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"On This Date in History" Calendar

1858: Early Telegraph Communications

Friday, August 16, 2024

16 August 1858: First exchange of telegraph communications occurred with congratulatory messages between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan. Photo: US postage stamp commemorating the Atlantic cable, 1958. Designed by George Giusti.

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Made up of seven copper wires covered in 18 strands made of iron, the cable ended up weighing more than one ton per nautical mile. Under the guidance of E. O. W. Whitehouse, the connection was completed in early August the following year with the help of four British and American ships. So it was that, on August 15, 1858, Queen Victoria could write:

“The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work.”

President Buchanan, with a bit more flair, replied: “May the Atlantic Telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument designed by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.”

As the leaders exchanged messages, Americans, stunned by the achievement, gathered at post offices to read the conversation the following day and marveled – but the link would not last for long. Whitehouse, attempting to speed up the extended transmission times (one of Queen Victoria's messages took more than 16 hours to be received), decided to apply additional voltage to the cable and rendered it inoperable just three weeks later. Though historians argue the construction would not have held up due to poor understanding of the effect saltwater could have, Whitehouse was immediately dismissed for his perceived role in the failure.

It would be another seven years before another attempt could be made at laying a new cable. Though unsuccessful at first, transmission resumed on July 28, 1866 using a line constructed of more durable substances. Within months, a second line was operational and, by the 1870s, the technology had grown to allow multiple messages to be sent in either direction at once. Within four decades, an intricate network of cables connected Britain, France, Germany and the United States.


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