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The Breaking of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable on Board the Great Eastern

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1331, p. 182.

August 26, 1865

Cable On Board The Great Eastern.

The return of the Great Eastern, bringing news of the failure of the attempt to lay the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, the broken end of which lies nearly 2000 fathoms deep in the ocean, distant about 1000 miles from the shore end in Foilhummerum Bay, was announced last week; and the authorised journal of the expedition, written from day to day by Mr. W. H. Russell on board the Great Eastern, from Monday July 24, to Friday, August 11, has since been published....

It may be recollected that, on the second day after starting from the Irish coast, Wednesday, July 25, a fault in the electric insulation of the cable was detected, and a length of ten miles which had been submerged in the wake of the ship was picked up again to examine where the fault lay; it was then found that a tiny piece of loose iron wire had forced its way through the outer covering and the gutta-percha surrounding the electric wire, so as to come in contact with the latter; and, when this piece was cut out and a new splice made, the fault was effectually cured. The cable had again to be raised and examined in the same way, on the 29th, when the ship was in 2000 fathom water, 636 miles from Valencia, and 1028 miles from Newfoundland. A total loss of electric insulation, or "dead earth," as it is called, had been discovered about one o'clock that afternoon. The ship was stopped at once, and, as soon as the picking-up machinery could be put in gear, the end of the cable was hauled in again over the bow, and the faulty portion having been cut off and laid aside for a minute examination, the remainder was spliced afresh, and the operation of paying out over the stern of the ship was recommenced next morning....Slowly but surely the defective portion of the cable was reached and cut out. "A very painful discovery," says the journal, "was then made. An incision was visible in one strand of the hemp covering an external wire, and, on unravelling the strands so as to expose the insulated wires, a piece of broken iron wire was found driven through the gutta-percha covering so as to project beyond it on each side to the extent of the diameter of the cable; one end was sharp, as if cut with a nippers, the other was broken off abruptly; and the diameter, on the gauge being applied, corresponded with that of the wire covering the cable. It was impossible to resist the irritating and sorrowful conviction that such an injury was the work of some hired cable assassin or some purposeless malefactor. Mr. Canning showed the cable and the stab to the cablemen, who admitted that the mischief could not have occurred accidentally; and those who were in the tank when the cable was injured, being of the same gang as that which was on duty when the other piece of wire was forced into the cable, were transferred to different duties on deck. The gentlemen on board the ship formed a corps of supervisors, who undertook to watch in the tank turn about, and the men employed gave their acquiescence." We may add that the names of the gentlemen who performed this voluntary service were Mr. Cyrus Field, Captain Moriarty, Professor Thomson, Mr. Varley, Mr. R. Dudley, Mr. H. O'Neil, A.R.A., Mr. Gooch, M.P., and M. Jules Despecher, each twice a day for two hours at a time.

We take from Mr. Russell's journal, without abridgment, his account of the actual breaking of the cable, on Wednesday, the 2nd, which he has justly called "a sad and memorable day." There had been a strong gale the night before, but the ship scarcely felt it, and went on paying out cable, without let or hindrance, at a high rate of speed--seven knots an hour. "About daybreak the wind suddenly shifted to N.N.W. and fell to a light breeze, and at 4 a.m. the course was altered to N.W. by W.½ W., the sea falling. Morning broke beautifully, and the cable ran out easily, at the rate of seven miles an hour. At 5.35 a.m., ship's time, the paddles were reversed by order from the electricians' room. In fact, at 8 a.m., Greenwich time, or a minute after, while the electricians were passing the first of the half-hourly series of currents to the shore, the galvanometer detected a flaw of electricity which indicated a serious fault. The tests gave no result as to locality, for the fault was very varying, but it was generally believed to be not far from the stern of the ship. While Mr. Cyrus Field was on watch in the tank, a little before the time of the accident, a grating noise was audible as the cable flew over the coil. One of the experienced hands immediately said, 'There is a piece of wire,' and called to the look-out man above to pass the information aft, but no notice appears to have been taken for some time of the circumstance. After the ship had been stopped, and the remainder of the flake in which the fault was supposed to have occurred had been paid out, a piece of wire was seen projecting out of the cable in the fluke, and, on one of the men taking it in his fingers and trying to bend it down, the wire broke short off. It was nearly 3 in. long, and evidently of hard, ill-tempered metal, which had flown out though the strands of the cable in the tank. The fault in the cable which had gone overboard might obviously have been caused by such a piece of wire, and there could be no doubt that the wire of the outer covering of the cable was capable of inflicting injury on the gutta-percha it was intended to protect. The discovery was in some measure a relief to men's minds, because it showed that one certainly, and the second possibly, of the previous faults might have been the results of similar accident. It was remarked, however, that this fault occurred on the same watch as all the previous misfortunes had occurred.

"As the fault was too serious to be overlooked, and as there was a difficulty in detecting its situation, preparations were made to get the picking-up apparatus ready. Previous to doing so, two cuts were made in the cable, the first near the old splice, between the main and the fore tank (cable all right); the second cut three miles inboard, which showed the fault to be in that portion of the cable which was overboard. The wire rope and the chain were now secured to the cable forward, which showed a maximum strain of 23½ cwt; and at 9.55, Greenwich time, the cable was severed and went over the stern, 1186 miles having been paid out when the end splashed into the water. With less difficulty than usual--in fact, with comparative facility--the cable was hauled in over the bows at 10.8 am., Greenwich time. The strain in it, according to the dynamometer, was from 50 cwt. to 55 cwt., though the latter figures represented the maximum only reached on one occasion. We were nearly in 2000 fathoms of water; but it was considered a favourable circumstance that we had not got a few miles further, as we should have then been in the very deepest part of the Atlantic plateau. As far as could be ascertained, the ship was now over a gentle elevation, on the top of which there was only 1950 fathoms of water. The picking-up was, as usual, exceedingly tedious, and one hour and forty-six minutes elapsed before one mile was got on board; then one of the engine's eccentric gear got out of order, so that a man had to stand by with a handspike, aided by a wedge of wood and an elastic band, to aid the wretched engine. Next, the supply of steam failed, and when the steam was got up it was found that there was not water enough in the boilers, and so the picking-up ceased altogether for some time, during which the ship forged ahead and chafed against the cable.

"Let the reader turn his face towards a window, and imagine that he is standing on the bows of the Great Eastern, and then, of course, on his right will be the starboard, on his left the port side of the ship. In front, fixed in the bows, is a large V-wheel, as it is technically termed, with a smaller wheel of the same kind on the same axis at each side, on which the cable is drawn as it is pulled up from the sea by the picking-up apparatus, and thence is wound under the dynamometer and drum-wheels till it has passed the breaks and is coiled down aft in safety. There are at the bows of the Great Eastern two large hawsepipes, the iron rims of which project nearly a foot beyond the line of the stem. After two miles of cable had been picked up the Great Eastern was forced to forego the use of her engines because the steam failed, while her vast broadside was exposed to the wind, which was drifting her to the larboard or left-hand side, till by degrees an oblique strain was brought to bear on the cable, which came up from the sea to the bows on the right-side. Against one of the hawsepipes the cable now caught on the left-hand side, while the ship kept moving to the left, and thus chafed and strained the cable greatly against the bow, for now it was held by this projection, and did not drag from the V-wheel. The Great Eastern could not go astern lest the cable should be snapped, and without motion some way there is no power of steerage. At this critical moment, too, the wind shifted, so as to render it more difficult to keep the head of the ship up to the cable. As the cable then chafed so much that in two places damage was done to it, a shackle chain and a wire rope belonging to one of the buoys were passed down the bow over the cable and secured in a bight below the hawsepipes. These were hauled so as to bring the cable, which had been caught on the left-hand side by the hawsepipes, round to the right-hand side of the bow, the ship still drifting to the left, while the cable, now drawn directly up from the sea to the V-wheel, was straining obliquely from the right with the shackle and rope attached to it. It was necessary to do this instead of veering away, as we were near the end of the cut of cable.

"The cable and the wire rope together were now coming in over the bows in the groove in the larger wheel, the cable being wound upon a drum behind by the machinery, which was once more in motion, and the wire rope being taken in round the capstan. But the rope and cable, as I have tried to explain, were not coming up in a right line, but were being hauled in, with a great strain on them, at an angle from the right-hand side, so that they did not work directly in the V in the wheel. Still, up they came. The strain was shown on the dynamometer to be very high, but not near breaking-point. At last, up came the cable and wire rope shackling together on the V-wheel in the bow. They were wound round on it, slowly, and were passing over the wheel together, the first damaged part being inboard, when a jar was given to the dynamometer, which flew up from 60 cwt.--the highest point marked--with a sudden jerk, 3½ in. In fact, the chain shackle and wire rope clambered, as it were, up out of the groove on the right-hand side of the V of the wheel, got on the top of the rim of the V-wheel, and rushed down with a crash on the smaller wheel, giving, no doubt, a severe shock to the cable to which it was attached. The machinery was still in motion, the cable and the rope travelled aft together, one towards the capstan, the other towards the drum, when, just as the cable reached the dynamometer, it parted, 30 ft. from the bow, and with one bound leaped, as it were, into the sea."

...Mr. Canning, the chief engineer of the work, was standing close by. Mr. Russell goes on to say:--"It is not possible for any words to portray the dismay with which the sight was witnessed and the news heard. It was enough to move one to tears, and, when a man came aft with the inner end still lashed to the chain, and we saw the tortured strands, torn wires, and lacerated core, it is no exaggeration to say that a strange feeling of pity, as though for some sentient creature mutilated and dragged asunder by brutal force, passed through the hearts of the spectators. But of what avail was sentimental abstraction, when instant, strenuous action was demanded? Alas! action? There, around, spread the placid Atlantic, smiling in the sun, and not a dimple to show where lay so many hopes buried. But there was no blank despair, and if any felt despondency they suppressed the expression of it, while by far the greatest number of those on board were actually animated, not by the loss itself, but by the accidental nature of the occurrence, to indulge in sanguine expectations of ultimate success. Captain Moriarty was just coming to the foot of the companion to put up his daily statement of the ship's position, having had excellent observations, when the news came. 'I fear,' he said, 'we shall not feel much interest now in knowing how far we are from Heart's Content.' However, it was something to know, though it was little comfort, that we had at noon run precisely 116.4 miles since yesterday, that 1186 miles of cable had been paid out, that we were 1062.4 miles from Valencia, 606.6 miles from Heart's Content, that we were in lat. 51 deg. 25 min., long. 39 deg. 6 min., our course being 76 deg. S. and 25 deg. W. The Terrible was signalled 'The cable has parted,' and was requested to bear down to us, which she did, and came-to off our port-beam. After a brief consideration Mr. Canning, whose presence of mind and self-possession never left him, came to the resolution to seek for the cable in the bottom of the Atlantic, and to get out his grapnels and drop down on it and pick it up again."

We must reserve till next week our...attempts made in the next few days (unfortunately, without success) to recover the lost cable, which was twice found and hooked, and raised a considerable way towards the surface, but proved too heavy for the strength of the lifting apparatus. The Great Eastern remained near the spot eight or nine days, and then, on the 11th inst., leaving two buoys to mark the position of the cable, turned her head back towards Europe. Her consort, the Terrible, went on to Newfoundland. The Great Eastern, as stated in our last, arrived at Crookhaven, on the Irish coast, on Thursday week. She came up the Channel on Saturday last, and lay-to off Brighton, where some of the gentlemen connected with the Atlantic Telegraph expedition landed and hastened to London. On Sunday, about one in the afternoon, the Great Eastern reached her old moorings at Sheerness. Some thousands of spectators were assembled on the beach and cheered her as she entered the port; she was greeted also with a burst of music from the band of the Marines on board the Formidable, the flagship, under the command of Sir Charles Talbot, the Commander-in-Chief at Sheerness station.

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