The Victorian information superhighway: the story of the first trans-Atlantic telegraphy cable

The steam tug Golliah is the first vessel to lay submarine telegraph cable. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

On 16 August, 1858, the first telegraphic message crossed the Atlantic ocean. Travelling along a recently laid cable, the message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan took just 16 hours. Prior to this, communication across the pond would have been by ship – and taken around 10 days.

ABC Telegraph Transmitter. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

People had been communicating via overland telegraph since the 1840s, and the first submarine cable was laid between Britain and France in 1850. But the attempt to span the Atlantic Ocean was the most daring attempt yet – and was the talk of the age, the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo mission. The idea that one could seemingly cheat time and space was to inspire all sorts of people – from businessmen to artists, as is explored in a new exhibition in London.

The driving force behind the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was an American businessman called Cyrus Field. In 1856, 150 years ago, he and Englishmen John Watkins Brett and Charles Tilson Bright formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company. They raised £350,000 in private capital, mostly from the business communities in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. They secured a £14,000 per year subsidy from the British government plus the loan of ships and a similar amount from the US government.

Even getting the cable made had proved difficult. The distance between the west coast of Ireland and Newfoundland is 2,300 miles. No single company was capable of supplying the required cable in the desired time frame, so two joined forces to fulfil the order.

The cable had a core of seven copper wires down which the electrical signals would pass. These were insulated with several layers of gutta-percha (a natural plastic made from tree sap), and then armoured with iron wire. The resulting cable weighed just over a ton per nautical mile, so heavy that no single ship was capable of carrying it and the laying had to be undertaken by two: HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara.

Siemens Atlantic telegraph cable samples. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

The first attempt to do so began on 5 August 1857, with both ships departing from the white strand near Ballycarbery Castle on the west coast of Ireland. The cable snapped on the first day, but was grappled from the bottom and repaired. A few days later, mid-Atlantic, the cable snapped again, this time in water two miles deep. It was lost and the expedition abandoned.

The next summer they tried again. This time the two great ships met mid-Atlantic, each carrying half the cable. They joined the two ends together and sailed away from each other. The cable broke three times: each time, they were forced to start again. On 29 July, with little hope of success, the cable was spliced for the fourth time and the ships sailed for home.

This time they succeeded. The cable was landed in Newfoundland on 4 August, and in Ireland the following day. And a week or so later Queen Victoria sent that first transatlantic message to President Buchanan.

Hopes dashed

The celebrations were tremendous. One newspaper proclaimed:

New York has seldom seen a more complete holiday than that on September 1, 1858, in celebration of the successful laying of the Atlantic cable. The enthusiasm of an entire nation was expressed in this jubilee of its metropolis, and the era of a closer connection with Europe was well ushered in by a day of genuine rejoicing and gaiety.

Celebrations were, however, short-lived: the cable performed badly and failed after just three weeks.

The project was put on hold, but the concept had been proved possible. By 1865 there had been a slew of research into the problems which had plagued the earlier cables. Successful cables had been laid in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf which were better engineered, better insulated and had thicker copper cores allowing faster transmission speeds.

With the Civil War over, Field incorporated a second company to raise funds for the 1865 attempt. He chartered the largest ship in the world at the time, the SS Great Eastern, which could carry the entire Atlantic cable. Huge salt-water tanks and other state-of-the-art machinery were fitted to ensure it remained in mint condition during its journey. All went well until, in heavy wind 600 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the cable rubbed on the side of the ship, snapped and plunged to the inaccessibly deep ocean floor.

Not one to quit, Field vowed to return the following year. This final expedition passed without a hitch and the cable was put into commercial service on 28 July. One month later, the 1865 cable was successfully brought to the surface and repaired, providing a second Atlantic telegraph link.

Word from the Missing, James Clarke Hook, 1877. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

Cultural ramifications

The service had obvious and immediate impact. Governments and the military were able to respond more swiftly to evolving situations. News travelled faster, speeding up trade and boosting businesses. It also had an almost inestimable effect on more equivocal things such as family life and cultural ties. Emigration, for example, no longer meant losing touch with family at home.

The roller-coaster of cable-laying highs and lows between 1857 and 1866 caught the imaginations of a generation; the way the space race did in the 20th century. There was huge public interest in the endeavour and in telegraphy more generally. The fortunes of the telegraph companies were followed closely. Telegraphic science was reported widely in the newspapers. Discussions of the pitfalls and solutions to spanning the Atlantic with cable had become everyday conversation fodder. Government enquiries, lectures at the Royal Institution, and endless articles in the popular press kept the cable project in people’s thoughts.

Evening, William Ayerst Ingram, 1898.

The Atlantic telegraph changed our minds. It changed the way people thought about the world and their place in it; becoming preoccupied with ideas of distance and transmission, the coding of their messages and resistance. And this was as true of artists and writers as it was of scientists and engineers. The Conversation

While engineers with micrometers pursued precision in order to accomplish large-scale projects (such as the telegraph itself), painters similarly turned to tiny details to give a sense of distance and scale – see, for example, William Ingram’s painting, Evening. And where businessmen turned to code books and ciphers to protect their secrets from prying eyes, writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, became preoccupied with encoding clues for their fictional detectives.

Cassie Newland is a postdoctoral research associate at King's College London. She is also an archaeologist and curator of Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy, an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the transatlantic cable, at London’s Guildhall Gallery until 22 January 2017.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.