10 Apr 2017

From Coast to Coast

The distance between Valentia Island, a small island off the coast of Ireland, and Hearts Content, a fishing village in Newfoundland, is just over 3000km. In between the two lies the Atlantic Ocean, the second largest ocean on the planet. Yet, despite these crazy distances, a bit of Birmingham-based engineering helped bridge the gap and create a revolutionary communications network.

In the mid 1800s it would take around 10 days for a message to pass from North America to Europe, the average crossing speed for shipping vessels of the era. Many businessmen and inventors of the period had put their faith in a submerged telegraph cable to reduce the time taken for communications including Samuel Morse, the co-inventor of Morse code. Many successful experiments were undertaken, with different lengths of wires and different insulators being submerged and used to carry signals with the first commercial lines stretching between Dover and Calais in September 1851, with further cables later connecting Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands to Britain. These early cables were simple though and were very prone to breaking as their construction was often nothing more than a copper wire inside a flexible tube with a waterproof insulated covering; what was needed was a strong, durable and flexible alternative to protect the cables, especially at such depths as those found in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The first attempt at a transatlantic cable was promoted by the businessman Cyrus West Field and was started in 1854, with two steamships sailing from either side of the Atlantic and meeting in the middle to connect the wires. The cable was completed in 1858 though it only lasted a few weeks as the quality of the cable and the inexperience of the operators led to it breaking. Whilst the cable worked it was clear that there needed to be significant improvements in its construction for it to last for a longer period of time. It is here that the connection with Birmingham begins. 

After much experimentation a new composition for the cables was agreed upon. This time, rather than the simple hemp and insulation construction of previous attempts, the cable had an additional layer of 16 spirals of high tensile steel, specially made by the Birmingham manufacturers Webster & Horsfall of Hay Mills. The manufactory successfully produced over 30,000 miles of wires specifically for the cables, giving them the added strength and durability required to survive at such incredible depths. 

Our section of transatlantic cable here at Thinktank
Our section of Transatlantic Cable here at Thinktank.

The new cable may have been much stronger but it was also significantly heavier than the older cable. It was also decided that having two steamships meet in the middle and splice two ends of cable together was not going to work and so the cable companies had to come up with a new solution to lay the cable in one continuous trip meaning they would need one very large vessel. As luck would have it Izambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, then the largest ship in the world, had been completed. The sheer size of this vessel was such that the shipwrights had to utilise powerful hydraulic pumps to launch it- these pumps being built by the Birmingham based manufacturers Tangye (we have a number of their engines on display here at Thinktank! The publicity gained from launching the Great Eastern also helped launch the new company). Whilst the SS Great Eastern was initially intended as a passenger ship it was never a commercial success and so the decision was made to transform the ship into a cable layer capable of crossing the vast distances required for the transatlantic connection.

The first attempt to lay a cable by Great Eastern was a failure; the cable snapping just over 1000km into the journey. However, Cyrus West Field created a new company and began to lay yet another cable on July 13th 1866. Despite incredibly bad weather and an extremely thick fog the cable reached Hearts Content on July 27th. The first message that passed through the new cable spoke about the peace treaty between Prussia and Austria with Queen Victoria later exchanging friendly messages with the American heads of state. By September 7th the broken cable had also been fixed meaning there were now two working cables connecting the USA and the United Kingdom.

The speeds with which messages could be transmitted were originally very slow but gradually this improved over time and a new hub on the Cornish coast was created, Porthcurno. At the height of the station there were eleven cables heading out to sea connecting Britain to the Commonwealth. The site is also still used today only now the cables landing on shore are fibre optic with messages shooting across the cables at the speed of light.