Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Fast for the Truth

Augusta, Maine
1858



When the transatlantic cable was pulled ashore in 1858, celebrations erupted across the United States, marked by the ringing of church bells, torch-light parades, and a hundred-gun salute in New York City. Inventor Samuel Morse had first demonstrated that signals could be transmitted by wire fourteen years earlier. Since then, the technology that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances had transformed society. In fact, it was getting to be too much for some people. Editorializing on the “benefits and evils” of this latest development, the New York Times deemed the transatlantic telegraph as “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth…Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes?Still, the completion of the project generated great excitement, even to the point of being reported on a menu.

There were already 20,000 miles of cable crisscrossing the country by the early 1850s, when financier Cyrus W. Field decided to establish the Atlantic Telegraph Company. With the aid of British and American naval ships, the firm laid a cable across the ocean floor utilizing the relatively shallow submarine plateau between Ireland and Newfoundland. Even so, the line often ran at depths of more than two miles, causing setbacks and delays. When success was finally achieved on August 16, 1858, telegraph messages were exchanged across the Atlantic Ocean.


Two of the first telegrams were reprinted the next day on the daily menu at the Stanley House in Augusta, Maine. Under the jubilant heading “By Atlantic Telegraph!,” the congratulatory message from Queen Victoria is followed by President James Buchanan’s response. (Using the dots and dashes of “Morse code, it took over seventeen hours to transmit the president’s reply, averaging about two minutes for each character.) Banquets often mark the anniversary of historic events, but it is rare to find an everyday menu that reflects such a momentous happening in real time. The illustration of the hotel and shops, and the simple bill of fare featuring dishes like cod’s head and shoulders and potted pigeons, help put this world-shrinking achievement into context.


The cable failed in early September after only nineteen days. The insulation, which had already begun to deteriorate, failed after the voltage was boosted to increase the transmission speed. The next transatlantic line would have to wait until after the Civil War. By the time this cable went into service in July 1866, the new materials of construction allowed  the transmission time to be increased to eight words per minute, causing the cable to be proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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