By Ciaran Toal
Valentia Island lies just off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland. With less than a thousand inhabitants, today the main industries are fishing and tourism, but in the nineteenth century the island played a pivotal role in what The Times called ‘the most wonderful achievement of this victorious century’: the laying of the transatlantic cable, linking the US and Canada to Great Britain.
In an initiative supported by both the US and British governments a private company, the Atlantic Telegraph Company, was formed in 1856 to undertake the venture. Over two thousand miles of cable had to be laid, and the Company faced both the technical challenge of sub-marine cable laying, and the turbulent conditions of the North Atlantic – RMS Titanic would succumb to its icy waters in 1912. The cable had to be specially manufactured to withstand the stresses of deep-sea laying.
In North America, the cable entered the waters of the Atlantic just off Newfoundland Island, while the geography of Valentia Island made it the ideal spot to land in the United Kingdom. As one of the westernmost points in Ireland Valentia shared a similar latitude to Newfoundland Island and was close to the busy, and well-stocked, port of Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork. Five attempts were made to lay the cable. The first, in 1857, failed. The cable snapped three days after the Niagara left Valentia Bay, in the north of the Island. A second attempt in June 1858 met similar problems, although two months later the cable was successfully laid allowing Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan to exchange congratulatory telegraphs. However, on the same day the Niagara was welcomed into New York City with a ‘salvo of 100 guns’ at Battery Park, and banners celebrating how the cable ‘divided the Atlantic but united two hemispheres’, it failed. The cable had operated for less than 27 days.
It was seven years until the next attempt – a lack of capital, the onset of the American Civil War and technical redesigns held up the cable’s progress. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, lamented the delay, as instead
of telegraphic work which, when it has to be done through 2400 mules of submarine wire, and when its effects are instantaneous exchange of ideas between the old and new worlds [he had] only the dull and heartless business of investigating the pathology of faults in submerged conductors. – Thomson to Joule, 1858.
He was a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and in response to the technical challenge of the project developed the Thomson galvanometer. He was often stationed on Valentia overseeing operations.
In 1865 the Company tried again using Brunel’s Great Eastern, crossing two-thirds of the Atlantic before the cable failed. Crucially, previous attempts had landed the cable in the more exposed, northern end, of the Island, but in 1865 and 1866 a new site, Foilhummerum Bay, in the south was chosen. Less than a mile long with a flat sandy bottom and high cliffs that sheltered it from waves and wind, the bay had been specially dredged to accommodate the cable. A trench linked the beach to the cliff top and the Telegraph Station. This tall wooden building had comfortable living quarters, and a telegraph room full of ‘Thomson’s mirror-speaking instruments, banks of batteries, magnets’ as well as the ‘latest innovations in telegraphy’. The Atlantic cable entered one side of building, with the telegraph to London, via Knightstown, exiting the other.
It was from Foilhummerum Bay that the successful expedition of 1866, under the control of the newly-formed Anglo-American Telegraph Company, set out, arriving in Newfoundland Island on July 28th. Celebratory telegraphs crossed the Atlantic, with the Mayor of Vancouver messaging his counterpart in London: ‘The infant colony, Vancouver, eight thousand miles distant, sends telegraphic cordial greetings to Mother England’. As The Newfoundlander reported, with laying of the cable ‘Science has at length accomplished its greatest wonder-work in the union of the two Worlds’. A few days after the successful completion of the line, the failed cable of 1865 was rescued and repaired.
Capitalising on Valentia’s telegraph connection to London Robert Fitzroy, as part of his work with the Board of Trade, established an observatory on the Island to relay meteorological data to the capital in 1860. Under the guidance of the Kew-trained Rev Thomas Kerr the work of the observatory expanded in the mid 1860s, and was used as a testing ground for new meteorological instruments. Established at Revenue House in the south of the island, close to the telegraph, the observatory moved to the mainland in 1892
Valentia’s museum features an exhibition on the cable, as well as the prehistoric history of the island. For an overview of the cable in Valentia, including videos, see also the Telegraph Field. Finally, a more detailed history of the observatory is available at the Irish Met office website
For the history of the Transatlantic Cable:
The most comprehensive source for Cable material is the excellent The Atlantic Cable.
Hearn, C. (2004). Circuits in the sea: the men, the ships, and the Atlantic cable. Westport, Conn, Praeger
Mercer, D. (2006). The telephone: the life story of a technology. Westport, CN, Greenwood Press.
Seel, P. (2012). Digital universe: the global telecommunication revolution. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.
Smith, C., & Wise, M. (1989). Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.