Celebrations broke out in New York City, Boston, and other American cities. A New York Times headline declared the new cable "The Great Event of The Age."

A congratulatory message was sent across the cable from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. When the message was relayed to Washington, American officials at first believed the message from the British monarch to be a hoax.

September 1, 1858: The cable, which had been operating for four weeks, began failing. A problem with the electrical mechanism that powered the cable proved fatal, and the cable stopped working entirely. Many in the public believed it had all been a hoax.

The 1865 Expedition: New Technology, New Problems

Continued attempts to lay a working cable were suspended due to a lack of funds. And the outbreak of the Civil War made the entire project impractical. The telegraph played an important role in the war, and President Lincoln used the telegraph extensively to communicate with commanders. But extending cables to another continent was far from a wartime priority.

As the war was coming to an end, and Cyrus Field was able to get financial problems under control, preparations began for another expedition, this time using one enormous ship, the Great Eastern. The ship, which had been designed and built by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Brunel, had become unprofitable to operate. But its vast size made it perfect for storing and laying telegraph cable.

The cable to be laid in 1865 was made with higher specifications than the 1857-58 cable. And the process of putting the cable aboard ship was greatly improved, as it was suspected that rough handling on the ships had weakened the earlier cable.

The painstaking work of spooling the cable on the Great Eastern was a source of fascination for the public, and illustrations of it appeared in popular periodicals.

July 15, 1865: The Great Eastern sailed from England on its mission to place the new cable.

July 23, 1865: After one end of the cable was fashioned to a land station on the west coast of Ireland, the Great Eastern began to sail westward while dropping the cable.

August 2, 1865: A problem with the cable necessitated repairs, and the cable broke and was lost on the sea floor. Several attempts to retrieve the cable with a grappling hook failed.

August 11, 1865: Frustrated by all attempts to raise the sunken and severed cable, the Great Eastern began to steam back to England. Attempts to place the cable that year were suspended.

The Successful 1866 Expedition:

June 30, 1866: The Great Eastern steamed from England with new cable aboard.

July 13, 1866: Defying superstition, on a Friday the 13th the fifth attempt since 1857 to lay the cable began. And this time the attempt to connect the continents encountered very few problems.

July 18, 1866: In the only serious problem encountered on the expedition, a tangle in the cable had to be sorted out. The process took about two hours and was successful.

July 27, 1866: The Great Eastern reached the shore of Canada, and the cable was brought ashore.

July 28, 1866: The cable was proven successful and congratulatory messages began to travel across it. This time the connection between Europe and North America remained steady, and the two continents have been in contact, via undersea cables, to the present day.

After successfully laying the 1866 cable, the expedition then located, and repaired, the cable lost in 1865. The two working cables began to change the world, and over the following decades more cables crossed the Atlantic as well as other vast bodies of water. After a decade of frustration the era of instant communication had arrived.

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McNamara, Robert. "Atlantic Telegraph Cable Timeline." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Atlantic Telegraph Cable Timeline. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Atlantic Telegraph Cable Timeline." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).