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The Atlantic Telegraph Expedition

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1332, p. 222-223.

September 2, 1865


...We now...quote, from the authorised journal of the expedition, a narrative of the subsequent attempts to find and raise the cable, at a depth of 2000 fathoms; the locality being, as stated, in latitude 51 deg. 25 min., longitude 39 deg. 6 min., which is distant 1062 miles from Valencia, Ireland, and 606 miles from Heart's Content Bay, Newfoundland--the nearest parts respectively of the European and American shores. Immediately after the breaking of the cable, Mr. Canning, the chief engineer, resolved to try and pick it up again from the bottom of the Atlantic. This might have seemed a hopeless task:--

"But, then," says Mr. Russell, in his journal, "what would they say in England if not even an attempt, however desperate, had been made? There were men on board who had picked up broken cables from the Mediterranean full 600 fathoms down. The weather was beautiful, and, although there were no soundings, and the depth beneath us was matter of conjecture, it was settled that the Great Eastern should steam ten or twelve miles to windward and eastward of the position in which she was when the cable went down, out with the grapnels and wire rope, and drift down across the track in which the cable was supposed to be lying. Although all utterance of hope was suppressed and no word of confidence escaped the lips, both were treasured in the fancy. The doctrine of chances could not touch such a contingency as we had to speculate upon. And now came forth the grapnels--two five-armed anchors, with flukes, sharply curved and tapering to an oblique, toothlike end, the hooks with which the engineer was going to fish from the Great Eastern for a take worth, with all its belongings, more than a million. The ship stood away some thirteen or fourteen miles from the spot where the accident occurred, and then lay-to in smooth water, with the Terrible in company. The grapnels, weighing three cwt., shackled and secured to a length of wire buoy-rope, of which there were five miles on board (breaking strain calculated at ten tons), was brought up to the bows, and at 3.20, ship's time, was thrown over and 'whistled through' the sea a prey to fortune. At first the iron sank but slowly, but soon the momentum of descent increased so as to lay great stress on the picking-up machinery now rendered available to lowering the novel messenger we were sending down armed with warrant of search for the fugitive hidden in mysterious caverns beneath. Length flew after length over cog-wheel and drum till the iron wires, warming with work, heated at last so as to convert the water thrown upon the machinery into clouds of steam. The time passed heavily indeed. All life had died out in the vessel, and no noise was heard except the dull grating of the wire cable over the wheels at the bows. The most apathetic and indifferent would have sacrificed much to have heard the rumble of the cable again, and esteemed it the most grateful music in the world. The electricians' room was closed, all their subtle apparatus stood functionless, and cell-zinc and copper threw off superfluous currents in the silent chamber of science. Away flew the wire strands length after length--ocean was indeed insatiable--'More!' and 'More!' cried the daughter of horseleech from the black night of waters, and still the rope descended. One thousand fathoms--fifteen hundred fathoms--two thousand fathoms--hundreds again mounting up, till at last, at 5.6 p.m., the strain was diminished, and at 2500 fathoms, or 15,000 feet, the grapnel reached the bed of the Atlantic and set to its task of finding and holding the cable. Where that lay was, of course, beyond human knowledge; but, as the ship drifted down across its course, there was just a sort of head-shaking surmise that the grapnel might catch it--that the ship might feel it--that the iron rope might be brought up again, and that the cable, if across it, might--here was the most hazardous hitch of all--come up without breaking."

...The cable was grappled three times--namely, on the 3rd, the 7th, and again the 11th of August; it was lifted each time a considerable way from the bottom; but the grapnels, ropes, and lifting machinery were not sufficient to bring it to the surface. The different places at which the cable was thus taken hold of were several miles apart. On the first occasion, Aug. 3, the grapnel having been let down overnight as above described, they began to haul in the rope early in the morning:--

"At eight o'clock 300 fathoms were in, and it became evident to all on board that the grapnel was holding on and lifting 'something' from the bottom. And what could that something be but the cable? The scientific men calculated the strain and determined it could not be from the wire rope and grapnel solely, and it could only be inferred then that, as the bottom of the Atlantic is free from rocks here, and as the depth at which the rope began to resist agreed with the supposed soundings, it had really grappled the prize. Presently the spur wheel of the picking-up apparatus broke, and the operation of taking in the rope became dangerous as well as difficult, for it flew up at times with such force as to knock down those near it, and one of the most valuable of Mr. Canning's staff received a severe cut on the cheek, and another had an ugly injury inflicted on his face from that cause. The weather, which had been very thick and hazy, now settled down into a dense fog, and we lost sight of the Terrible; but the conviction that the cable was really once more attached to the Great Eastern, no matter how precariously, and no matter how far off, afforded too much cause for congratulation, conjecture, and suspense to allow much room for other thoughts. There was a chance--just a chance--that the cable might be dragged up from the deep; and every hundred fathom of hawser handed in over the bows was joyously recorded, and marked as an additional step in the march of this forlorn hope. The hawser toiled and pulled as if it were a living thing, and struck out at a considerable angle from the bows, as if it were towed by some giant force underneath and away from the steamer. When 500 fathoms were in-board, the most sceptical admitted the cable must be on the iron hooks, and anxiety and suspense rose higher just as the probability of recovering the cable became less wild. But at 3.20, ship's time, all our fears and hopes were abruptly ended. The drum flew round rapidly, the tail of the rope flourished in the air as it flew in-board, and with a light splash the other end dived into the Atlantic. One of the iron swivels had yielded to the strain. The rope used was divided into lengths of 100 fathoms, each having a shackle at the end with a heavy iron swivel. The head of the bolt of one of these had been drawn right through the iron collar as 900 fathoms had been secured. Not a moment was lost in deciding what measures to pursue. It was rather encouraging than the reverse to have made the trial so abruptly concluded; for it was demonstrated that the grapnel could pick up the cable in more than 2000 fathoms, and the only question now was whether the wire rope, or the cable itself, would bear the purchase and weight of hauling up from such vast depths. There was wire rope enough left to make another attempt to save the cable. It was resolved that the best course to pursue would be to steam to a point two miles eastward of the extreme end of the cable, so as to have only a mile or so of cable to lift up in the bight when the ship drifted over it, as the broken part would, it was hoped, in coming up on the grapnel twist round the other portion of the cable. Captain Anderson prepared to run fourteen or fifteen miles back, and drift down as nearly as possible across the line of the cable. A fog came on that afternoon, and the Great Eastern lay for the night in a smooth sea. Next day she drifted thirty-four miles, which, with twelve miles steamed, made forty-six miles from the position where the cable parted. It was resolved to make a raft on which to place a buoy to slip over with 2½ miles of the cable itself attached to a mushroom anchor, as soon as we had reached the spot where they had grappled the cable the day before. When the Great Eastern arrived at the place estimated she dropped the buoy, which has a red flag above a black ball fastened to the staff and anchors, and steamed off again. The fog continued all next day and the day after, so that nothing could be done; the ship still drifted about. On Monday, the 7th, between eleven and twelve o'clock, the weather having cleared, the grapnel, with 2500 fathoms of cable, was hove over. We again quote the journal:--"So much was the machinery improved that the grapnel was only half the time in reaching the bottom, and very soon the diminution of the strain on the dynamometer showed that it was resting on the ooze. The day turned out most favourable, a steady breeze from the north drifting the ship towards the cable at the rate of a mile an hour, broadside on. At noon excellent observations were taken, which put our position at lat. 51.27, long. 38.42. For several hours the grapnel dragged the bottom without obstruction, the dynamometer indicated a varying resistance to its progress. At 6.15 the strain increased from 45 cwt. to 48 cwt., and soon began to rise steadily towards 55 cwt., and thence to 60 cwt. Presently the anxious eyes which were fixed on the compass and on the head of the Great Eastern observed a very slight tendency in her head to come round to the wind. It was slow--very slow indeed. The ship seemed loth to notice the influence to which she was becoming plainly subjected, disdaining the feeble clue which solicited her attention to the labyrinth of cable beneath; but in an hour and a half she came round from S. ½ S. to E. ¾ N. The strain was greater every moment. There could be no longer any doubt. The cable was caught again. Here was a triumph of seamanship and perseverance. The ship's head was brought round to the wind by the screw, and the capstan engine was set to work to aid the new machinery of the picking-up gear to haul up the cable. The strain ran up to 66 cwt., and at eight p.m. the ill-fated machinery broke down at the bow, and a slight delay occurred, but the main part of the waste being transferred to the capstain [sic] , the rope was steadily hauled in at the rate of 150 fathoms per hour." At half-past eleven 300 fathoms were hauled in. All seemed going on hopefully till next morning. Between five and six a.m. the dynamometer rose from 82 cwt. to 85 cwt., and thence to 87 cwt., and it was calculated that the grapnel with the cable was then rising from the bottom. The rope had come on steadily at an average of 150 fathoms an hour during the night:--"At 7.30 a.m. there was a strong expression of confidence in our success, and great gladness on board. The one mile mark was hauled in, and we had demonstrated the fact that a ship could pick up a cable in 2500 fathoms of water and pull it one mile from the bottom. The cable was now suspended 1500 fathoms, or one mile and a half below us in ocean. We had signalled the good news to the Terrible. In an instant more, whilst our flags were still flying, all was over. One of the shackles and swivels which join each length of wire rope to the other had come over the bow, had passed over the drum, and was in the third round of rope taken in by the capstan, when the head of the swivel-pin gave way, and quick as lightning, the end flourishing the iron shackle like a mailed fist in the air right and left, as if menacing with death the hardy enemy who dared stand in its desperate way, glanced aloft and leapt exultingly into the sea, to join the cable and the 1500 fathoms of wire rope which still hung from the grapnel. Now all these shackles and swivels had been examined minutely before they were put over, and every care taken to prevent the recurrence of accident which had already frustrated our exertions. The work was of Brown, Lennox, and Co.--no better names; the strain was not near that put down as the breaking point, and yet there was the painful result. The news was signalled to the Terrible, and her answer had not long been flown when her boat put off with Lieutenant Prowse to learn what course we were about to pursue. At 9.50 a second buoy, secured on a raft and casks, was lowered with 2500 fathoms of telegraph cable moored to a broken spar wheel. It carries a black ball at the end of a staff, and below the ball floats a flag, red, white, and red, in three horizontal bars. The buoy floats low, and has been let go as close as possible to the spot where the grapnel rope sank. If these buoys do not break adrift, they will be of great service when a renewed attempt is made to lift the cable."

...These two buoys...are about ten miles apart. The one...(that most deeply sunk in the water) is moored with nearly two miles and one third of the electric telegraph cable attached to the "mushroom anchor," and marks, as nearly as could be calculated, the spot where the Atlantic cable broke and sank on the 2nd of August. This buoy was lowered in lat. 51 deg. 28 min., long. 38 deg. 42 min....on the 4th of August; and it bears at the top, in white letters, the word "Telegraph. No. 5." The other buoy...was moored on the 8th of August, and marks the spot where the wire hawser used for the grapnel broke on the second occasion of the attempt at grappling the cable. As the buoy first put down had been found to sink low in the water, though based upon three tiers of timber logs, on the occasion of launching the second buoy, the raft was made larger; and four barrels, securely bunged, were lashed to the angles of the raft, giving thereby greatly-increased buoyancy and height out of the water. The flag of the first buoy is scarlet and the ball is under the flag. The flag of the second buoy has three bars--scarlet, white, and scarlet--and the ball is over the flag.

The next day was employed in readjusting and fortifying the picking-up machinery and the grapnel tackle. The anchor capstan was enlarged and strengthened also, with huge beams of oak and an iron casing all around it, forming a huge drum of twice the diameter of the ordinary capstan, for winding in the wire rope and great hawsers more rapidly than they could have been wound on a less diameter; while the "slack" was to be taken from this drum as fast as it accumulated, and passed along a line of men to the place where it was to be coiled on deck....

Page 223

A party of the men on deck, near the bow end of the ship, arrang[ed] the coils of rope previous to lowering the grapnel for the last time, on the 11th of August. It had been lowered the day before, but had failed to catch the cable. The rope and grapnel having been hauled back next morning, preparations were made for the next and final attempt.

"All the damaged rope was rejected and repaired, as far as the means at the disposal of Mr. Canning permitted. A line, consisting of 1600 fathoms of wire rope, 220 fathoms of hemp rope, and 510 fathoms of Manila, was prepared and carefully examined, of which 1760 fathoms was pronounced good, the rest being rather suspicious. At 7.25 a.m. the Great Eastern was alongside No. 2 buoy, the Terrible in company. At 11.30 the Great Eastern signalled the Terrible, 'We are going to make a final effort,' and then, 'We are sorry you have had such uncomfortable waiting.' The ship's head being W. by S., and the buoy No. 2 bearing E. by N. about two miles, the grapnel was let go at 1.56 p.m., Greenwich time. The wind would drift the Great Eastern to N.E., right across the cable, and fore and aft canvas was set to overcome the current. The grapnel soon touched the bottom, as the new machinery enabled the men to pay out the rope at the rate of fifty fathoms a minute. For some time the ship drifted onwards, but at 3.50 p.m., ship's time, the strain on the rope rose to 60 cwt. as it came in over the bows, though it was taken easily by the new capstan improvements effected by Mr. Clifford. The ship's head varied from W.N.W. to W. by S., and as the rope came in the screw was set quietly to work at times to keep it to the wind, which had increased somewhat, accompanied by showers of rain. The dynamometer index rose higher and higher, till it reached 80 cwt., and once, as a shackle came through, the machinery flew up to 105 cwt. It was a certainty that the Atlantic cable had been caught for the third time, and was fast held in the grapnel coming up from its oozy bed. Is there need to say that the alternations of hope and fear which agitated all on board reached their climax? There was an intensity of quiet excitement among us, such as men feel when they await some supreme decree. Some remained below; others refused to go forward, where the least jar of the machinery put their hearts in their mouths; others walked in the saloon or upon the after-deck abstractedly. In the bows, Captain Anderson, Mr. Canning, Mr. Clifford, and their men toiled on; and thence came constant signals, through an acoustic tube and whistle, to the bridge to go ahead with the screw, or to stop, as the strain on the dynamometer indicated. Suddenly we heard the whistle and a cry of 'Stop it!' from the bow; and exclamations of grief and regret told us our last bolt had been sped. At 9.40 p.m., Greenwich time, as 765 fathoms had been got in, a shackle on the hemp hawser passed through the machinery, and in a moment afterwards the rope parted near the capstan and flew over the bow with a whistling rush which carried death with it like the march of a round shot. In all the crowd of labourers not one was touched, because the men held onto their stoppers and kept the end straight; but the danger appeared so great, that with the shout 'It is gone!' mingled the eager demand from Mr. Canning and others who rushed to the bow, 'Is anyone hurt?' 'None.' But there lay the cable beneath us once more, buried under coils of rope and wire, to which, in an instant, had just been added 1750 fathoms more. Signal was at once made to the Terrible. Orders were given to get up steam in all haste to leave the disastrous spot."

The return voyage of the Great Eastern has been described. She was lying off Brighton on Saturday week....We earnestly hope that next year, when this machinery will again be put in use, the laying of the Atlantic telegraph will be accomplished with the utmost facility and safety.

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