Primary History

British History: Trans-Atlantic cable

  • The Telegraph

    The electrical telegraph was invented in the 1830s and this communication system spread rapidly across Europe and the USA. The telegraph involves sending pulses of electricity down a wire.

    In the United States Samuel Morse invented a code that matched short or long pluses sent down the wire to the alphabet so that messages could be clearly sent over long distances

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  • Trans - Atlantic Cable

    In the 1850s there were attempts to lay cables across the Atlantic to enable the USA and Britain to communicate in minutes rather than waiting for 3 days while a ship sailed across the Atlantic. However, they failed because the wire was not strong enough.

    This problem was solved by Birmingham wire makers, Webster and Horsfall. James Horsfall invented a system of heating steel wire and then cooling it at different rates to produce wire that was twice the strength of other manufacturers. This method was called patenting and is still used today.

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  • The Cable

    The Cable consists of a centre with seven twisted pieces of copper wire which were coated with several layers of a preservative and a type of natural rubber extracted from the gutta-percha tree. This type of rubber was used because it becomes hard not brittle and it is a better insulator in cold water and away from direct sunlight.

    This was perfect for something that would lie at the bottom of the sea. However, it was also further covered with stands from the hemp plant that look like bits of fabric. The whole thing was then covered with 18 strands of soft steel which were wound around the whole structure to ensure the internal wires were well protected.

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  • SS Great Eastern

    In 1865 Brunel's specially adapted steam ship the SS Great Eastern laid the cable. She was the only ship that was large and strong enough to carry the cable. She laid over 4,000 miles of cable, between Valentia, in the west of Ireland and Heart's Content in Newfoundland. When it was completed the first messages sent were between the President of the USA and Queen Victoria.

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  • Future developments

    When the trans-Atlantic telegraph was working the first official telegram was between Queen Victoria and the President of the US, James Buchanan on 16th August 1858.

    The telegraph became the main form of long distance communication throughout the world until the 1960s. Webster and Horsfall's wire went on to be used in the music industry, to help power the combustion engine (used in cars) and to help planes fly.

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Fun Facts
  • A whole area of east Birmingham was taken over with the manufacture and storage of this huge amount of wire.

  • Queen Victoria, sent this message to the President of the United States.
    "The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of Union between the United States and England."

  • The cable needed to stretch across the Atlantic took 250 men 11 months to make.

  • The cable laid contained over 30,000 miles of wire, weighing more than 1600 tons.

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