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How Were Text Messages Sent in the 1800s?

May 9, 2016 Archive Insight

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Cyrus Field wanted to wire the world. A successful paper merchant turned telecommunications pioneer, Field established the American Telegraphy Company in 1856 and set to work raising the funds and gathering the minds needed to bridge the oceanic divide between Europe and America.

In 1858, after several failed attempts, an underwater cable—capable of transmitting telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean—was laid from Valentia, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. In August the first messages were sent, including an exchange between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan. It took 17 hours to transmit Queen Victoria’s 98 words. The triumph of the 1858 cable was short-lived; a month later, it failed, a victim of excess voltage in an attempt to increase the speed of messages.

This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., was used to prepare telecommunications cable at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, for the second transatlantic cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. One mile of finished cable weighed almost a ton, but it was as flexible as a rope, built to withstand the pull of the ship laying it and hazards on the ocean floor.

In 1865, 2,300 nautical miles of cable were carried aboard the leviathan iron steamship, the SS Great Eastern. The ship left in July but was forced to return to port when the cable snapped and the end was lost at sea. A second cable excursion began a year later and was successful. This was the first truly sustainable and durable telegraph cable, continuing to carry the Morse code “text messages” of telegraph operators across continents—at a rate 80 times faster than the first cable. It remained in operation until the mid-1870s, by which time four additional cables had been laid.

This machine was essential to the “wiring of the world,” reorganizing basic materials into the spine of the first permanent transcontinental telecommunications network. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities.


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