In the mid 1980s your humble writer, fresh out of high school, had a job for a year or so working in a survey crew in West Texas laying out the routes for fiber optic cable lines through the desert. Running parallel to these new lines were old ones consisting of copper coaxial cables, some of which remained and some of which got extricated to make make for the new digital. This all came back to me when reading the other day of the Atlantic Telegraph Jubilee of September 1, 1858. One hundred and sixty years ago today New Yorkers turned out by the thousands to celebrate the laying of the first cable crossing that ocean span. The work was that of Cyrus W. Field, owner of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The first official transatlantic communication (after a test run to make certain things were in working order) had been sent two weeks earlier, when on August 16 Queen Victoria in London messaged President Buchanan, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, in Washington. There had been several attempts in the days before this that had failed for technical reasons.
Everyone understood the significance of the transatlantic cable. York City, for one, had only had running water for sixteen years at this point and was not unique in its lack of infrastructure and public utilities. Letters still took weeks to cross the ocean. The initial rate in August and early September 1858 to send a transatlantic message was $5 per word. By comparison: the average working man earned between $1-$2 per day. It took seventeen hours to transmit Queen Victoria’s fourteen-word message to Buchanan. Thousands turned out for the Atlantic Telegraph Jubilee but the event seems to have been largely forgotten over the ensuing decades and up to the present time. That is probably because the cable broke with a few short weeks and was essentially inoperable by early fall. Such failures are not unusual in these types of projects. Transatlantic communication did not come to full fruition until after the American Civil War. In 1866 Field managed to build the first true, permanent cable. By then, message time was down to about eight to fifteen words per minute.
The transatlantic cable was hugely important well into the twentieth century. By 1908, fifty years after the first cable massage, there were at least six companies and over a dozen lines crossing the ocean. Rates were down to four cents per word. Even with that there was much public talk about high rates and unfair trade practices. One way was to make it cheaper to send messages at night, just like cell phone companies encourage us today to use our phones on evenings and weekends by making calls less expensive. Consolidation soon followed. Transatlantic communication was hugely important during the Great War. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and indeed there was some telephone communication in the First World War, but like the airplane it was still in its infancy. Thus telegraphy’s continued significance.
Albeit anomalously, cable messaging continued even into the twenty-first century. It was not until February 2006 that Western Union sent its last telegram. I remember saying that to a class of technology students the day after that happened and the students responding with virtually no reaction.
(images/top, NYPL; bottom, U.S. Post Office)