Transatlantic ‘lightning’ communications

Sept. 23, 2022
by Mark Ollig

During the early 1830s, Samuel F. B. Morse developed a working electric telegraph.

In 1838, Alfred Vail’s assistance created a signaling protocol (Morse code) for sending messages over a telegraph system.

On May 24, 1844, in Washington DC, Samuel Morse keyed the first telegraph message sent in the US, “What hath God wrought?” 

His message, the first telegram, was transmitted over a 41-mile metallic telegraph line to the B&O Railroad station in Baltimore, MD.

In 1850, two brothers – John Brett, a telegraphic engineer, and Jacob, installed an underwater telegraph cable from southern England, across the English Channel, to northern France.

Heavy lead weights used for ballast were attached to the cable, so it would sink as workers laid it into the water.

Each end of the cable was brought ashore and connected to batteries for powering telegraph messages.

Unfortunately, the telegraph operators could not decode the messaging signals due to electrical current dispersions emitted from the metallic conductors of the underwater cable.

In 1851, the Brett brothers tried it again using an improved underwater cable with stranded iron wire. Its four metallic copper conductors were insulated inside three layers of water-resistant gutta-percha, a thermoplastic-like material.

Gutta-percha is a natural rubber obtained from a tree of the same name.

When gutta-percha is heated, it becomes pliable and can be molded. When it is cooled, it hardens like plastic and becomes water resistant.

Gutta-percha insulation cores used with telegraph cables were manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company in the United Kingdom.

During the 1930s, underwater cables replaced gutta-percha with polyethylene.

An armored-wire sheathing protected the brother’s new underwater telegraph cable from Dover, England, across the English Channel, to Calais, France, some 52 miles away.

Workers prepared both ends of the newly installed telegraph cable for use.


On Oct. 15, 1851, telegraph operators successfully transmitted and received coded telegrams through the cable.

In 1854, Frederic Gisborne, a Canadian inventor from Nova Scotia, and Cyrus W. Field, an American capitalist and financier, undertook the formidable challenge of installing a transatlantic telegraph cable.

With assistance from Samuel Morse and specialists in oceanography, they decided upon the best route for laying a telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean.

It took three weeks for workers to load and spool the telegraph cable in large, circular coils aboard two naval ships, USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon.

The first portion of the transatlantic telegraph cable consisted of a shallow-water cable line extending five miles into the ocean from the land-based telegraph stations on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This cable was more heavily armored to protect it from damage caused by rocks, boat anchors, heavy ocean currents, and waves occurring within five miles from shore.

Workers spliced the shallow-water cable lines to each naval ship’s onboard transatlantic cable end.

On July 17, 1858, both ships began their historic voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, where they would meet in the middle; the HMS Agamemnon from Ireland and the USS Niagara from Newfoundland.

Mechanical machinery maintained and operated by each ship’s crew controlled the speed at which the telegraph cable was paying out into the ocean from the large cable coils inside each vessel.

The underwater telegraph cable contained seven individual strands of twisted metallic wire insulated with three layers of gutta-percha.

Ship workers bonded the cable’s conductor splices with a coal-tar pitch mixture before lowering it into the Atlantic Ocean.

On July 29, 1858, the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara rendezvoused in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There, workers spliced both ships’ telegraph cable ends to complete the 2,000-mile connection between two land-based telegraph stations on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

On Aug. 10, 1858, telegraph operators understood coded signaling pulses sent and received through the transatlantic cable between Ireland and North America.

On Aug. 16, 1858,  congratulatory message telegrams were transmitted over the new transatlantic telegraph cable between US President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria of England, the great-great-grandmother of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

I was fortunate to obtain a small strand of metallic wire from the telegraph cable carried aboard the USS Niagara during the 1858 transatlantic installation.

Charles Lewis Tiffany, who founded New York City’s Tiffany & Co. in 1837, acquired a length of the 1858 transatlantic telegraph cable and sold pieces of it as souvenirs.

On Aug. 29, 1860, Minnesota’s first telegram via telegraph was sent from St. Paul by Minnesota Senator Morton Smith Wilkinson to former New York Governor and current New York Senator William Henry Seward, located 1,300 miles away in New York.

“To Governor Seward: Through the courtesy of Mr. Winslow, proprietor, we are enabled to send this, the first dispatch ever transmitted by lightning from St. Paul to the east, as complimentary to you,” read Sen. Wilkinson’s telegram.

Sen. Seward replied, “You have grappled New York – now lay hold on San Francisco.”

It has been 164 years since the first “lightning” telegrams were sent over a transatlantic telegraph cable with our friends from across the pond.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse died April 2, 1872, at age 80.

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