Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Fast for the Truth

Augusta, Maine

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable was pulled ashore in 1858, celebrations erupted across the United States. The technology that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances began to transform society fourteen years earlier when Samuel Morse demonstrated that signals could be transmitted by wire. With regard to this latest development, the New York Times editorialized that the transatlantic telegraph was “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?” Nevertheless, the new cable was greeted with great excitement, marked by the ringing of church bells, torch-light parades, and a hundred-gun salute in New York City. In Augusta, Maine, a small hotel reprinted the initial telegrams on its menu the next day, reporting news of the historic event in real time.

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

The Stanley House reprinted the first two telegrams on its daily menu under the jubilant heading “By Atlantic Telegraph!” As shown below, the text of a message from Queen Victoria is followed by President James Buchanan’s response. Since it required over two minutes on average to transmit each character, it took over seventeen hours to transmit the president’s reply using the dots and dashes of “Morse code.”

The cable failed in early September after nineteen days of service. The insulation, which had already having 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 a new cable went into service in July 1866, the materials were much improved, allowing the transmission time to be increased to eight words per minute. It was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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