Category Archives: Great Engineering Achievements

The Atlantic Telegraph: The Ideas Behind Its Early Developments

Atlantic Telegraph CableThe Transatlantic Telegraph Cable was a breakthrough for world communication. A simple 5mm copper wire core coated in a well-calculated protective casing supported the first intercontinental communications revolution and allowed Morse code messages to cross the great Atlantic Ocean in seconds.

During the 1840’s and 50’s, a series of important engineering and scientific experiments were being undertaken to solve the challenge of achieving a global communication network and ‘link new worlds to old’. Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail’s famous ‘Morse Code’ was already widely used in electric telegraphy across many countries including Great Britain and America. But to link the two nations together a connection had to be made across the Atlantic Ocean; and a cable had to be designed to withstand corrosion, water pressure and accidental damage.

Michael Faraday was one of the first to recognise the beneficial properties of gutta-percha as an electrical insulator when Dr. William Montgomerie first brought the plant back to England from South-East Asia. This curious tropical tree hosted a resin with the perfect properties to protect underwater cables and would transform underwater cable engineering forever.

Charles Vincent Walker was thought to have linked the first gutta-percha cable from a ship to a land based railway station in 1849. The Brett Brothers soon followed this inspirational step forward and established the Submarine Telegraph Co and a submarine telegraph cable link across the English Channel to connect Dover and Calais.

Continued success that followed this, in many other attempts and within many other countries, inspired Cyrus Field to step forward. He collaborated with Samuel Morse, and the Brett Brothers completing telegraph lines between Cape Ray and Cape Brenton in 1855 and between Newfoundland and St John’s the following year.  Afterwards, he turned his ambitions to a connection between Newfoundland and Ireland – a project that would require 2,500 miles of cable and an army of investors. He formed the Atlantic Telegraph Co on the 6th November 1856 in London realising the UK was to be a logical source of funding for the challenge. John Pender a cotton merchant and one of these investors became the director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

The People Behind The Manufacturing

The years to come would see many problems arise with the delicate cable engineering attempts, and after each technical failure, the materials used in its construction were openly debated. Great discussions were held amongst institutions and engineering societies about the preferences of india-rubber over gutta-percha, several of which we have accounts of in The Engineer:

"In 1850 we began to insulate the conductors of submarine cables with india-rubber.  Gutta-percha entirely superseded the use of india-rubber. The man would have been voted a lunatic who dared to recommend india-rubber in preference to gutta-percha; and yet within the last two or three months experiments have been going on which it is said show conclusively that india-rubber is far superior to gutta-percha for coating submarine conductors...." - From 'Submarine Telegraphy' An Anonymous Letter to The Editor of Engineer Journal 1859/03/18, p 184
"Mr Ransome stated that he had frequently found that gutta-percha became so rotten in the course of two or three years that it could be crumbled away between the fingers. It could however be restored to its original condition by immersing it in hot water." - From an ordinary meeting of The Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society of Engineer Journal 1859/04/08, p 247.

James Horsfall was to become a significant pioneer in the manufacture of a wire that had twice the tensile strength of any previously known. His methods were highly praised and he was to receive the entire wire order for the Atlantic Telegraph Cable:

“The cable is capable of bearing a strain of 8 tons without breaking yet it coils into the tanks as easily as silken rope. The wires are composed of homogeneous iron of unusually uniform quality – with credit to Mr James Horsfall – he found it absolutely necessary to manufacture his own iron, roll it, draw it and anneal it to achieve such uniform. The wires were then covered with five strands of Manilla hemp saturated with a compound of pitch, oil, tar and a little india-rubber, resulting cable being very pliable and yet not “springy” like the qualities known of submarine cables.” From 'The Atlantic Cable' Editorial of Engineer Journal 1865/06/02, p 346.

Read about the companies involved:

A Signal Breakthrough

William Thompson and Mr Cromwell Fleetwood Varley developed a variety of testing instruments to improve the cable signalling techniques. Thompson ensured that after many failures during months of cable-laying attempts and weak signals, it was eventually laid properly, with a signal stronger than ever before. His new mirror galvanometer, patented in 1858, was extremely sensitive and hence able to respond to very small signals.

Perhaps the most famous of all messages sent hereafter were those between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan of America and Queen Victoria in her first sentence remarked: “The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the greatest interest”.

The development and dedication of the transatlantic telegraph cable was indeed of enormous international importance and a major breakthrough in telecommunications. Although there were many problems encountered and many failed cable-laying expeditions, the idea of global communications first dreamed of decades ago finally became achievable.



The Story of The SS Great Eastern

It was Brunel’s biggest ship – and the biggest ship in the world at that time – built by John Scott Russell and Co at the Napier Yard in Millwall, London - at 680ft long, 58ft deep and with a beam of 82ft 6 inches. She was more than twice the size of SS Great Western with innovative designs for a wrought iron double hull construction and an extraordinary compilation of standard elements for a ship of its size.

The Launch of The Great Eastern
A Difficult Launch

Against all advice, Brunel had designed the ship to launch sideways, and it became clear there were to be problems when after sliding a few feet, the ship became stuck with the sheer weight of 12,000 tons of iron mass on the iron launch rails. Five men were critically injured and killed in this first attempt to launch when the multiplying winch spun out of control. Three months later after much pushing and pulling the 12,000 ton ‘Leviathan’ reached the shoreline and caught the high tide. The painstaking launch cost altogether a sum of around  £120,000 that not only saw the Great Eastern Shipping Company crash, but a publicly humiliated  Brunel almost out of pocket.

The Engineer of 5th February 1858 recorded the feelings towards the launch at the time: 

“a step which thousands of persons have been anxiously looking for during the last four months – namely the launch which was contemplated as long ago as last October. After all that has been said on the subject of the launch, - after all that fear that many persons entertained, notwithstanding its absurdity that the vessel would never be got into the water – after all the pushing and pulling to which she has been subjected and after all the money that has been spent about her, there she lies at last snug enough at her moorings,….

Mr Brunel and Mr John Scott Russell at The Launch.

The ship however held fast an unlucky reputation and only four days after leaving her moorings at Deptford for her first trip, an overheated boiler caused a terrible explosion that launched the forward funnel like a rocket, killing five boiler men and critically injuring many others.

“I was lying in the extreme angle of the bows, looking aft and discussing the safety and prospects of the ship, when suddenly, with the mingled roar and crash of a battery of artillery and a line of musketry, up shot the forward funnel of the ship in two pieces, 30 ft in the air, amid a shower of splinter s and pipes and a volume of steam and smoke…” 

From a correspondent of The Engineer published in Sept 16. 1859 Journal.

Brunel had been present for the trial of the ship’s engines but after some time of failing health eventually collapsed from a stroke days after this maiden voyage from London. Sadly only 10 days later he died at the age of 53 on the 15th September 1859; his greatest engineering achievement and crowning efforts left to John Scott Russell for completion.

From Passenger Liner to Cable Layer

Once finally completed, the gigantic vessel struggled to find enough passengers to fulfil her capability of carrying up to 4000 to Australia or the Americas. So in 1864 after the first five years prior to the launch, The Telegraph Construction Company obtained the ship to lay the first ever transatlantic cable between Europe and America. This was in itself another miraculous chapter for the great ship, and over 26,000 nautical miles were covered. The transatlantic cable was completed in Autumn 1866.

The Great Eastern

After a successful cable-laying career, the Great Eastern resigned itself as a passenger liner once more, but again with little success. She became a showboat and floating palace, celebrated for her splendor and great interior.

Eventually however, on this day – 28th October 1885 at 14.30 – she was sold at auction to Mr De Mattos of  Lewis’s.


“It will be remembered that she was purchased last spring by Mr De Mattos and that Messrs. Lewis of Liverpool made arrangements with him for employing the huge vessel as a show ship”.. 

From 'The Great Eastern Steamship' Editorial in The Engineer Oct 15th 1886.

The last chapter of perhaps one of the greatest Victorian ship stories ended, when the SS Great Eastern was eventually broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey in 1889-1890. Due to her vast size and intricacy, she took eighteen months to break up.

Great Eastern Auction Brochure
A digital copy of The Great Eastern Brochure containing six pages detailing inventories in every room can be viewed on Grace’s Guide here. This original was owned by the Duke of Norfolk and believed to have been lost in a fire at his home (although unsubstantiated).