"What is its warning against?" he said, ruminating, with his eyes on the fire, and only by times turning them on me. "What is the danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be doubted this third time, after what has gone before. But surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?"

He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated forehead.

"If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it," he went on, wiping the palms of his hands. "I should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was mad. This is the way it would work, — Message: 'Danger! Take care!' Answer: 'What Danger? Where?' Message: 'Don't know. But, for God's sake, take care!' They would displace me. What else could they do?"

His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life. &mdash "The Signal-Man" [533-534]

The ghost, which once haunted ancient mansions and ruined abbeys in the Romantic era, was now haunting such modern technological devices as the telegraph, and modern man was cursed by becoming an extension of the mechanical devices he had created. Charles Dickens probably based this incident on the Clayton Tunnel crash of 1861, but readers in 1866 would have seen the parallels — and would have shared the great writer's growing unease about the implications of the Age of Technology, undoubtedly intensified by his experiencing the catastrophic railway accident near Staplehurst on 9 June 1865.

General anxieties with the new telecommunications technology of the telegraph and the new transportation technology preceded the publication of Dickens's Mugby Junction in the Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round in December 1866, but the great failures of the new science of engineering, after twenty continuous years of stupendous successes, did occur from 1855 through 1865. The triple failure of the parting of the Valentia cable, the fracture in "Big Ben," and the launching difficulties presented by Brunel's Leviathan on 11 November 1857 prompted the lead writer of the London Times to remark the next day with characteristic litotes that "We seem to have been a little unfortunate in our grandiose schemes of late" (cited in Rolt, p. 272). Such scoffing at the wonders of science by the fifth estate was not at all common twenty years earlier, when the possibilities of Victorian science seemed limitless.

Left to right: Two views of Watson's Telegraphic Device fron the Illustrated London News: (a) Outside the tower. (b) Inside the tower — an early Victorian telegraph office. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

In June 1842, the recently instituted Illustrated London News ran a pictorial feature on one of the telecommunications marvels of the modern age, Watson's optical telegraph tower in the Borough, designed along the lines of the Chappe brothers' towers in France for reporting the arrival of commercial shipping at the Channel ports. Within ten years the system, operable only in clear weather and daylight hours, would be rendered obsolete by the innovation of the electromagnetic telegraph of Cooke, Wheatstone, and Morse, which instead of a complicated 64-combination visual panel (and code book) utilized a simple system of dots and dashes. Beginning in the mid-1840s, by the early 1850s a vast system of telegraph wires, generally paralleling the right-of-way of railways, had spread out from national capitals to each European nation's major ports and towns. On 3 October 1849, Prussia and Austria signed the world's first interconnection treaty to permit telegraphic messages to be sent directly from Vienna to Berlin, each the hub of a vast electromagnetic wheel of cables. In 1850 four German-speaking states — Prussia, Saxony, Austria, and Bavaria, formed the Austro-German Telegraph Union. Shortly afterward, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, and Sardinia signed similar interconnection treaties. What was then needed was the laying of submarine cables to connect Great Britain to these continental systems and thereby form the basis for a world-wide web.

Samuel Morse (1791-1872) had experimented with a lead-encased, rubber-coated telegraph wire, string between Castle Garden and Governors Island in the New York Harbour as early as 1843, while that same year British telegraphic inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone in the presence of a technology-fascinated Prince Albert had demonstrated the potential for a submarine cable under the Thames. However, since rubber deteriorates rapidly in water, some other coating had to be found if such a cable were to span the Atlantic Ocean, let alone the English Channel.

The solution was to use gutta-percha, a kind of rubbery gum obtained from the gutta-percha tree, which grows in the jungles of South-east Asia. Gutta-percha has the useful property that it is hard at room temperature, but softens when immersed in hot water and can be moulded into any shape. The Victorians used it much as we use plastic today: dolls, chess pieces, and ear trumpets were all made of gutta-percha. And although it was expensive, it turned out to be ideal for insulating cables. [Standage 68]

Enter the entrepreneurs John and Jacob Brett, the former a retired antique dealer, the latter an engineer. Obtaining the necessary permissions of the two governments, they proposed a link between England and France that would rely on specially insulated wire coated with quarter-inch Gutta-Percha. Their General Oceanic and Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Company on 29 August 1850 began playing out cable from the steam tug Goliath, but the cable (no thicker than a modern heavy-appliance cord) proved too light. Adopting the low-tech expedient of clamping weights to the cable, the Bretts arrived at Cap Gris Nez, Calais, that very evening and prepared to send a telegraphic message. However, they discovered quickly that the surrounding sea-water was garbling the signal of their latest, high-speed telegraphic machine. Although an older, single-needle device proved somewhat functional, the link was severed just the next day when a French fisherman snagged the Bretts' cable in his net. A year and £30,000 pounds, with the financial and technical assistance of railway engineer Thomas Crampton, the link thus severed was reestablished with far tougher — far heavier and more costly — hemp-encased, tar-cladded iron cable. Weighing thirty times as much as the original, the new cable ran off the drum so rapidly that it could not be readily controlled, so that

all the cable had been paid out before the boat carrying it reached France. Fortunately the Bretts had brought along a spare piece of cable, which they spliced on, and, in November 1851, after a few weeks of testing, the cable was opened to the public. The first direct message from London to Paris was sent in 1852. [Standage 70]

The problems of laying submarine cable surounted, Dover was linked to Ostend, England to Ireland (1853), and Britain via the North Sea to Germany, Russia, and Holland; and Corsica and Sardinia to Genoa. In 1854 John Brett attempted to link Europe with North Africa, an event covered by the indefatigible illustrators and reporter of Illustrated London News:

"Shipping the Mediterranean telegraph cable, at Morden Wharf, East Greenwich" [24 June 1854]

The British Electric Telegraph

Very few years ago it would have been deemed almost an act of insanity, to have even contemplated a submarine telegraphic communication between England and the continent of Europe. The fact, however, great and important as it is, has been accomplished, and with astonishing success. In the month of September, 1851, the first Submarine Telegraph — that between Dover and Calais, now hourly in use — was completed.

. . . . This great undertaking is intended to unite Europe with Africa (with, probably, a branch to Malta), and will, no doubt, ultimately extend to our Indian Empire . . . . [596]

In fact, the mountainous nature and depth of the sea bottom prevented the successful laying of the Mediterranean cable until well into the next decade. The initial project bankrupted the Bretts, and not until 1868 did John Pender, formerly Chairman of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, found the Anglo Mediterranean Telegraph Company, and connect Italy, Malta, and Egypt, as the first stage of a telegraphic link to India under the aegis of the Levant Telegraph Company and the Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company. Ultimately, the establishment of a direct connection between England and India depended upon Isambard Kingdom Brunel's mammoth paddle-wheeler Great Eastern, since only a vessel capable of carrying so great a weight of cable could accomplish the task. The Great Eastern, with 2375 nautical miles of cable, assisted by the Chiltern (260 nm), Hibernia (915 nm), and Hawk (10 nm), was chartered for the expedition in 1868. Preceded by the Chiltern, the Great Eastern arrived at Bombay on the 27 January 1870, commencing the laying of 1650 nm of cable to Aden on 14 February.

Although the laying of the first Atlantic cable, despite the underwater plateau between Ireland and Newfoundland, proved challenging, the task was accomplished some two years earlier than the India link, but took almost ten years owing to repeated reversals. In 1853, Frederic N. Gisborne, an English engineer, convinced New England millionaire Cyrus W. Field that a cable from Newfoundland across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and thence to New York would be a cost-effective method of speeding up the information flow from Europe to America without tackling the fiscally and technologically challenging task of laying a transAtlantic cable. Writing to Morse about the project's viability and then to hydrographer Matthew Fontaine, Field became convinced that laying a 2000-mile cable was achievable. Furthermore from Morse's experiment involving ten telegraph lines, each running the two hundred miles between Manchester and London, it was evident that a signal could run through so long a circuit. Accordingly, Field established the Atlantic Telegraph Company, which superseded his original New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. The massive cable required, an inch thick and weighing a ton a mile, was divided between two warships from the sponsoring governments, was taken to Valentia Bay, Ireland, in July 1857, but the expedition was beset with numerous difficulties resulting from the sheer weight of the cable. In May, 1858, The Illustrated London News depicted the reshipment of the Atlantic cable on the British warship H. M. S. Agamemnon and the American warship Niagra in Keyham Basin.

In July 1858, an optimistic reporter for The Illustrated London News, covering the Atlantic Telegraph paying-out machine, noted that

extraordinary vigilance and capacity which are required in an operation of this kind; for, while in other undertakings, such as the launching of the Leviathan [the name with which Brunel's Great Eastern was originally christened at its Deptford launching on 31 January 1858], a failure one day may be obliterated by a success the next. [3 July 1858, p. 5]

The Niagara was to lay out its cable as the flotilla sailed westward, then the cable from Agamemnon was to connected to it in mid-Atlantic. Unfortunately, the second cable broke after 350 miles and could not be recovered. Field raised more capital and put into force a new plan: his agents would sail the two ships to mid-Atlantic, join the two halves of the cable, then set out in opposite directions. Twice the cable snapped and the ships had to return to the starting point. A third break forced the ships to return to Ireland for provisions; the fourth attempt, involving the playing out of 2,050 miles of cable, succeeded on 5 August 1858. Hysterical celebrations in both England and America erupted. However, the system was so unreliable that a message from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan took over sixteen hours to arrive. Although the company tried to keep the cable's instability secret from the public, on 1 September 1858 the connection utterly failed, probably owing to Dr, Edward Whitehouse's faulty design. "Not only had Whitehouse made the conducting core too small, [university of Glasgow Natural Philosophy Professor William] Thomson explained [to a British government investigatory committee], his use of high voltage induction coils had gradually destroyed the cable's insulation" (Standage 83). Thomson's theories about submarine were vindicated with the 1864 laying of a cable connecting India and Europe via the Persian Gulf, so that Field was readily able to arrange the funding for a new, improved Atlantic cable, with a larger conducting core and greater buoyancy.

Left to right: (a) The Great Eastern under constrction. (b) The Great Eastern at her mooring. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Of course, only the largest ship then afloat, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's double-hulled Great Eastern, having a displacement of 20,000 tons and launched as a passenger liner some eight years earlier, was capable of carrying so heavy a load, but, through a series of accidents and financial reversals, the mighty ship suddenly became available just when Field and Thomson needed her, for, having run aground in New York harbour, her repairs had bankrupted her owners and led to her being knocked down for a fraction of her value. The straw that broke the owners' backs was an accident off Montauk Point at the opening of Long Island Sound, for here on the morning of 27 August 1865 she grounded temporarily on an uncharted, submerged reef and tore an 85-foot gash in her outer hull which was improperly repaired in New Year at a cost of £30,000, adding to a £100,000 repair bill required after the steering shaft failed in the North Atlantic.

Gooch, Brassey, and Barber, who were the largest bondholders, then brought off a shrewd stroke of business. It had been decided to sell the Great Eastern at auction and the trio planned to buy her in and then charter her for cable laying. To this end they agreed to bid up to £80,000 but to their amazement the great ship was knocked down to Barber for a mere £25,000. Gooch at once chartered the ship to the Telegraph Construction Company for £50,000, they to pay all expenses. [Rolt 305]

On 24 June 1865, the newly chartered Great Eastern set a course for Valentia Bay, Ireland with the most technologically advanced cable available loaded onto three gigantic drums. After careful monitoring of the cable as the layers played it out, on the 2nd of August, with only one-third of the journey to Newfoundland remaining, the cable snapped while being spliced and was lost in 2,000 fathoms, forcing the ship to return home. Refinanced for yet another cable-laying trip, the Great Eastern On the last day of the month of June, 1866, she steamed away from Sheerness to the band's playing "Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye," carrying improved grappling gear and fresh cable. She then set out once again for Ireland on 13 July 1866, and just two weeks later secured the transAtlantic cable in Newfoundland. On the first day of operation alone, 27 July, the new connection brought in £1,000 in charges.

And within a month the Great Eastern had successfully recovered the lost cable of the previous year from two miles down on the seabed. More cable was spliced on, and there were soon two working telegraph links across the Atlantic. The death blow was finally dealt to Whitehouse's high-voltage theories by the noted engineer Josiah Latimer Clark, who had the two cables connected back to back and successfully sent a signal around the whole circuit — from Ireland to Newfoundland and back — using a tiny battery and Thomson's mirror galvanometer as the detector. The electric telegraph had finally conquered the Atlantic. [Standage 86]

The Great Eastern, having triumphed over the challenge of connecting England and the United States, went on to join the rest of the world through the technological miracle of the electric telegraph:

like some industrious spider, . . . [she wove] a web of cables . . . from France to America and then from Bombay to Aden and up the Red Sea. On this last occasion she travelled from England to Bombay via the Cape of Good Hope with so great a load of cable on board that she left England with the enormous displacement of 32,724 tons on a draught of 34 ft 6 in. — figures fantastic at the time. [Rolt 307]

The greatest vessel of the nineteenth century ended her days as a floating amusement palace or showboat in the Mersey, off Liverpool, and was finally sold for scrap in November 1888.

Related Material


Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. London and New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.

Dickens, Charles. "No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man." Mugby Junction. Christmas Stories. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1989.

Glover, Bill. "History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network." The Evolution of Cable & Wireless, Part 2. Accessed 1 May 2011. http://atlantic-cable.com/CableCos/CandW/Eastern/index.htm

Laurenzo, Frederick E. "Telegraph and Telephone." Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland, 1988. 788.

Rolt, L. T. C. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 5th ed. London: Longmans Green, 1964.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers. London: Phoenix, 1998.

Last modified 4 December 2017