The first transatlantic telegraph cable (1858)

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Section of the transatlantic telegraph cable manufactured in 1857 by Newall and Co. Canadian Museum of History, 2011.38.1

The first transatlantic telegraph cable was over 3000 km long and ran between Valentia Island in southwestern Ireland and Heart’s Content in eastern Newfoundland. Telegraph cables used electric current to transmit coded messages over long distances. The Atlantic Telegraph Company, a British–American company, finished laying the first transatlantic cable in 1858. The main figures involved were American businessman Cyrus West Field (1819–1892), British engineers John Watkins Brett (1805–1863) and Charles Tilston Bright (1832–1888), British physicist William Thomson (1824–1907) and British electrician Wildman Whitehouse (1816–1890). On August 16, 1858, the first message was successfully sent from Queen Victoria to American President Buchanan. However, after just a few weeks, the cable was no longer useable, since the signal quality was insufficient and the voltage surge was poorly controlled.

Despite this failure, this innovation was the first successful attempt at transatlantic telecommunication. It significantly reduced the time needed to communicate between North America and Europe. Whereas ships took at least 10 days to cross the Atlantic, telegraphs took only a few minutes under optimal conditions. However, it was not until 1866 that a new, working telegraph cable established a more permanent link between Europe and North America.

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Canadian Museum of History

The Canadian Museum of History welcomes over 1.2 million visitors each year to its celebrated complex in the heart of the National Capital Region, making it the country’s most-visited museum. With roots stretching back to 1856, it is one of Canada’s oldest public institutions and a respected centre of museological excellence, sharing its expertise in history, archaeology, ethnology and cultural studies both within Canada and abroad.