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The Atlantic Telegraph Cable

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1322, p. 621.

July 01, 1865


Once more we are upon the threshold of an attempt to link together by means of the telegraphic cable the Eastern and Western hemispheres. That it may issue in permanent success will be the universal wish on both sides of the Atlantic. The experiment made seven years ago has demonstrated the feasibility of the undertaking, for it will be hard indeed if the ground which science won science cannot find means to retain. The compliments exchanged between our gracious Sovereign and the President of the United States, albeit so soon followed by an irremovable obstruction in the line by which they were conveyed, were regarded then as the first fruits of an enterprise destined to unite in closest amity the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon race. That promise was premature. One cannot say that it was without significance--for, like the dove sent forth from the ark which returned to Noah with an olive leaf, so the first message transmitted from the Old to the New World by means of an electric wire was a prophecy that in due time the ocean should practically cease to separate Europe from America. Believing in that "sure word," scientific men have studied with praiseworthy assiduity and perseverance all the conditions of complete success, and, with one exception only, are confident of a favourable result. That exception relates to the weather during the period of laying the cable. Nautical experience has selected what is supposed to be the most auspicious fortnight in the year, and they whose knowledge is best grounded and most reliable assure us that the probabilities of accomplishing the much-desired object reach very near to moral certainty. We shall assume, then, that the Great Eastern, in the capacious hold of which the precious coil has been stowed away in tanks; will, on this occasion, belie her reputation for singular ill-fortune, and will safely "pay out" the cable's length from Valencia to Newfoundland. We shall take for granted that within the present month regular telegraphic communication will be established between the two hemispheres, and that shortly afterwards the London journals will commence a daily summary of the New York news of the day before. We know well enough--and if we did not there are many ready to tell us--that

There's many a slip
'Twixt the cup and the lip;

but we mean to disregard it, and to brave the reproach which matter-of-fact people may deem due to an unauthorised attempt to interpret the future. We wish to indulge in dreams which we are strongly encouraged to believe will, not long hence, be converted into realities; to reason upon a basis which, as everybody must be aware, is as yet hypothetical; to give rein to our thoughts from a starting-point which possibly may never exist. In this matter, however, as in others, we merely act upon the highest attainable evidence; for, unless--which there is not the shadow of a reason for suspecting--we have been greatly misled by the most competent judges, there are more solid grounds for concluding that the cable will be safely laid than that it will not.

What a prospect opens to this generation through that presupposed event! What a cloudland, gorgeous and unsubstantial, it appears in the distance, yet how real, material, palpable, will it prove when we are encircled by, and grow familiar with, its marvellous phenomena! For instantaneous communication between America and Europe means, of course, in its ultimate development, instantaneous communication all the world over. And so we shall have

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daily before our eyes a bird's-eye view of human affairs over the entire surface of the globe, and shall be able to study all nations, as day by day they are making contemporaneous pages of history. They who feel an interest in it may pursue this thought into the yet distant ages of the future. All peoples of all climes, of all stages and varieties of civilisation, of all forms of social economy, political government, and religious culture, virtually in presence of each other, and observant of each other's mutual bearing--why, what can arise out of this but a rapid assimilation of central ideas, and a modification of the lower by the higher types of national organisation? We witness at present but the initiatory stage of the process, and yet the changes it has introduced are wonderful--wonderful even beyond the possibility of conception by our forefathers. But we should fail in our best attempts to realise the vast moral results which must inevitably grow out of intimate contact between mind and mind in every region of the earth. We are unable to imagine the different ways in which a simultaneous knowledge of the same current facts will operate in elevating the general condition, and moulding the more prominent features, of humanity; but we are warranted in the belief that its tendency will be beneficent, its influence ameliorative, its formative virtue progressively more energetic, and its effects in unison with the hopes of those who rejoice to believe in "a good time coming." What was the origin of our race is a problem which sinks into comparative insignificance beside the infinitely more interesting question as to whither it is tending. The discoveries and applications of science, happily, point in a direction consonant with the instinctive yearnings of our hearts; and every new invention of world-wide importance gives us fresh reason for adopting as the motto of the entire human family the word "Excelsior!"

Leaving, however, this widest sphere of speculation, let us restrict our thoughts to the more immediate benefits to England and America likely to follow upon the establishment of telegraphic communication between them. No one doubts for a moment that it will powerfully conduce to international amity, and will be the best possible guarantee for the maintenance of peace. War between civilised nations, and still more between nations allied in blood, in language, and in religion, is seldom the first thought or desire of either when misunderstandings arise. Events hardly ever occur which have power, like a flash of lightning, to set the passions of the public suddenly ablaze. The green wood of material interests underlies the more inflammable elements of our nature, and the fire beneath it needs to be fanned and fed by the rubbish of evil surmises, and misrepresentations, and exaggerations, for a considerable while before national wrath gets kindled. Where the interval between a fancied offence and the true explanation of it is narrowed to a single day, there is not much room left for the play of unworthy suspicions. The spark is trampled out before it takes hold upon what is most combustible in the popular temper--for ignorance and misapprehension of each other's motives is the most frequent cause of quarrel between nations as between individuals.

Peace, however, is but a negative quality, although an invaluable one. There is a more positive result of instantaneous intercommunication to be considered. Those who have carried on large commercial transactions with a distant country are, perhaps, the only persons competent to estimate the uncertainty, the hazard, oftentimes the loss, arising from doing trade upon data liable to change between the time when the state of the market is known and a purchase is ordered or a consignment is made, and the time when the goods arrive at their destination. The interval of a fortnight or even less is occasionally sufficient to change the whole aspect of the undertaking--and the knowledge which is gained by a subsequent mail might, if possessed a few days earlier, have saved many a merchant not merely from torturing anxieties but from sudden bankruptcy. The telegraphic cable, it is true, will not entirely obviate this disadvantage, but it will at any rate diminish it by one half. Values will still fluctuate during the period required for the transit of merchandise, but need not be subject to changes, as now, during the interval which must elapse between the giving and receiving of orders. This is but one illustration of the commercial benefit to be anticipated from the success of the experiment in hand--perhaps the simplest and most intelligible one. Hundreds of a like bearing might be named. The general effect, however, will undoubtedly be a large increase of trade intercourse between the two countries, conducted, moreover, at much less risk, and with much less of that wear and tear of the spirits which suspense so inevitably entails.

Out of increased commerce springs increased amity. People whose mutual interests demand frequent exercise towards one another of consideration, forbearance, confidence, and a regard to honour, get to respect one another, to appreciate one another's excellences, and to esteem one another's character. Let these friendships be multiplied--as they will be by the telegraphic cable--and the ties which will bind the two nations together will be multiplied in the same proportion. Through the medium of those ties and of others, the prevailing sentiment of the two peoples will be every year assimilated, and, by the influence of each upon the other, in accordance with an infallible moral law, will be raised, refined, and sublimated. In this way the telegraph will become a disciplinarian, whose training, because unsuspected, will be the more felt. The novel appliance, as between England and America, will come into play just in time. The civil war is closed: the doom of slavery is sealed. There remains nothing which need divide the one country from the other in feeling. The interests of both are the same: the heart of both may be one. May Heaven grant a propitious season for that part of the experiment which is still uncertain, and may the consequences of success be more important, politically, socially, commercially, morally, and religiously, than the most imaginative among us is able to conceive!

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