Displaced Representation and Nationalistic
Appropriation: Illustrating the Atlantic
Cable of 1858

- Mark Niemeyer

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      The Atlantic Cable of 1858 was one of the greatest technological feats of the mid-nineteenth century [1]. Making use of the relatively new invention of telegraphy [2], it provided North America and Europe with an almost instantaneous communications link, at a time when sailing vessels could still take two or even three weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean and when even the relatively new ocean-going steamships required over ten days to make the crossing. If, in the end, the Atlantic Cable of 1858 only operated for a few weeks before the signal began to fade, and finally failed, its initial success proved that such a bold and world-changing project was, in fact, possible [3]. Linking New York to London, and thus the New World to the Old, the most audacious part of the project was the single stretch of cable—between Valentia Bay, Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland—of 1,950 miles, almost five times the length of the cable laid in the Black Sea in 1855, which had previously been the longest submarine telegraph cable in the world.
      The success of the Atlantic Cable project was primarily due to the work of American entrepreneur Cyrus W. Field, who before becoming involved in the project had made a fortune in paper manufacturing. After meeting with English-born Canadian Frederick N. Gisborne—whose failed company had planned to build a rapid communications link between North America and Europe using a combination of a new telegraph line between Newfoundland and mainland Canada and fast steamships plying between Newfoundland and Ireland, where they would transfer messages back and forth via a telegraph station on the western Irish coast—Field was taken with the idea of connecting the two continents with a direct telegraphic link across the Atlantic. Having consulted with Samuel F. B. Morse, who confirmed the practicality of a transatlantic telegraph cable through experimentation, and who himself became associated with the Atlantic Cable project, Field began serious work on getting the huge project underway. And huge it was. At the time, there wasn’t a single ship in the world capable of carrying the weight of the entire length of the cable, so it was decided to use two, one American and one British, each with half of the cable on board. The plan was to have the ships rendezvous in the mid-Atlantic, splice their halves of the cable together and then sail off in opposite directions, paying out cable as they made their separate ways to Newfoundland and Ireland.
      The first attempt to lay the Atlantic Cable took place in the summer of 1857, but after repeated breaks, due primarily to imperfect paying-out machinery, the project was abandoned until the following summer. Once again, there were setbacks, but on August 5, 1858, the two ends were landed on the opposite shores and the link between the two continents was complete. By August 10, intelligible words were being transmitted, and an exploit that had, for many, seemed an impossible dream or a madman’s folly had been realized. Indeed, at the time, the Atlantic Cable seemed nothing short of a miracle, comparable, it would seem, to the first landing of a man on the moon just a little over a century later. And the event led to an outpouring of enthusiasm and major celebrations, notably in New York City, but also across the entire United States, and, indeed, around the world [4]. Just one of the highlights was when Queen Victoria sent a message of congratulations to U.S. President James Buchanan, who duly responded in kind, an exchange that set off a second round of spontaneous festivities, before official celebrations were held in a large number of American cities on September first. An excerpt from an article that appeared in the September issue of the United States Democratic Review gives an idea of just how miraculous this achievement seemed at the time. Indeed, even allowing for nineteenth-century rhetorical extravagance, this passage nonetheless reflects the feeling at the time that something indeed exceptional had been accomplished:

      An enterprise has just been consummated, so profound in conception, grand in execution, and stupendous in its promised results to mankind, as to confound by its awful magnitude the most daring imagination, and baffle momentarily, like some miraculous phenomenon or supernatural symbol, the analysis and comprehension of the world.
      The marvelous conquests of science in the total subordination of matter to mind, are not unknown or unrecorded in the annals of past invention and discovery. Our own country presents the most remarkable evidences of intellectual and scientific progression; every page of American history is illumined by the great and magnificent deeds of her people, in the varied channels of human ingenuity and effort. But no event wrought in this land, or any other, of ancient or modern times, has so convulsed and electrified the public mind and heart as the intelligence of the success of the Atlantic Telegraph. Lightning responds to lightning, and everywhere, in all languages and every tongue, is heralded, beyond the rapidity of thought, the sublime tidings that man, under the benediction and inspiration of the Almighty, has finally mastered the sea. The spontaneous and mighty visible demonstrations it has evoked, but faintly characterize the deep, electric, and silent thrill it has sent through millions of hearts. This last and greatest triumph has signalized a new era—marked another epoch in the history of the world [5].

Displaced Representation

      Two books that were published almost immediately after the completion of the cable as well as many of the contemporary newspapers and magazines included not only accounts of, or sometimes poems inspired by, the exploit and the celebrations, but also illustrations. These images highlight technical points or themes included in the writings and sometimes provide additional information or suggest other themes. Providing images of something as simple (and as potentially visually uninteresting) as a cable, however, did present certain problems or at least indirectly raise certain questions about how to illustrate the project. These questions ended up being answered in various forms, but, in one way or another, many of the illustrations that appeared at the time incorporated “displacement strategies” in which things other than the cable itself are presented or highlighted (though the cable does feature in many of the contemporary illustrations).


[1] Other candidates for such a distinction might include the Thames Tunnel (1843), the SS Great Eastern (1858) (by far the largest steamship of the time), the first American transcontinental railroad (1869) or the Suez Canal (1869), but none of these technological wonders (impressive as they are), I would argue, are of the same class since none of them represented such a large scale application of such a so recently invented and so fundamentally innovative technology.
[2] The first patent for a telegraphic device was issued in England in June 1837 to William Fothergill Cook and Charles Wheatstone, just a few months before Samuel F. B. Morse filed for a patent in the United States. The first successful telegraph line was strung between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in 1844, and the first submarine telegraph cable was laid between Dover and Calais in 1850.
[3] The link was completed on August 5, 1858, and messages were successfully sent back and forth across the Atlantic for several weeks. However, by the end of the month, the signal began to fade and become irregular; by early September, clear messages were no longer able to be sent.  After October 20, the cable remained dead.  The possibility of such a connection, however, had been demonstrated.  A new cable was finally laid in 1866, just after the end of the American Civil War, and established a permanent telegraphic link between America and Europe. Two contemporary works, whose illustrations will be examined in this article, provide useful and interesting accounts of the project: Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick, The Story of the Telegraph, and A History of the Great Atlantic Cable, New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1858, and John Mullaly, The Laying of the Cable, or The Ocean Telegraph, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1858. For a good, brief description published a year after the Atlantic Cable centennial, see Bern Dibner, The Atlantic Cable, Norwalk, Connecticut: Burndy Library, 1959. Two more recent accounts include John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable, New York: Walker & Company, 2002, and Chester G. Hearn, Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.
[4] For a general description and analysis of the celebrations and, more specifically, of one of the more remarkable manifestations of this enthusiasm, an outpouring of popular poetry about the cable, see my articles: “The Transatlantic Cable in Popular Poetry,” Technology and the American Imagination: An Ongoing Challenge, eds. Francesca Bisutti De Riz and Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, Venice: Supernova, 1994, pp. 227-236, and “Excess and Irony in Transatlantic Cable Poetry,” GRAAT 15 (1996), pp. 109-120.
[5] “Cyrus W. Field,” United States Democratic Review (September 1858), p. 241.