The Laying of the Atlantic Cable


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It was not till 1856 that the enterprise had any existence in England. In that summer I went to London, and there, with Mr. John W. Brett, Mr. (now Sir) Charles Bright, and Doctor Whitehouse, organized the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Science had begun to contemplate the necessity of such an enterprise; and the great Faraday cheered us with his lofty enthusiasm. Then, for the first time, was enlisted the support of English capitalists; and then the British Government began that generous course which it has continued ever since - offering us ships to complete soundings across the Atlantic and to assist in laying the cable, and an annual subsidy for the transmission of messages. The expedition of 1857 and the two expeditions of 1858 were joint enterprises, in which the Niagara and the Susquehanna took part with the Agamemnon, the Leopard, the Gordon, and the Valorous; and the officers of both navies worked with generous rivalry for the same great object. The capital - except one quarter which was taken by myself - was subscribed wholly in Great Britain. The directors were almost all English bankers and merchants, though among them was one gentleman whom we are proud to call an American - Mr. George Peabody, a name honored in two countries, since he has showered his princely benefactions upon both.

After two unsuccessful attempts, on the third trial we gained a brief success. The cable was laid, and for four weeks it worked - though never very brilliantly. It spoke, though only in broken sentences. But while it lasted no less than four hundred messages were sent across the Atlantic. Great was the enthusiasm it excited. It was a new thing under the sun, and for a few weeks the public went wild over it. Of course, when it stopped, the reaction was very great. People grew dumb and suspicious. Some thought it was all a hoax; and many were quite sure that it never had worked at all. That kind of odium we have had to endure for eight years, till now, I trust, we have at last silenced the unbelievers.

After the failure of 1858 came our darkest days. When a thing is dead, it is hard to galvanize it into life. It is more difficult to revive an old enterprise than to start a new one. The freshness and novelty are gone, and the feeling of disappointment discourages further effort.

Other causes delayed a new attempt. The United States had become involved in a tremendous war; and while the nation was struggling for life, it had no time to spend in foreign enterprises. But in England the project was still kept alive. The Atlantic Telegraph Company kept up its organization. It had a noble body of directors, who had faith in the enterprise and looked beyond its present low estate to ultimate success. Our chairman, the Right Honorable James Stuart Wortley, did not join us in the hour of victory, but in what seemed the hour of despair, after the failure of 1858, and he has been a steady support through all these years.

All this time the science of submarine telegraphy was making progress. The British Government appointed a commission to investigate the whole subject. It was composed of eminent scientific men and practical engineers - Galton, Wheatstone, Fairbairn, Bidder, Varley, and Latimer and Edwin Clark - with the secretary of the company, Mr. Saward - names to be held in honor in connection with this enterprise, along with those of other English engineers, such as Stephenson and Brunel and Whitworth and Penn and Lloyd and Joshua Field, who gave time and thought and labor freely to this enterprise, refusing all compensation. This commission sat for nearly two years, and spent many thousands of pounds in experiments. The result was a clear conviction in every mind that it was possible to lay a telegraph across the Atlantic. Science was also being all the while applied to practice. Submarine cables were laid in different seas - in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The last was laid by my friend Sir Charles Bright.

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“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Hebrews 11:1