The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Scientists, engineers and Wildman Whitehouse: measurement and credibility in early cable telegraphy

Bruce J. Hunta1

a1 Department of History, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, USA.

Between 1856 and 1858, a group of entrepreneurs and engineers led by the American Cyrus Field and the Englishmen J. W. Brett, Charles Bright and E. O. Wildman Whitehouse sought to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland. Their projected cable would be far longer, far more expensive, and far more difficult to lay than any previously attempted; that such an ambitious undertaking was launched and quickly drew financial backing was testimony to the technological enthusiasm of the mid-Victorian era. After many setbacks, the cable was successfully completed early in August 1858. The first messages it carried were met with rapturous excitement on both sides of the Atlantic – making its failure after just a few weeks of fitful service all the more humiliating. Identifying the causes of that failure, and assigning blame for them, became crucial to ensuring the future of transoceanic cable telegraphy. Were the causes of the failure intrinsic to the enterprise, and the vision of a network of transoceanic cables no more than an unrealistic dream? Or did the collapse of the cable result simply from a series of unfortunate and correctable errors? How those questions were answered in the autumn of 1858 would go far toward determining the prospects not only for renewing the Atlantic project, but also for any attempt to extend submarine cables more widely around the world.