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August 3, 2023 · 20 min read

Season 4, Ep. 22 – TWiTH: The first transatlantic telegraph cable completed, with

Despite four previous ill-fated attempts by a man named Cyrus West Field, he persevered and on the fifth attempt, succeeded in laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. On This Week in Tech, Abbey and Tyler talk about the troubles the project faced, the various methods attempted before and since, and how, despite lasting only three weeks, this single cable changed the way we communicate globally.


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Abbey (00:06):

How’s it going?

Tyler (00:08):

Good. How are you?

Abbey (00:10):

Good. It’s Friday.

Tyler (00:12):

Friday. (Abbey: Yeah.) Yeah. Been a good week, though. Got a bunch of good stuff done.

Abbey (00:20):

Yeah. I’m working through a site copy for the new marketing site. (Tyler: Nice.) You guys doing anything this weekend?

Tyler (00:29):

My wife’s got friends coming in town, so they’re staying here. (Abbey: Nice.) Doing the Nashville thing, you know? I’m sure at least one night contributing. But, yeah, so that’ll be fun. They haven’t gotten to hang out in a long time. High school friends, so fun.

Abbey (00:45):

Yeah. We have a quiet weekend at home.

Tyler (00:47):

Nice. I always feel like it’s surprising how many weekend plans like, stack up. You’re just like, why don’t I feel like I’m never just hanging at home? You always have something.

Abbey (00:58):

My husband’s old boss used to call me a “social planner” <laugh>. (Tyler: <Laugh>.) “What’d your wife plan for this weekend?” He is like, “I don’t know yet.”

Tyler (01:07):

Yeah. “I just do what I’m told.”

Abbey (01:09):

I don’t know if you guys got a super bad storm yesterday.

Tyler (01:12):

Not yesterday, but the last few days. So like, we’ve gotten a lot of rain.

Abbey (01:18):

I was like, all excited to go post up in a coffee shop or something, get a bunch of rain hammered out, and then the thunderstorm started at like 9.

Tyler (01:27):

Oh, yeah.

Abbey (01:28):

The dogs weren’t having it at all. They were like, “We’d like to get outta here, crawl inside your skin or whatever makes that sound stop.”

Tyler (01:38):

It’s been so humid here, but I think this weekend’s supposed to be finally like, a break in the humidity, heat. We’ll see.

Abbey (01:47):

We got up on like, Saturday last week, and it was 98% humidity.

Tyler (01:54):

Yeah. Yeah. The dew points have just been disgusting.

Abbey (01:56):

I feel like, at that point, you’re just swimming through the air, yeah.

Tyler (02:01):

Yeah. So I learned that like, there’s like, relative humidity, gonna tangent for a second, let me geek out, so that’s like, I think that’s just a measure of the moisture in the air. That can feel different depending on the dew point. So the dew point is almost like, the temperature at which dew will form in the grass, (Abbey: Yeah.) and so the higher the dew point is like, really what we feel the humidity, ’cause you can have a hundred percent relative humidity if it’s like, snowing or something. (Abbey: Yeah.) And like, it obviously doesn’t feel humid, but if the dew point’s really high like, 70s is like, pretty high where it just feels disgusting, (Abbey: Yeah.) but we’ve had it, I mean, I’ve looked outside on my little weather meter, and it’s been like, almost 80 like, 79 degree dew point. It’s just, that’s when it’s like, at its worst, and it’s been like that all week. It’s awesome.

Abbey (02:53):

I mean, it was raining yesterday, and it said the humidity was like, 95%. I was like, it looks like a hundred to me. That is fully humid. That is literal water.

Tyler (03:04):

Yeah. I’m sure I have some part of that wrong, but I’ve at least noticed that like, tracking the dew point is a better indicator of how it feels than sometimes the relative humidity, ’cause I always used to be confused about that. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) It’s like, well, it doesn’t feel as bad as other times, but it says it’s like, 90 something percent, you know?

Abbey (03:23):

So speaking of water, Tyler, you’re joining me today to talk about the first transatlantic telegraph cable: the first time we could communicate across the ocean without your message going on a ship. 

Tyler (03:38):

Super cool story. Yeah, I’m excited to dig in. Like, this is some really cool stuff here.

Abbey (03:43):

I thought that it would be kind of just like, “Oh yeah. They did it,” and you know like, the more I dug into it, I was like, and there’s some really cool tidbits of info in here. So on August 5th, 1858, the very first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed, linking North America with the UK. It was the fifth attempt from a man named Cyrus Westfield, and it involved the joint effort of four ships, all of which have great names. the Agamemnon, the Valorous, the Niagara, and my personal favorite, the Gorgon. (Tyler: <Laugh>.) The four ships met in the middle of the ocean, which I love. They were like, “We’re just gonna meet up in the middle, and two of us are headed for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, and two of us are headed for Valentia, Ireland.” Seems really simple when you think about it, but clearly, it was [the] fifth try, so it wasn’t quite as easy as it’s sounding. So by August 5th, the cable had been successfully laid and sat on the ocean floor that’s up to two miles below the sea surface. On August 16th, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged pleasantries across the sea for the first time, twenty years after the telegraph was invented. There were a couple different people who invented it at the same time. The one we’re probably more familiar with is Samuel Morse, who was famous for the Morse code, but within 10 years of the telegraph being invented, there were over 20,000 miles of cable crisscrossing the US. That rapid communication made it possible for American expansion, made the railroad safer to travel, because you could communicate things quicker. It was a huge boost to business conducted across the growing expanse of the US. Unfortunately, for our buddy Cyrus, he accomplished what he set out to do, but the cable was pretty weak, and within a month, it no longer was relaying any sort of information. So they kind of abandoned the project, and then it would be another eight years before they figured out how to do it correctly. Which seems… (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT)

Tyler (05:52):

You might say he “laid the groundwork” for that.

Abbey (05:55):

Oh god. 

Tyler (05:57):

You might. You might say that.

Abbey (05:58):

How many dad jokes are you gonna get in here <laugh>? I love it.

Tyler (06:02):

We’ll see, we’ll see. Time will tell.

Abbey (06:04):

He did lay the groundwork for that. Obviously, it wasn’t gonna be something that was easy to accomplish with this being his fifth time trying to do it, but in the end, the fact that he did get it done meant that everyone knew it was possible. It was just like, how do we do this in a way that’s more sustainable? I’m sure at that time you have like, a really limited knowledge of what’s happening to cables on the seafloor, but like, look at the lasting impact it’s had. Like that one guy trying to decide like, “Yeah, we can, and we should try and do this.” It’s, you know, how many times a day do we talk to people who don’t live in this country?

Tyler (06:44):

Yeah. It’s really interesting. Like, what I found, you know, reading up on this story was like, there was good collaboration between the government of the United States and then of Great Britain at the time too, which was really interesting. Both supplied ships and even subsidies (Abbey: Yeah.) from the government. Like, we passed, I think, a bill to help support this effort, like, signed by the president, which was really interesting that, you know, to have like, such an undertaking, have two international, you know, entities that work together on that, I thought was pretty cool. Just some really interesting factors that played into the fact that it took so many attempts. I read that they had to hire two firms to build this cable, ’cause they had four months to do it, and out of Great Britain, and they ended up like, twisting the wire in different directions.

Tyler (07:42):

Like, one firm did it this way, another firm did it another way. So they couldn’t even splice the two like, lengths together correctly. They had to like, come up with a way to do that, because otherwise the one side would untangle (Abbey: Yeah.) as the tension hold would, you know, increase on it over time. So it did like, there’s little things like that. I read about how differences and like, copper quality were found by some of the like, one of the electrical engineers that was overseeing this project, but at that time, it was sort of like, “Well, we’re already making do with what we have.” Like, it is really interesting how you think about [how] we have standards for these things, like, regulations for quality and material control that just didn’t necessarily exist at that time, and you see that play out over, “Hey, it takes us five times, because our cable keeps breaking,” and it’s interesting, ’cause that can be frustrating today, you know, for maybe manufacturers, people starting basically new ideas, but that’s sort of the flip side of it, you know, when that stuff isn’t there.

Abbey (08:45):

They needed a project manager that could work quickly across the ocean and didn’t have it.

Tyler (08:50):

Yeah, yeah. Someone specialized in Six Sigma.

Abbey (08:53):

They need to get their own Jira board.

Tyler (08:55):

Yeah. Yeah. Where’s that Trello board at?

Abbey (08:58):

<Laugh>. I think it’s also interesting to think that like, once it was completed or you know like, I’m sure that after it was originally laid, even though it didn’t work for very long, it probably spurred a lot of people to start thinking about like, how can we work quicker and easier with people in other countries that we can’t reach right now? I feel like today, we really take globalization for granted, because it’s just kind of like, always been part of our lexicon. It’s always been part of like, we’ve been buying products made in China since how long, you know? Like, that’s always been part of our lives. (Tyler: Yeah.) It would’ve been cool to see like, what kind of opportunities that opened up for people and kind of like, what that first taste of globalization was like.

Tyler (09:54):

So apparently there were like, parades. There was a parade. New York did a whole thing when they first had the message come through from like, Queen Victoria. Like, it was a big deal. At least, they made it to be like, a big deal, (Abbey: Yeah.) which it was. And I think there was even a quote from President Buchanan at the time, where he said in his message back something to the effect of like, that this was more important than any war, like, any previous war for the globe, in terms of just the ability to communicate, and to spread ideas, and (Abbey: Yeah.) different things, which was just interesting that like, people understood, I think, at the time too, the importance of that and like, how game changing that was to go from, I think the phrase that they were using was like, “Two weeks to two days,” (Abbey: Yeah.) in terms of communication time. (Abbey: Yeah.) So it’s pretty cool.

Abbey (10:53):

Two days. Is that how long it took to still send a message?

Tyler (10:58):

I think there was still like, yeah, processing time like, to capture and then like, basically print the received (Abbey: Yeah.) like, messages, and then like, I think they used to do a thing where they would confirm the message back, so you’d have to send it back to make sure you got the right thing. I don’t know. So I’m sure somebody knows exactly how that process worked. But yeah, that was like, their phrase that I think was in “Two weeks to two days.” Marketing, already.

Abbey (11:26):

Marketing. They’re already like, “We’re taking it around the world.” Yeah, even, you know, like, it takes a minimum of two weeks, I’m sure, to sail across the ocean. I’ve never tried that either.

Tyler (11:36):

And dangerous, obviously. (Abbey: Yeah.) Storms, all sorts of stuff.

Abbey (11:40):

I think that’s something that’s pretty crazy to think about, too, is like, that the weather in the North Atlantic is not great. Like, that’s where the Titanic sank.

Tyler (11:52):

Yeah. I think two of the ships almost crashed (Abbey: Yeah.) or not crashed, tipped over though, because of all the weight of the cable that they were carrying. Like, I forget, on one of the attempts, they hit some pretty bad storms and ’cause they’re so top heavy almost (Abbey: Yeah.) capsized, (Abbey: Yeah.) which is just crazy.

Abbey (12:12):

And you would think after like, four attempts at doing it in the same location, they’d be like, “Maybe we’ll try somewhere new.” (Tyler: <Laugh>.) They didn’t. Again, that feels like a project management oversight. They’re like, “Guys, we need to rethink this,” <laugh>.

Tyler (12:29):

So they were competing, like, the interesting thing about this that we, I feel like the parallels are so not surprising to just how the world works today, is there were competing ideas on the board on like, the electrical engineering aspect of it, right? So how do we send it? How is it constructed? How are we capturing and receiving the messages? And so there were like, different ideas on how to do that that I think caused some of these issues on, “Hey, this is the right way to do it.” “No, it’s not.” One of the lead electrical engineers for I think the first while was not a trained like, electrical engineer. He was a medical doctor that got really interested in this and then said like, “I’m gonna learn everything through like, practical experimentation,” which is cool, (Abbey: Yeah.) but obviously it might create some gaps, right?

Tyler (13:22):

And I think there’s just conflict between him and someone else about like, the best way to do it, and I think part of the reason that first one broke is they tried to send so much voltage through the wire that like, the insulation broke down, and so it’s just really interesting to see how you can get derailed even by little things like that on such a massive project, right? (Abbey: Yeah.) And it’s a new, groundbreaking technology or like, a groundbreaking endeavor. Just little things like that, you know, people’s opinions have big impact.

Abbey (13:57):

On top of that, you’re working with, I mean, you’re working with people, you’re working with a group that’s in the UK. You’re working with a group that’s in the United States. How are they communicating? (Tyler: Yeah.) How are they communicating about what they’re trying to get done when they can’t…they’re still on the two week timeline. I mean, if they couldn’t even get the cables right at two factories right next to each other, maybe there was little hope for this first couple.

Tyler (14:26):

Yeah. The interesting thing too about that was apparently there was significant opposition, at least in the US, to establishing this with Great Britain at the time. Like, there were congressmen who were very like, protective and were like, “No, we don’t wanna have that type of like, open network, if you will, or dialogue with Great Britain.” It’s just an interesting time, still. But it was, you know, 1858, I think it was?

Abbey (14:57):

They’re like, “We just got rid of those people,” <laugh>.

Tyler (15:01):

I mean, it’s like, a generation away basically, right? (Abbey: Yeah.) So it’s just a different mindset than we have today.

Abbey (15:08):

I think it’s still a common situation where advances are made, and there is always going to be a group of people who’s resistant to that change, even if another group, a larger group of people can see how it’s gonna further everything, technology, research, (Tyler: Yeah.) commerce, resources, (Tyler: Yeah.) whatever it may be. There’s always gonna be a group of people that’s like, “I don’t think we should. Let’s not rock the boat, literally and metaphorically here.” That’s mine. There’s my dad joke <laugh>.

Tyler (15:45):

Well done, well done.

Abbey (15:48):

But in the end, like, look at all of the good that came outta that. (Tyler: Yeah.) I think that’d be really interesting to like, to know what the research process was between that cable being laid and what eventually became the successful iteration of it.

Tyler (16:09):

Like, I think it speaks, it’s a foreshadow of like, how fast technology can advance. If I remember correctly, they went from like, the initial line I think transferred like, 0.1 words per minute, whereas the one about eight to ten years later was eight words per minute. So it’s 80 times faster in like, less than a decade, right? (Abbey: Yeah.) Just that exponential curve of, like you said, sort of R&D, understanding how the first one went wrong, where it could be better, and I love that like, we live in a country where that’s that type of like, innovation is acceptable and easy and I mean, not easy, but it’s attainable. And we have the ability to innovate like that on other ideas. You know, I think that’s…

Abbey (17:01):

And you still see it today where it’s, you know like, there’s, obviously AI is like, all the rage now. It’s like, this new thing, but there are companies that have been working on it for decades. So it’s like, a real slow ramp and then all of a sudden, it’s like, the technology got us to where it’s 80 times more effective than it was when we first tried out the idea.

Tyler (17:30):

Yeah. Efficient, or faster, or cheaper. (Abbey: Yeah.) That hits that inflection point where the use case becomes common enough that it’s the new standard. Yeah, which is cool, and I think also, like we, it’s easy to sort of like, laugh at or dismiss like, the early attempts, you know, because they don’t go super well when it’s brand new, but then that’s what’s built upon, you know, over time, and without that, like, you don’t have the 80 X improvement in eight years. (Abbey: Yeah.) That’s not done the first time.

Abbey (18:04):

Kudos to you for keeping on that idea, you know, (Tyler: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) for being the person who is just crazy enough to try it. (Tyler: Yeah.) You were, you know, our boy Cyrus was like, the first one who was like, “I think we can do this. I’m gonna try really hard to make it happen.” Obviously, he had no idea what that would become, you know, a hundred years down the road. Two-hundred years.

Tyler (18:30):

But he probably had a vision, right? (Abbey: Yeah.) Which is like, the cool part I think is that, I mean, just to tie it back to even, you know, any company or our company, like, the vision is important, ’cause that’s what guides and what drives those efforts, right? I’m sure you had that vision of like, “Hey, this is what I think this can be. Maybe not like, today, maybe not even in my lifetime, but this is like, the start. I see it.” (Abbey: Yeah.) And that’s probably what drove that and said, you know, keep going after four failed attempts of laying that cable and coming back with egg on his face every time. You know, like, and I think that’s admirable.

Abbey (19:05):

I bet that every time there was like, there was something that he learned, there was something that he iterated on, and he said, “Okay, if this goes a little bit better than the last time I tried, will that, you know,” (Tyler: Yeah.) “Is incremental improvement enough for me to keep iterating on this idea until I get it?” And even if people thought he was crazy, you know?

Tyler (19:28):

Which, by the way, I read that there were. It was interesting that when it broke within three weeks, apparently there were like, a rash of stories by calling it a hoax. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) It was just made up. It was like, publicity. It never existed. And I was just like, that’s so interesting, right? That’s like, you know, a narrative around that.

Abbey (19:50):

That was the conspiracy theory of the era.

Tyler (19:53):

Yeah, yeah. Oh, that <unintelligible> was real.

Abbey (19:55):

That was their “moon landing” <laugh>.

Tyler (19:57):

Yep. Yeah. I just thought, you know, some things never change, I guess.

Abbey (20:01):

I think it’s also, you know like, I mean, maybe they’re a little bit in the right to think like, it has to be a joke, because maybe you can’t, you don’t have the vision for what that could have been or what it is. You know like, if somebody doesn’t have the ability to grasp what an undertaking that is, maybe they’re more predisposed to think that it wasn’t true in the first place, ’cause they’re just like, “We’re never gonna talk to them again. We’re never gonna talk to Great Britain. We don’t need them.”

Tyler (20:32):

But it speaks to the power of vision. You know like, I think that, in a business context, is sometimes like, overlooked or can be overlooked as not, you know, as like, a not sort of a nice to have in an organization or a structure. And obviously like, vision itself doesn’t produce results, but I think it’s a necessary like, foundation for that, ’cause it creates people who go after stuff like this, you know? (Abbey: Right.) Not easily persuaded (Abbey: Yup.) otherwise.

Abbey (21:00):

It creates people who follow their crazy ideas and why doing something that changes humanity…I mean, I feel like that’s a really big word to put to this, but it’s also, you know like, being crazy enough to have this idea is what has ultimately enabled this like, globally connected world that we live in right now, and it takes those people who have those big ideas to try them, and fail, and try again.

Tyler (21:31):

Yeah. I mean like, even thinking about that today feels like a crazy idea. Like, you’re gonna lay cable across the Atlantic Ocean, like, okay, have fun. (Abbey: Yeah <laugh>.) But even in like, but imagine that in 18, you know, 60 or 1850 like, (Abbey: Yeah.) that must have just seemed laughable, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, why don’t you just go throw my money into the ocean, then? (Abbey: <Laugh>.) You know, but they got it done. Really cool.

Abbey (21:55):

He’s like, “I will, four times,” <laugh>. “Fifth time, your money will be worth it.”

Tyler (22:02):

For three weeks.

Abbey (22:04):

Three weeks. Long enough for the president and the queen to say “Hi.” I feel like this is a weird question, but like, what’s your favorite thing about globalization or like, being globally connected?

Tyler (22:20):

I think it’s allowed perspective in a lot of ways, right? That people just would never otherwise have, and that perspective is like, so hard to get, because everybody has their own, you know, lived experience and that’s real. But I think the fact that it’s really easy or much easier to now go, “Hey, like, let me look at what life is like somewhere else in the world, understand cultures, how people perceive things,” like, makes that, it just allows people to go, “Oh, interesting. I would’ve never thought about that that way,” or “I would’ve never known that somebody like, lives this way.” So I think that part’s cool. It allows for perspective change. On a less deep note, like, I think it’s cool that you can have like, sports teams and fandoms outta like, earth-wide, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) Like soccer like, you’ll have people all over the world cheering for a club somewhere, which is just cool. Like, I’m a sports fan.

Abbey (23:21):

Like, Kate’s at the Arsenal game. (Tyler: Yeah, yeah.) We were sitting at the beer bar last night, next to a couple from Philly, and the guy had an Arsenal phone case. (Tyler: Yeah.) Like, yeah.

Tyler (23:30):

A hundred percent, yeah. I think that that’s cool. It’s like, it enables stuff like that, like communities, that can share, I don’t know, common interests now, you know, globally, (Abbey: Yeah.) ’cause it’s just all right there at our fingers, which is crazy. But I think that’s a positive part of it, you know? For sure.

Abbey (23:46):

Totally. To be able to just kind of think like, we have, there is a global community, there’s much more out there than just what you see. (Tyler: Yeah.) Especially, you know, when you think about like, what’s on the news. There are always people in the places where you’re watching the news who do have a very different lived experience than what we see, and just kind of open yourself up to that, and get perspective, and learn. That’s really cool.

Tyler (24:14):

Yeah. (Abbey: Yeah.) Yeah, definitely. But it comes with, it’s, you know, negatives too, right? Where it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the negatives that you hear about, because you can find it everywhere at every second, right? Like, you can find some new article, if you wanted, about something terrible happening. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) And so, you know, I think it’s just learning as like, people how to process that and not be overwhelmed, but, you know, to find the good parts of it.

Abbey (24:44):

The eternal existential crisis of living in a small dot on the globe. Thanks for joining me today, Tyler. This has been super fun. Yeah, what a cool topic.

Tyler (24:57):

I’m stoked about it. I’m sorry I only had one, or maybe people are grateful I only had one bad dad joke. But next time I’ll try to do better.

Abbey (25:06):

We’ll see what we can do,

Faith, via previous recording (25:08):

Thanks for listening to the Frontier Podcast, powered by We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week.