“A Candid Opinion of the Submarine Telegraph”

May 16, 1857

Frank Bellew

“A Candid Opinion of the Submarine Telegraph”

Anglo-American Relations; Crime and Punishment; Technology, Transatlantic Telegraph;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Great Britain;

London Pickpocket. "Folks call this Telegraph a Great Hinvention! I say it's mean! It don't give a Cove a fair chance! They'll know all about him in Hamerica afore he gets there!"

The laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the nineteenth century.  Upon its completion, it was celebrated as "the eighth wonder of the world."  However, as most things have their downside, the pickpockets in this cartoon discuss a possible negative effect upon their illicit profession.  

The telegraph spread rapidly in the United States after completion of the first line in 1844, dramatically altering communication for business, railroads, journalism, and personal correspondence.  In 1851, the first underwater cable was laid between Dover, England, and Calais, France.  In 1855, during the Crimean War being fought between Russia and Great Britain and her allies, the British government financed, owned, and operated a submarine cable across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Ukraine.  As intended, it functioned only until the end of the war the next year.  

In 1854, the discovery of a shallow underwater plateau in the Atlantic Ocean between Newfoundland and Ireland inspired Cyrus Field to attempt the connection of North America and Europe by a submarine telegraph cable.  Field, whose millions from paper manufacturing made him one of the richest men in New York City, convinced several of his wealthy friends to join him on the project:  Peter Cooper (his neighbor at Gramercy Park), David Dudley Field (his brother), Abram Hewitt, Moses Taylor, Marshall Roberts, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph.  They secured a charter for the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, raised $1.5 million, and hired workers to clear a path through the Canadian wilderness to link by telegraph Nova Scotia (where the U.S. telegraph lines ended) with St. John's, Newfoundland.  

In February 1857, Congress approved an annual subsidy of $70,000 to Field's company for laying and operating a telegraph line between Newfoundland and New York, and authorized the U.S. president to negotiate a treaty with Britain for laying the transatlantic cable.  Opponents argued that it was an unconstitutional expenditure of federal funds, technically infeasible, and a ploy by foreigners and foreign-born Americans.  Supporters stressed, sometimes in utopian terms, its potential for fostering international peace by bringing the U.S. and the European nations closer together.

With the completion of the New York-Newfoundland line, British investors joined Field in creating the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and work began on surveying and laying the 1,660 nautical miles from Newfoundland to Valentia, Ireland.  The cable consisted of a copper conductor insulated by gutta percha (Malaysian latex) and protected by iron wire.  The cable was too large to be transported on a single ship, so it was spliced together in the ocean.  The USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon carried out the actual laying of the cable during the summer months of 1857 and 1858. 

A violent storm at sea nearly wrecked the British frigate, but the task of laying the cable was completed in the summer of 1858.  On August 17, 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph message was transmitted from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan.  The dispatch took 16 hours to reach Washington, and the shorter return message to London went through in only ten hours.  Previously, such communications would have taken 12 days by steamship and land telegraph.

The press and public had closely followed the attempt to lay a transatlantic cable, and reacted with enthusiasm when word of its success was reported.  In 1857 and 1858, Harper's Weekly ran numerous illustrated news stories, news briefs, editorials, maps, charts, sketches, and portraits, which provided information about the project's promoters and personnel, ships, routes, cable-laying operations, and telegraphic technology, or about the political issues involving Congress, the British government, or Anglo-American relations.  The newspaper published several cartoons on the topic, such as the one featured today; verse, including "A Rhyme for the Atlantic Telegraph," by Martin Farquhar Tupper; and advertisements for souvenirs made from "genuine" pieces of cable aboard the ships (to be worn as charms or watch keys) and a perfume called Atlantic Cable Bouquet, dedicated to Cyrus Field and "distilled from ocean spray and fragrant flowers."   

On September 1, 1858, New York City hosted a huge celebration to honor Cyrus Field and the transatlantic cable, with a daylight parade down Broadway, the largest public gathering in Union Square to that time, grandiose speech-making and versifying, a torchlight procession that night, and a spectacular fireworks display (which caught the cupola of City Hall on fire). Harper's Weekly and other publications printed special supplements on the cable and the festivities.  Unfortunately, the jubilation was premature.  

Over the few weeks since its completion, 271 messages had been transmitted, including reports of the end of the Anglo-Chinese War and the Sepoy Mutiny in India.  When the dispatches became increasingly difficult to decipher, the cable's chief engineer turned up the voltage, causing a total failure of transmission on September 18, 1858.  The money invested by the Atlantic Telegraph Company was lost, and public skepticism reemerged concerning the ultimate feasibility of a transatlantic cable. 

Field and others closest to the project, however, realized a transatlantic telegraph could work and learned from their mistakes.  In 1860, the British government finished laying a Red Sea cable.  The American Civil War delayed plans for the transatlantic telegraph, but patience and persistence paid off when the underwater cable was successfully completed in July 1866.  That time, it lasted.

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Candid Opinion of the Submarine Telegraph”
June 17, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to