Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Failure
Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole
And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB.
Before we get into the news, we have an update from a previous news article. The container ship Ever Given has successfully traversed the Suez Canal after getting stuck in the canal in March.
I read that Ever Given was impounded for three months until the ship’s owners and the canal owners could reach a compensation deal after Ever Given blocked the shipping route for 6 days.
This week in engineering news, improved electrical insulation
upgrades to electrical insulation that can remove heat more effectively.
Hasn't changed much since world war II
More stress on the grid, faster processing and using electricity for transportation
The heat these systems generate can cause them to fail, but at the same time, we have to protect them from weather
University of Texas at Austin and the US Army Research Lab are looking at new materials for insulation and packaging to remove heat more effectively
Looking at materials that can
Large electrical resistance
Tolerance to extreme temperatures
Ability to handle mechanical stress
Resistance to moisture
And good thermal conductivity
Nanocomposite materials from polymers with nanoparticles in them that have better thermal performance than metals, but are lightweight, corrode less, and easier to manufacture
Applications are endless - power grids, laptops, minimize power plant cooling, electric aviation, etc
Now on to this week’s engineering failure; the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Failure.
First off, what is a transatlantic telegraph cable and is there a Trans Atlantic Fax cable too?
Construction started in the late 1850s.
Date of first use was Aug 16, 1858, but it didn't last long
Valentia Island, Ireland to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland
Design capacity - 8 words per minute (worse than dial up)
Owner - Atlantic Telegraph Company
Operator - New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company & French Atlantic Cable Company
Wildman Whitehouse - medical doctor by training, taken interest in the new electrical tech and decided to follow a new career - no formal training in physics, knowledge gained through practical experience
William Thomson - responsible for the law of squares
Charles Tilston Bright - chief engineer
Cyrus West Field - VP of Atlantic Telegraph Company
Issues to Overcome and Route
Waterproofing cable, electricity and water aren’t good together. Used Gutta Percha, a material newly available in Europe from Asia that wasn’t affected by pressure and was waterproof. (a natural thermoplastic rubber that can be molded once heated and will harden when cooled)
Many successful Gutta Percha cables were laid across Europe and parts of North America in the 1820’s to 1840’s.
Field reaches out to Lieutenant Matthew Maury, the head of the National Observatory in Washington who had coincidentally just completed an oceanographic survey and him and his team had found a plateau that ran across the North Atlantic that could support the proposed Telegraph Line.
Western Union, a competitor of Field’s, proposed a route across the Bering Straight from Alaska to Siberia but was severely restricted due to the lack of trees in Siberia to make poles.
Cable Thickness and Retardation
Thomson predicted the transmission speed would be very slow due to an effect called retardation
Law of squares - transmission line theory
Current injected into the line by a step in the voltage reaches a max at a time proportional to the square of the distance down the line.
tmax = ½ RCx2
Tmax - time at which the current reaches a maximum
R - resistance per metre of the line
C - capacitance per metre of the line
X - distance from the input of the line
Whitehouse disagreed - joined several underground lines together to a similar distance of the transatlantic route and said there would be no problem
Thomson thought that the underwater cables were not comparable to underground cables - tested similar cable and found resistance up to a factor of two
Thomson thought a larger cable was needed to mitigate retardation - Whitehouse disagreed and since the thinner cable was cheaper, that is what they went with
Thomson favoured a mid Atlantic start with two ships travelling out to each coast - cut time in half
Whitehouse wanted both ships to travel together from Ireland so progress could report back to Valentia through the cable
Whitehouse as the Chief Electrician overruled the 1857 voyage - Whitehouse was supposed to be on board the cable-laying vessel but made excuses to avoid - Thomson was sent in his place
Bright (chief engineer) convinced the directors to do a mid atlantic route for the 1858 voyage
In 1858 Field assigned Thomson and Whitehouse to two different ships to avoid conflict but since Whitehouse never went Thomson went alone.
In July 1858, four British and American vessels–the Agamemnon, the Valorous, the Niagara, and the Gorgon–met in mid-ocean for the fifth attempt. On July 29, the Niagara and the Gorgon, with their load of cable, departed for Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, while the Agamemnon and the Valorous embarked for Valentia, Ireland. By August 5, the cable had been successfully laid, stretching nearly 2,000 miles across the Atlantic at a depth often of more than two miles.
Europe and North America are linked for the first time, communication is almost instantaneous. Celebratory fireworks catch the bell tower of New York City on fire.
Thomson’s Mirror Galvanometer
Thomson wanted a better method of detecting a signal across the cable
Developed the mirror galvanometer
Ammeter - measure electrical current in a circuit
By deflecting a light beam with a mirror
Very sensitive instrument
Requested money from the board to test his galvanometer and build more - only given ¼ of what he requested and only permission to test out on the next voyage
Turns out, it was extremely good at detecting positive and negative edges of telegraph pulses that represented a morse ‘dash’ and ‘dot’ respectively (unlike overland telegraphy, both pulse were the same length)
Thomson believed he could test low voltages from regular telegraph equipment - successfully tested it on 4,300 miles of cable in underwater storage in Plymouth - for reference, the cable they were installing was 3,500 km.
Whitehouse wanted to use massive high voltage induction coils, producing several thousand volts to create enough current to drive standard electromechanical printing telegraphs used on inland telegraphs
Thomson’s instrument had to be read by hand and could not be read
Thomson invented the syphon recorder for the second transatlantic attempt in 1866
Although Thomson was merely an advisor, it was not long before all electrical decisions were deferred to him - Whitehouse kept bailing on the voyages
Whitehouse drove 2,000 voltages through the cable shortly after they finished laying it on Aug 5th and damaged the insulation
Press had been told the project was a success
Whitehouse said 5 or 6 weeks would be needed for “adjustments”
Whitehouse finally gave up on his own equipment and used the mirror galvanometer which worked - but he took those messages and printed them out so it looked like the printing telegraph was working
In Sept 1958 after progressive deterioration of the insulation, the cable failed
Whitehouse was held responsible and fired - Thomson had to reconstruct what happened
Cable was most vulnerable in the first hundred miles from Ireland - not only was it too small, it was also poorly manufactured - they had used a different cable at first and then spliced it into new to continue the installation
In some places, the conductor was badly off centre - could easily break through the insulation through mechanical strains during laying
Tests were conducted on samples of the submerged cable - when perfect insulated, there was no problem applying thousands of volts - a pinprick hole “lit up like a lantern” when tested and burned a large hole in the insulation
732 messages passed through the cable before it failed and they took about 17hrs to travel from one side to the other
Collision between Cunard Line ships Europa and Arabia reported on Aug 17
British Government ordered two regiments in Canada to embark for England, saving 50,000 dollars at the time (assuming because they didn’t have to send a ship to deliver the message)
Preparing for a new attempt
Took until 1864 to raise enough money to try again - which is honestly surprising that the value wasn’t noticed right away. Was probably difficult to communicate between Europe and North America since, you know, the cable didn’t work.
Cables had been submerged in the Mediterranean and Red Sea since the first Transatlantic cable attempt and they learned some things. Here is what the 1864 cable was made of
Core consisted of seven twisted strands of very pure copper coated with waterproof insulating compound, then covered with four layers of gutta-percha (a natural thermoplastic rubber that can be molded once heated and will harden when cooled), alternating with four thin layers of compound cement
Core was covered with hemp saturated in a preservative solution, helically wound eighteen single strands of high tensile steel wire, covered with fine strands of manila yarn steeped in preservative
980kg/km for entire cable - nearly twice the weight of the old cable
Haymills successfully manufactured 48,000km, 1,600 tons, by 250 works over 11 months
SS Great Eastern left Valentia fitted for 4,300km of cable on July 15, 1865
Aug 2 after 1,968km the cable snapped near the stern of the ship and the end was lost
July 13, 1866 Great Eastern started again to lay a new cable and complete the broken one and reached Newfoundland on July 27 - 2 weeks, not bad
9am the next morning, England send the following message “it is a great work, a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be honoured among the benefactors of their race”
August 1866 Great Eastern and other ships went in search of the lost cable to splice it to the new
A needle in a haystack if there ever was one
August 10th, the Albany caught the cable and brought it to the surface - it slipped from the buoy during the night - this happened several more times until Sept 1866 - been on the ocean floor for over a year
The recovered cable was spliced into a fresh cable and headed out for Newfoundland where it arrived Sept 7
There were now two working telegraph lines
The original telegraph cables, of which there were more than just these two, were eventually made obsolete and replaced with telephone and data cables that still exist today.
There are an estimated 380 underwater cables in operation today around the world.
1.2 million km long
Some are funded by Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon - which is honestly concerning
I honestly thought we were using satellites until I started researching this failure
Hurricane Sandy knocked out several key exchange links in 2012
There are about 200 failures per year
Use multiple routes so service is rarely interrupted
Tapping these cables is even a form of espionage - US did this for a decade during the cold war, but they weren’t the only ones
So there you have it, we tried not to string it out too much, they got off to a rocky start, a little drama, but they eventually turned it around and a decade later they had two working cables. And now we can look at cat pictures on the internet at work.
For photos, sources and an episode summary from this week’s episode head to Failurology.ca. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review and subscribe to failurology, so more people can find it. If you want to chat with me, my twitter handle is @failurology, you can email me at email@example.com, or you can connect with me on Linked In. Check out the show notes for links to all of these.
Thanks everyone for listening. And tune in to the next episode where we’ll talk about the Montreal Olympic Stadium, or more commonly called the Big O. This one might take the cake. Bye everyone, talk soon!