Europe calling America

The transatlantic cable connects two continents 

At the beginning of the 1870s, there were three cable connections between the Old and New Worlds – and all these transatlantic cables were owned by the Anglo American Telegraph Company. Its main shareholder, the Briton John Pender, defended that monopoly unyieldingly. In order to break that hold, American businessmen and prominent figures in particular decided to install a further communication link. The only ones trusted to accomplish such a task were the Siemens brothers. And they took up the challenge.

America prepares the way – Failures and lessons learned

After the major successes of the intercontinental land and sea telegraph lines, it was soon clear that laying a telegraph cable between the American continent and Europe promised to be a lucrative business. In 1854 the entrepreneur Cyrus Field founded the “Atlantic Telegraph Co. of New York, Newfoundland and London.” The route chosen by Field and his employees ran between Ireland and Newfoundland, since the ocean maps showed a raised plateau on the seabed and so the submarine conditions there looked ideal. Field began in 1854 by constructing a link from New York to Newfoundland, before he ventured on the actual task of laying a line beneath the Atlantic, three years after the company was founded. 


After a failed attempt in the summer of 1857, Field succeeded in establishing the first connection between the European and American telegraph network on August 5, 1858. However, due to the lack of experience in laying cables over such distances, the cable was made too thin and so was thus too vulnerable to environmental influences. It broke down after around 400 dispatches and 23 days in operation. It took Field seven years to collect enough money again to fund a further attempt. However, this cable also broke while being laid for the first time and so it was only on the second attempt on July 27, 1866, that a permanent telegraph link was established between America and Europe. Since the broken cable has been recovered in the meantime, two functioning lines were then available. Field was saved financially and was able to pay back all his debts by 1867. He was celebrated as a hero in both New York and London.

Good business prospects and a fiercely contested market – The Siemens brothers enter the arena

The profitable business with the transatlantic link soon became a fiercely contested market. After the British cotton manufacturer John Pender succeeded in gaining control of the existing cables, he formed a monopoly which he defended resolutely against emerging competitors.


As a result of this dominance, investors approached the Siemens brothers in the early 1870s, asking whether they could lay their own “direct” cable between Germany or the UK and the U.S. Werner von Siemens first wrote about the matter in 1871 in a letter to his brother Carl:

At the general meeting of the Deutsche Bank yesterday […] the Third Director asked me […] whether we would be interested in participating in a direct German-American cable, for which there was a great deal of support and a lot of money in America.
Werner von Siemens, in a letter from 1871

It would however be over a year before this idea took concrete shape, not least because of the hesitation of Werner von Siemens, who was still very much aware of the financial losses from a number of earlier cable-laying projects.


But not William and Carl, who were much more inclined toward the project. Throughout 1872, Carl in particular looked for investors in the English-speaking world – and was successful. In spite of all the reservations on the part of Werner von Siemens, by the end of 1872/beginning of 1873 it was more and more obvious that the Siemens brothers were going to lay a cable through the Atlantic – either for an American company or at their own cost. 

Finally, in March 1873 the “Direct United States Cable Company” (DUSC) was founded, the purpose of which was “to produce a direct and independent telegraph link between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the United States of North America.” Werner’s brother William was appointed “Consulting Director.”


Despite the company’s name, it was evident right at the beginning of the project that there was no way a direct link was going tobe created between Ireland and the United States. Instead, the main cable – as with the previous cables – was going to run from Ireland to Nova Scotia and from there a further cable connecting the American mainland would be laid.


According to an Internet source, the main reason for this was that the cable technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced to permit a direct link of this kind. The signals would have become so weak over such a great distance that it would not have been possible to receive them. There is no mention of this in the sources preserved in the Corporate Archives.

Paddle wheels and bow rudder – A special cable-laying steam ship is built 

Whereas the converted steamer “Great Eastern” was used to lay the first transatlantic cable, an English company built the first special cable-laying ship, the “Hooper,” in 1872. This ship and his own extensive experience encouraged William Siemens to build a cable steamship himself, which he christened “Faraday” in honor of his friend Michael Faraday. Its main distinguishing features were the two paddle wheels on the sides which had previously only been seen on American riverboats, and an additional rudder on the bow, making the Faraday extremely maneuverable. Superstructures on the deck also made it possible to lay the cable from the bow or the stern. After its completion in the spring of 1874, the steamer set out at eight o’clock on May 16 on its first transatlantic crossing.

Along the North American coast – A cable is laid for the first time

Before the main task of laying the cable across the Atlantic was tackled, the cable between Newfoundland and the United States was laid.


The first section extended from Halifax in Nova Scotia to Portsmouth in New Hampshire, then from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, though they were prohibited from going on land in Newfoundland due to the monopoly of the Anglo American Telegraph Company.


According to the letters the brothers wrote to one another, the work was completed at the beginning of August. The Faraday returned to the UK, and Carl wrote to Werner and William about the “shore end” in Torbay in Newfoundland.


However, the spot where the cable was brought ashore is marked today by the Tor Bay Atlantic Provincial Park in Nova Scotia.

Obstacles across the “big pond” – Laying of the main cable across the Atlantic

Laying of the actual Atlantic cable began roughly between the middle and end of August. According to Pole, William Siemens’ biographer, the Faraday set out to sea again on August 26 and began laying the cable near the Irish coastal village of Ballinskelligs Bay. From this point on Werner von Siemens was there in person. 


Laying of the cable had hardly begun when disaster strikes, as Werner himself reports:  “[…] but when I arrived early this morning on my Irish cart in the usual ghastly rain from my hotel 16 English miles away, I was met by long faces. There was a defect in the cable, which the ship was trying to recover.” The cable had broken – so deep down that the entire Mont Blanc could have been sunk in the sea at this point. It took seven hours for the grapnel that was lowered to search for the cable to reach the sea bed. A cable has never been recovered from such a depth before. But Carl achieved the impossible: The lost end of the cable was picked up within two days and the laying operation could continue. A relieved Werner wrote to Berlin: “The recovery of the cable from such a great depth (2,580 fathoms) and its repair all within a day is something new in this field and will establish our reputation!”

One year of misfortune and mishaps – But then the connection is up and running

However, the project continued to be dogged by ill fortune. The Faraday had to fish up and repair the cable several times, until a shortage of coal and stormy weather forced the “unhappy cable squadron” to return to Ireland. Yet abandoning the cable is unthinkable, since that would have meant a huge loss of prestige for the Direct United States Cable Company and the Siemens brothers. At the end of October the Faraday was already on its way again – and once more had bad luck. Near Newfoundland, the cable was lost again in a storm, and this time the ship was damaged as well. 


Because of the necessary repair work and the incessantly bad weather, it was no longer possible to think of completing the cable before the end of 1874. It is not until the beginning of April that the Faraday set sail again, and in June 1875 a link was able to be established between Torbay and Ballinskelligs Bay for the first time. However, the cable was still not operating properly. There were repeated interruptions, which had a very negative effect on both the costs and the mood of those involved. William reported several times to Werner that the Direct United shareholders demand that Carl be replaced as director of the project on board the ship.


A great moment in the history of technology – Mission accomplished!

The search for the fault was resumed in mid-August and this time the crew succeeded in finding the defect in the cable. A permanent link between the stations in Torbay and Ballinskelligs Bay was achieved at the beginning of September. Werner was relieved: “So at last the cable is working perfectly! Thank God this nightmare is over.” Shortly afterwards it was handed over to the public, and on September 15, 1875, Carl wrote as follows: “Today is the opening day! I hope to hear soon how the dispatching is going.” It evidently went very well: The cable beat that of the competition hands down. Carl reported from London: “The cable is continuing to operate well. On the first day the stock exchange people held a competition and the DUS beat the English (the competition) by more than an hour.” 


In his “Recollections,” Werner von Siemens subsequently summed up the project in positive terms: “This first transatlantic cable laying of ours was not only exceedingly instructive for us, but in point of fact led for the first time to the completely clear apprehension and mastery of cable laying in deep water.” 


And for the English subsidiary of Siemens & Halske it was also enormously important: “At a stroke, the successful completion of the American cable raised the London firm to a far higher level of English business life than it had occupied hitherto.”

Dr. Florian Kiuntke

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Further information on this topic

Further Reading

Jorma Ahvenainen: The History of the Near Eastern Telegraphs Before the First World War, Helsinki 2011