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The Diary of the Cable

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1331, p. 181-182.

August 26, 1865


Who has not read it? Whose pulse has not fluttered in unison with the vicissitudes which its brief story exhibits? Who has not uttered a deep-drawn sigh at its mournful close--a sigh, nevertheless, having in it none of that bitterness with which we bury dead hopes out of our sight? What "sensational novel" ever swayed our emotions to and fro as this simple record has had power to do? It has been truly said that "truth is stranger than fiction," and this diary vividly illustrates the remark. Seldom, perhaps, in the annals of civilisation has a mechanical experiment been more graphically described--certainly never has any involved in its issue results of higher importance. As an instance of scientific insight and accuracy it raises our admiration to the highest pitch. As representing a grand and all-but-successful struggle of art

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with stupendous and seemingly invincible obstacles, it has its passages of intensest excitement. But every step of the narrative carries along with it hopes and fears which regard ends of transcendent moment--the linking together, by a kind of mystical marriage-ring, the Eastern and Western Hemispheres; the bringing them into daily presence with each other; and the unceasing assimilation of the one to the other in all that relates to international converse, commerce, friendship, emulation, progress. This as the "consummation devoutly to be wished," the near prospect of which kindled enthusiasm, as from both sides of the Atlantic the experiment was looked forward to; and it is this which, ever in the mind of the reader, imparts to the diary such a thrilling interest.

Well, the failure is one which prophesies success. It is disappointing, but not disheartening. It must needs be accounted an "adversity," but it has its "sweet uses." It has severely rebuked carelessness, but, in doing so, has promised to greater care all that is desired. The prize is too precious to admit of its being given at random. It can be won by desert alone; but then desert will win it. The grand but unfortunate attempt has taught us that, in more senses than one, nothing is stronger than its weakest part. The shackles of the wire-rope to be used for lifting the submerged cable had not been made to bear the strain to which they were subjected, on the presumption, probably, that they would not be required for use. The utmost precaution was exercised in the construction and coiling of the cable, with the single exception that, in splicing it, a few wire ends were allowed to remain in the tanks. Everything was successful which had been duly prepared with a view to success--nothing gave way but that which previous calculation and testing might have forewarned the operators would give way. Science was not at fault. Art was not at fault where it did its best. It has been proved to demonstration that the process of laying a perfect cable across the depths of the Atlantic is not only feasible, but is as capable of being rendered a certainty as any mechanical process whatsoever. Human intelligence has gone up to Nature a third time with its well-studied task, and a third time has been turned down--but this time with a consciousness that every part of it has been really mastered, and that it was prevented from passing only by a slip or two which it can readily guard against in future. Hereafter there need be no peradventure in the undertaking.

After a studious perusal of Mr. Russell's diary we are able to draw up an account of the pros and cons affecting the late, and calculated, if suffered to remain as they are, to affect every future expedition. The facts of an assuring character are both numerous and decisive; those which explain the failure are, happily, few and remediable. The Great Eastern has proved to be thoroughly competent to her work--steady in her course, easily steered, not materially disabled by any changes of weather, and roomy enough to admit of any requisite machinery and to carry with safety the enormous indispensable amount of tonnage. The cable itself is a triumphant success, sufficiently strong to bear its own weight, of the right specific gravity, well fitted when laid to preserve the insulation of its core, and likely rather to improve than to lose its conductivity by deep submersion. The scientific skill of the electricians has been so perfected as to enable them instantly to detect a flaw, and to point out within a mile or so the place in the cable where it will be found. The cable may be safely hauled in when necessary until the fault has been found and rectified, and when the machinery for that purpose has been strengthened and improved as experience suggests will probably do its work with the utmost ease and regularity. Should the cable actually part, its submerged end may be picked up from any depth and lifted once more on board. All these conclusions have been proved by actual trial. Yet the expedition failed. The failure, however, was due to removable causes. Injury to the cable during the process of paying out arose three times from precisely the same cause, and, whether attributable to malicious design or to ignorant negligence, may be certainly avoided hereafter. The repair of that injury on the last occasion of its occurrence was frustrated simply by the fact that the machinery provided for such a contingency had been less scrupulously passed as sufficient than it would have been had it been foreseen that the moment was coming when the success or failure of the whole enterprise would depend upon it. That, also, will be guarded against hereafter. Balancing the known elements of success against the known elements of failure, we are warranted by reason in looking upon a Transatlantic cable as not merely a possibility or a lucky accident, but as a result lying as clearly within the limits of certainty as any human work that is yet future can be. We now know all that has to be provided, and that it can be provided, in order to realise the full extent of our wishes in regard to this matter. We see clearly the whole process by which this most splendid of projects may be converted into an accomplished fact. In missing our way, this time, we have discovered the true way for the next time. The problem is solved. Henceforth nothing remains to be conjectured. Simple obedience to known laws is all that is required.

The elements of success being such as we have attempted to indicate, we congratulate our readers on the fact that the promoters of the scheme have resolved to test them once more by actual experiment. They have lost none of their confidence, nor has a particle of their courage oozed away. What might have been their final determination if the Great Eastern had returned immediately on the severance of the cable can be matter of conjecture only. In that case, possibly, the experiment would have been considered as one surrounded by too many risks to invite repetition, and years might have glided away before another attempt would be ventured upon. Happily, such was not the case. The men to whose conduct the enterprise was intrusted exhausted all their resources before setting their faces homeward, and, in their efforts to recover the lost end of the cable, demonstrated the practicability both of finding and securing it. The most thrilling portions of the diary have proved also the most useful. They record successes just where they were least expected, marred by failures just where they may be surely provided against in future. The effect of them was marvellous in dissipating gloom, in reviving hope, and in inspiring confidence. The various telegraphic companies interested in the completion of the undertaking wisely concluded to resume operations forthwith. Their first intention was to construct all the necessary mechanical appliances and send back the Great Eastern in October to pick up the broken cable, splice it with what remained on board, and finish the work which accident had suspended. On consultation with Captain Anderson, however, they substituted for this plan a much wiser one. The machinery of the Great Eastern needs repairs, the completion of which would delay any resumption of the enterprise until the season was so far advanced as to multiply the risks. It has, therefore, been resolved to wait till May of next year. Meanwhile, a second cable is to be manufactured, which will be laid alongside of the first; and, should the effort succeed, as is confidently anticipated, it is proposed that the Great Eastern shall commence paying out the unexhausted portion of the old line at Newfoundland, make for the spot where the fracture occurred, fish up the broken end, splice it with the newly-laid portion, and so provide the public with two lines instead of one. The details of this plan will very likely undergo some modification; but, in substance, it may be looked upon as adopted.

"None but the brave deserve the fair." Courage, patience, and perseverance are the qualities which Nature most regards in those who woo her. In the end, she evermore rewards them. That they have been and are being conspicuously displayed in the conduct of the present undertaking cannot be denied; that they may ere long receive the prize for which they are striving will, we are sure, be the hearty prayer of all who yearn for the onward and upward progress of the human race.

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