How the First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Changed the World The curator of the recent Victorians Decoded exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery on the early pioneers of communication

The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid under the Atlantic Ocean in 1858, leading from Telegraph Field on the west coast of Ireland to Heart’s Content in eastern Newfoundland. The cable failed within three weeks, and it was nearly a decade until its reliable successor was eventually put into service, but it was that first pioneering attempt that founded the modern, digital interconnected world in which we live.

Recently closed, the Victorians Decoded exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery explored this great age of technological turbulence and its intersection with the art world. Here, Avaunt speaks to its curator, Katherine Pearce, about the early innovations in communications that changed how we see the world.

Siemens Transatlantic Telegraph Cable
Siemens Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

How difficult was it to produce the cable and lay it at the bottom of the ocean?
Simply making a cable took over a decade of attempts. To get a normal-sized cable to work it can’t have any kinks and has to be reinforced and highly insulated, and on a grand scale that becomes extremely difficult.

They built the cable in docklands at Greenwich using a natural plastic called gutta-percha, which you can mould at heat, but they needed tonnes to be able to coat all the copper wires that comprise the cable. Then they put the cable in salt-water vats to coil it very gently.

At sea they had to carefully uncoil it off the back of the two enormous ships, with people making repairs to the cable as it was being laid and monitoring the signals that were being sent through it, to check it wasn’t broken.

A resistance box
A resistance box previously on display at the exhibition

How innovative was the technology at the time?
There’s the physical aspect of building and laying that amount of cable underneath the ocean, which was a question of manpower and engineering. They already had that technology at their disposal but it was the first time it had been deployed on a grand scale.

The other innovations that drove the change came from people who worked on coding and ciphers in the earlier part of the century. They started creating dials, automatic transmitters and different codes based on things like the Jacquard loom [a power loom invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804 that simplified textiles manufacturing with complex patterns].

What happened to the cable – is it still used?
It’s still down there and while the cable itself isn’t still used, its route is. Fibre optic cables that carry our digital messages today still use the various lines the Victorians laid down, just as many of the railway lines we have still follow the Victorian railway patterns.

A battery of Daniell cells
A battery of Daniell cells – a type of electrochemical cell invented in 1836 by John Frederic Daniell

Before the advent of submarine cables, how would you get a message from one side of the world to the other?
You’d put a letter in the post and it would go off in a sack on a boat, so you’d be looking at a good couple of weeks if you wanted to write to your aunt in America. The technology meant that time went from two or three weeks – by which point your letters might have crossed – to about eight minutes.

What was the impact of that change on the world?
The effects on culture were enormous – the whole idea of space and time radically shifted. It’s analogous to the great leap of the internet, which has since reduced that sense of time to microseconds.

We can’t now imagine a world that functions in the way that we want it to without the internet, without access to a global network of communication, and it was the telegraph that led to our ever increasingly globalised world. Globalisation really started with telegraphy.

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