Biographies & Memoirs

FIFTEEN

Can’t! Sir, Can’t!

(1856–1857)

FROM THE TIME Morse and Sarah arrived in London, his four months abroad were a personal triumph. He knew that his telegraph had been widely introduced overseas, but the extent came as a surprise. Putting up at Fenton’s Hotel in St. James, he was lionized, “overwhelmed with calls and the kindest and most flattering attentions.” When he visited a London telegraph office he saw his own instruments at work, sending and receiving messages across the Channel to and from Paris, Vienna, and elsewhere on the Continent. He also learned that British telegraph companies were thinking of substituting his system for Wheatstone’s over long internal lines. “Thus the way seems to be made for the universal adoption of my Telegraph throughout the whole world.”

After about ten days, Morse and Sarah moved on briefly to Paris, and a welcome no less heartening. He discovered that France still used a dial system designed by the scientific-instrument maker Louis Bréguet. But it was beginning to be replaced by a modified Morse apparatus, and an international Morse line already served between France and Germany. In a large telegraph office he saw twenty Morse telegraphs all operating at once, “my own children … chatting and chattering as in our American offices.” His friend and advocate Arago had died, but the current head of French telegraphs complimented his system as “the simplest and the best.” And during his stay Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s grandnephew, awarded him one of France’s highest honors, the Légion d’Honneur.

Morse’s journey north toward Denmark brought further homage. Railroad travel on the Continent had greatly expanded since the time when he perforce rode by diligence and vettura. Tracks had been laid or nearly laid from Vienna to Prague, Paris to Marseilles, Venice to Milan. And at the railroad stations, he said, “I found my name a passport.” He bought second-class tickets but got seated in first-class cars; his luggage passed customs with only a show of inspection. Officials at the telegraph stations told him they used his and only his apparatus: “We have tried others, but have settled down upon yours as the best.” At the royal castle in Frederiksberg he was courteously received by Frederick VII, King of Denmark. A thickset man in a blue frock coat, Frederick asked his opinion of the idea of a transatlantic telegraph, which Morse assured him was practicable and certain to be realized. The King later conferred on him the Cross of the Order of Dannebrog, “in acknowledgment of the services you have rendered the world by the invention and successful establishment of the Electrical Telegraph.” A significant honor, membership in the Order was the modern equivalent of a knighthood.

Morse considered his visit to Copenhagen a pilgrimage. He spent several hours at the tomb and museum of Bertel Thorwaldsen, whom he had painted in Rome twenty-five years earlier and still rated as “the greatest sculptor since the best period of Greek art.” The same day he visited the study of “the immortal Oersted.” He sat at the table on which the Danish scientist had observed that a wire carrying a current deflects a compass needle—a discovery, he said, that “laid the foundation of the science of electro-magnetism, and without which my invention could not have been made.” He bought a bust of Oersted at the Porcelain Museum, where by luck he encountered Oersted’s daughter—the living likeness of the bust and of her celebrated father.

From Copenhagen Morse and Sarah proceeded to St. Petersburg. Fifteen years earlier he had offered his telegraph for sale to the autocratic Czar Nicholas I. The Czar refused it, but the Russian government had nevertheless been using his system the entire time—without acknowledgment or compensation. Now St. Petersburg was getting ready for the coronation of Nicholas’ reform-minded son, Alexander II, who in five years would emancipate the serfs. Morse thought the city the most sumptuously splendid he had seen in all his travels, its churches and palaces displaying profusions of gold and pearls, nosegays of emeralds and sapphires.

Through the American minister to Russia, Morse met Alexander at Peterhof, the luxurious royal estate founded by Peter the Great, seventeen miles from St. Petersburg across the Gulf of Finland. Arriving at the Peterhof quay about nine-thirty in the morning, he was drawn in a coach by richly caparisoned black horses to one of the palaces, part of which had been assigned to American guests. He found his name written on the door of an apartment already prepared for him, where servants in gold lace presented breakfast on silver plates. The same afternoon, a coach emblazoned with the imperial double-headed eagle sped him to the Czar’s palace. Passing through a long anteroom lined on both sides by liveried attendants, he joined the deputations for the coronation ceremonies, a glittering company of princes, nobles, and distinguished persons from all over the Continent.

A Master of Ceremonies mustered Morse into a receiving line to meet the thirty-seven-year-old Czar, who wore military costume, a blue sash across his breast. The M.C. identified him to Alexander as “Mr. More.” When Morse repeated the name correctly, the Czar exclaimed: “Ah! that name is well known here; your system of Telegraph is in use in Russia.” Alexander said he hoped Morse enjoyed St. Petersburg; the line moved on, into the drawing room of the Czarina.

Among the forty-seven guests at dinner that evening Morse was seated next to one of the wealthiest noblemen in England and opposite three European princes. Nearby sat the former British foreign minister, Lord Granville, and Prince Esterházy of Hungary, the scabbard of his sword blazing with diamonds. Twenty servants in Imperial scarlet set out every variety of costly food and wine. Morse lingered over coffee before accepting an invitation from Granville to board his steam yacht for a sociable excursion back to St. Petersburg, along with Sir Robert and Lady Peel.

Passionate republican though Morse was, it delighted him to be hobnobbing with royals and bluebloods. His denunciations of them had always conflicted with his reverence for social hierarchy and his aesthetic enjoyment of panoply. And he welcomed their tasteful polite company as relief from the angry turmoil of much of his current life in democratic America—the fractious Abolitionists, the brawling immigrant Irish, the Fog Smiths and Daniel Craigs barking at his heels. He left Russia full of praise for the grandees he had mingled among, the “truly amiable and kind-hearted” Czar and Czarina, the affable and intelligent titled Britishers, “with none of the hauteur which we attach in America, sometimes unjustly, to English noblemen.”

Before leaving St. Petersburg, Morse presented through the American minister a thirty-page petition to the new Czar, setting forth a claim to some compensation for the use of his telegraph. Uncertain about how much to ask, however, he withdrew the petition before it reached Alexander. Instead, he hired an agent to negotiate an indemnity with the Russian, French, and other European governments. The agent, a Paris attorney named Frederic Van den Broek, would receive a third of any sums granted.

Returned to London at the end of September, Morse began serious experiment on the cable—his original purpose in making the overseas trip. His resolve to break off with Cyrus Field and Field’s business associates was not easy to keep. In fact, he worked eagerly to ensure Field’s success, tolerating the ambiguities and indignities of their relationship for the sake of having not only his telegraphs but also himself present at the epochal cable-laying. Two Englishmen joined him for the experiments: Charles Bright, the brilliant twenty-five-year-old Superintendent of British telegraphs; and Dr. Edward Whitehouse, a physician who had given up all other work to devote himself to problems of cable transmission.

Morse and his colleagues took over a telegraph office on Old Broad Street, working at night when the system was not in commercial use. Since the great length of the undersea cable would retard the current, they particularly wanted to find out how rapidly a signal could be sent through. In one experiment, Morse and Whitehouse connected 10 gutta-percha-insulated cables of 200 miles each, making a continuous length of 2000 miles. Using a Morse recording instrument, and working through the night without sleep, they were able to send between 210 and 270 signals per minute—a rate fast enough to be commercially feasible. An insulated cable with a single conducting wire, Morse reckoned, could transmit at least 8 to 10 words a minute between Ireland and Newfoundland, over 14,000 words a day. White-house believed that by changing the signal code an even faster rate could be achieved.

The test results exhilarated Morse: “the doubts are resolved,” he wrote to Field, “the difficulties overcome, success is within our reach, and the great feat of the century must shortly be accomplished.” He accompanied Field in making a business call at the Foreign Office, where they spent an hour discussing the transatlantic venture with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon. The call evidently went well. The British government offered to supply ships for laying the cable, and agreed to pay £14,000 a year for using it, in effect subsidizing its operation for a guaranteed twenty-five years.

Morse’s stay abroad ended a week later, no less triumphantly than it had begun. Several British telegraph companies threw a lavish dinner for him at the Albion Hotel. In honoring Morse they also meant to encourage the friendlier Anglo-American relations implicit in the transatlantic cable. But in three ways the occasion was touchy. Within living memory, British troops had burned the city of Washington. Cultural warfare still raged, too, over the priority and comparative virtues of Morse’s system and Charles Wheatstone’s needle telegraph. And to preside over the ninety invited guests, the sponsors chose Wheat-stone’s former partner, W. Fothergill Cooke. The partnership had degenerated into a bitter feud. Cooke charged in print that Wheat-stone had stolen for himself the credit for their joint invention. Wheatstone had not been invited to the dinner but remained conspicuous by his absence.

The evening opened with toasts to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and to “The President and People of the United States.” In introducing Morse, Cooke carefully gave him his due and then some, without granting him everything. He observed that England and Europe could claim to have invented the telegraphs used in their countries. But the American version was “conceived, worked out, and perfected” by Morse, “depending on his own scientific knowledge …. He stands alone in America as the originator.” Cheers and laughter followed Cooke’s admission that the simplicity of Morse’s telegraph had brought it into use all over the Continent, “and the nuisance is that we in England are obliged to communicate abroad by means of his system.”

After the downing of three toasts to him, Morse rose to speak, amid loud applause. He acknowledged the awkwardness of the moment. For a long time “part of England” had denied praise or even recognition to American inventions. And British disdain had become “a festering thorn in the hearts of some of the most cultivated in the land” (including, although he did not say so, of course himself). He therefore considered the evening not only a gratifying testimonial to him but also a sign to his fellow Americans of a new British generosity, a new “disposition to show them both justice and honour.” And the Anglo-American telegraph, he declared, would produce “a firmer peace and a better understanding,” even a global solidarity: not “E pluribus unum”—many in one—but “E omnibus unum,” all in one.

London newspapers reported the evening’s events in detail. Many condemned the studied absence of any reference to Wheatstone. One criticized Morse’s dig at the supposed British failure to honor American inventors: “on the contrary, there was a strong disposition in England to give Americans credit for a great deal more than they are justly entitled to.” But generally the London press praised Morse and the transatlantic cable endeavor as healers of old wounds: “The guest at the Albion,” the Times remarked, “has deserved well of the world, and in his generation has done much to advance the cause of human progress. We rejoice to see England and America united in a project so honourable to both nations.”

Morse and Sarah returned home in the late fall. He planned to stay in the United States only about six months, returning to England next spring as “Electrician” for the climactic laying of the cable. The interlude lasted just long enough for his pleasure in his overseas triumphs to evaporate.

F. O. J. Smith was suing again for alleged rights in the extended patent—“the appointed thorn,” Morse called him, “to keep a proper ballast of humility in S. F. B. M. with his load of honors.” But others also questioned his honors, as happened a half-dozen years ago after the Sultan of Turkey made him a Pasha. Under the headline “HAVE WE A KNIGHT AMONG US?” one newspaper reported his receipt of the Danish Order of Dannebrog and razzed him as “Sir SAMUEL.” Another paper reported (correctly) that his grandfather on his mother’s side was an Irishman. He learned that Joseph Henry was preparing a rebuttal to his Defence (Attack!).

The assaults left Morse gloomy, “much depressed in spirits from the state of my affairs.” Czarist St. Petersburg had seated him among princes; monarchical London had toasted him as an agent of human progress. America sued and mocked him, preyed on him with the rapaciousness of a “money-worshipping society,” as America was becoming. For years he had railed at French Louis-Philippe and Austrian Metternich, British abolitionist and Italian pope. But now a woeful thought occurred to him. He might be better off living there himself: there—Europe. “I am sometimes disposed to offer all my property in America for sale at auction, take the proceeds, and retire into some nook of Europe for the remainder of my life.”

Morse sought relief in continuing his cable experiments, “studying & solving problems with the intent of removing all the probable or possible difficulties.” It was no place to seek relief. He learned that Daniel Craig had again been boosting the Hughes telegraph in the press, undermining Amos Kendall’s ongoing negotiations with Field’s American Telegraph Company for the lease or purchase of Morse lines. Kendall pleaded with Morse to give up the idea of going out on the cable-laying expedition. “Your true friends do not comprehend how it is that you give your time, your labor and your fame to build up an interest deliberately and unscrupulously hostile to all their interests and to your own.”

Morse still hoped that the Hughes-Craig-Field connection might prove to be illusory or benign. He inquired about it again in a seventeen-page letter to the wealthy industrialist-inventor Peter Cooper, Field’s partner and president of American Telegraph. Cooper’s eighteen-page reply was in a sense balanced: half reassurance, half threat. He reaffirmed Field’s promise that the company had bought the Hughes telegraph only to prevent others from using it against Morse. Having said that, he lectured Morse about standing in the way of progress in telegraphy:

it is our wish, and it should be yours, to encourage improvements in all the machinery requisite to facilitate this most wonderful mode of rapid communication regardless of any and all selfish or merely personal considerations.

Next Cooper denied that the company had any connection to Daniel Craig. Having said that, he denied that it had any responsibility to counteract what Craig wrote:

we have been wholly unable to appreciate the propriety and more especially the necessity of the American Company’s coming out publicly in the newspapers as you have desired, and disclaiming his unsolicited sayings or doings in favor of our Company or its interests.

Finally Cooper reassured Morse that the directors of American Telegraph were his “best friends.” And having said that, he insisted that friends or not they would go on acquiring a network of lines to connect to the transatlantic cable: “Their progress is onward: they cannot if they could stand still, nor can they go backward.”

A few days later, Morse learned that Cooper meant what he said. He read in a New York newspaper that, in competition with the Morse New York–Albany–Buffalo line, Field’s group had contracted with the Harlem Railroad to build a line along the train route between New York and Albany, using the Hughes telegraph. Astonished, Morse immediately wrote to Cooper again: “I am most reluctant to believe, and will not believe, that gentlemen of the high character which you all hold in the community … are capable of playing with me the deep game of duplicity.” Litigation must follow, he said, unless American Telegraph contradicted the report. And meanwhile his important work on the cable was being disrupted: “I confess, Sir, that I am deeply mortified and much depressed, at the necessity I am under of turning off my mind from experiments bearing upon our Great Ocean Enterprize, to ask for explanations of the most mysterious conduct of those whom I had confidently believed to be my friends.”

But other mysterious doings also needed explaining. While in England with Morse, Field had raised £350,000, nearly $2 million, to form a British partner to American Telegraph called the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The two organizations would join in financing construction of the transatlantic Anglo-American system. Field appointed Morse an Honorary Director and offered to sell him one or more shares, at par.

Field’s non-offer appalled Kendall. Morse surely was entitled to a financial stake in the new British company, without having to buy it. After all, he had given Field free patent rights; at his own expense he had gone abroad to perform valuable experiments on Field’s cable—experiments that continued, also at his own expense. “They have made use of your time, labor, name and reputation in their transatlantic scheme,” Kendall reminded him, “and now … they will allow you to purchase ‘one or more shares’ of their stock ‘at par’!” As Kendall saw it, Field was diddling Morse, taking advantage of his high-minded enthusiasm in the belief that he would demand nothing more solid for his services than honor and praise, membership in another Order of Dannebrog.

Morse thanked Field for the “kind offer” but explained that he had no surplus funds to invest in shares. He inquired politely about what he called “a point of some delicacy”—namely, as he delicately put it, “should there not be something.” What moved him to ask about the “something” was the concern for him of others. Friends asked almost daily how much he stood to earn from the transatlantic enterprise:

I have been somewhat embarrassed in replying that “as yet no interest has been definitely assigned, but I had the promise made verbally to me of my friend Mr. Field that when the company was organized, I should proportionately share with the rest. I am in the hands of friends.” This answer has not always satisfied them; they have remarked, “This is not a business way of doing things.” My reply has been, “Mr. Field’s word is as good as his note.”

Morse’s craven request for “something” was unlikely to waken fear and trembling in a rip-snorting capitalist who had brought back a jaguar from the Amazon. But Morse considered his appeal decisive. It would “bring the whole matter to a head,” he told Kendall: “I shall know definitely how I am to stand in my relations with these gentlemen, and am prepared to cut loose if necessary, at almost any sacrifice.”

Morse’s ever more desperate efforts to stay on good terms with Field strained his bond with Kendall. Impatient, perhaps disgusted, with Morse’s timorous trust in Field, Kendall said it might be best if he gave up his agency and resumed the “sacred obligation” of completing his biography of Andrew Jackson. Morse had suggested as much himself two years earlier, when he told Kendall it might be in their mutual interest to close their business association. But Kendall’s eagerness to now take up the suggestion jangled him. “I fear my ‘bluish’ letters have given you more uneasiness than they ought …. Pray overlook the infirmity.” Without Kendall to protect his interests he could not survive in the marketplace: “you form such a contrast in all your feelings and acts to the cold and selfish and sordid doings of others that were you to withdraw I should truly feel widowed and alone and exposed to the arts of mere men of trade.”

Morse anxiously longed to compose his differences with Field’s company before departing for England to lay the cable. In March, with only a month to go, he met face-to-face with president Peter Cooper, the vice president, and one of the directors. “I wish if possible,” he told a friend, “to avoid rupture with them on all accounts.” The wish was probably intensified by Field’s success, the same month, in getting aid from Washington. Congress voted by narrow margins to grant Field’s company an annual subsidy of $70,000 for the government’s use of the completed cable—equivalent to the British crown’s £14,000. It also supplied two steamships of the American navy to join the British ships in laying the cable. Peter Cooper offered Morse passage to England aboard one of the official U.S. Navy ships.

The offer cannot have diminished Morse’s yearning for a prominent role in Field’s extravaganza. He apparently came away from his meeting with the leaders of American Telegraph willing to believe that Craig was promoting the Hughes telegraph without their blessing and that they had no intention of building Hughes lines. Willing to believe, that is, without exactly believing. In this half-hopeful mood he offered to put aside for a while any request for a financial stake in Field’s new British company. “Whatever claims equitable or otherwise I or my friends may think are just on my part upon the company,” he told Cooper, “let them for the present be waived. I shall not thrust before the company, at this moment when the harmonious action of all is necessary to carry forward the enterprize to a successful result, any private or mere personal object to embarrass our united action.”

Morse did not say so to Field or Cooper, but he revealed to others that despite the concessions and seeming amity, on certain points he remained “not satisfied.” Later on, it might be necessary to call together the directors of the major Morse lines to exchange views on a plan for defense. It could be that Field’s group, he had to admit, “is thinking to swallow us all up.”

As a world-historic event, the attempt to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable aroused an intense, international air of expectancy. Newspapers ran full-page stories headlined “THE GREAT WORK OF THE AGE,” calling the expedition “a voyage more important than any in marine annals since the days of Columbus.” Every feature of preparation became a subject for description and comment, as much so as before the launching of Apollo 11 toward the moon a century later: “where in the annals of the world,” one newspaper asked, “have we the evidence of a stride the one-millionth part as sublime as this in its immensity?”

Morse received extensive notice and credit, especially in the American press—interviews, biographical sketches, engraved portraits. An interviewer for Harper’s Weekly remarked to him that many people doubted the line could be laid: “ ‘Can’t! Sir, can’t!’ replied the venerable Professor, quickly: ‘I have forgotten the meaning of that word. We must succeed.’ ’”

Morse shipped for England aboard one of the vessels contributed by the American government, the steam-and-sail frigate Niagara. Designed by George Steers, builder of the famed clipper yacht America, it was deemed for size, speed, and armament the finest man-of-war in the world. Its huge black hull was 375 feet long and 56 feet wide, its 28-foot engine room housed four boilers, its mighty guns could blast a 270-pound shot four miles with the accuracy of a rifle. Morse greatly liked the “noble” ship. He remained in high spirits during the passage, socializing with the captain and the two Russian naval officers who had come as observers. While he sat having tea in a heavy rolling sea, his table came unfastened, knocking him to the floor and throwing a chair on top of him, painfully bruising his hip and leg: “if we are in the Niagara,” he quipped, “we must expect the Falls.”

After a passage of nearly three weeks, Morse arrived on May 14 at Gravesend in the Thames estuary. The appearance of an American warship in the Thames, and the ship’s mission, drew crowds of visitors day and night as the Niagara awaited the arrival of its British counterpart, the Agamemnon.

A serious problem developed. Plans called for each ship to take on 1250 miles of the cable, which was being produced by two different British manufacturers—one at Greenwich near London, the other near Liverpool. The Niagara’s, great length made it difficult to bring her alongside the wharf in front of the Greenwich cableworks. And other peculiarities of the ship’s design made it impossible to stow the cable properly. Morse saw that the very features of the Niagara that had impressed him also unsuited her: “She is by far too splendid a ship for the purpose.” To overcome the problem, the Niagara’s, interior would have to be cut up and reshaped. The ship was sent to Portsmouth, where workmen began breaking partitions and taking down staterooms. Instead of returning to the Thames, the Niagara would then go to Liverpool to receive cable.

Despite the setback, it excited Morse to be part of the venture, “rejoiced that I have come out.” The remodeling of the Niagara and stowing of its cable would take at least six weeks. He took advantage of the delay by making an unforeseen business trip to Paris. He had hired an agent to negotiate indemnities from individual European countries that used the Morse system. But while in London he learned that France’s Minister of the Interior had proposed that the French government take the initiative and arrange a joint indemnity from them all.

Morse enthusiastically approved the idea, and went to Paris hoping to forward it. A collective European grant shared in by several countries would be a unique honor, “a distinction never before conferred on an Inventor.” Holding himself as always above vulgar materialism, he treated the amount to be given as a matter of greater concern to the governments involved than to himself. “This is not an ordinary transaction for them; they have an historic character to maintain, and its issue is to stamp that character indelibly on the pages of history.” The logic of Washingtonian aestheticism thus allowed him to hope that the nations of Europe would contribute handsomely to the indemnity—not for his sake but their own: “A petty sum would not satisfy the world, however willing I might be to accept whatever they shall deem just and proper to give.”

To reinforce the French efforts on his behalf, Morse published while in Paris a twelve-page pamphlet entitled A Memoir Showing the Grounds of my Claim to Some Indemnity. It described the spread of his system throughout the Continent, and his thwarted efforts to obtain some financial reward from European governments. “I conceive, however, that this justice will not be withheld,” the pamphlet concluded. “I do not permit myself to doubt that when these simple facts of my case are fairly brought before them, they will honorably and promptly sustain severally their character for justice.” He sent copies to Secretary of State Lewis Cass, asking him to pass them on to American ambassadors in Europe, with instructions to promote the indemnity at court. Prospects looked hopeful, but Morse had become well schooled in disappointment: “My dependence is not on man, but on one who knows the end from the beginning, who will give if it is for his glory, and withhold if it is not.”

Providence in some degree repaid Morse’s trust. Cass forwarded the pamphlets to American ministers in various countries. He told them that if they wished to present Morse’s claims to government authorities, the State Department did not object. But he instructed them to do so unofficially and discreetly, “without putting into jeopardy the dignity of your own government.”

Morse spent the rest of his time in Paris agreeably. He roomed at the American legation, by courtesy of the American minister, with whom he smoked an after-breakfast cigar. He glimpsed the Emperor, noted the universal fashion for carriage-filling crinolines. It dismayed him, however, to hear current opinion about the political strife in the United States. “The European mind,” he found, “is sadly abused by the gross falsehoods of our violent Abolitionists. The Abolitionists have a terrible responsibility for evils they have brought upon the world, the North, the South, and the poor African himself.”

Morse returned to England at the end of June, as the cable was being stowed in the American and British ships. The huge Niagara lay near Liverpool, anchored in the Mersey, but even after its alterations could not draw near enough to the cable factory for direct feeding. At considerable expense the cable was being ferried to it from shore aboard auxiliary ships. The British man-of-war Agamemnon lay moored about two hundred yards from the dockside factory at Greenwich, near London. Cable was being fed to it from the factory yard, drawn over pulleys fixed on intervening, pontoon-like barges, and packed into the ship’s hold in one vast coil. This massive operation proceeded at the rate of about two and a half miles an hour, some sixty miles a day.

Morse and his fellow electrician, Dr. Edward Whitehouse, worked in Greenwich, testing the cable aboard the Agamemnon. The cable consisted of seven strands of thin copper wire, sheathed in three layers of insulation and protection. First the wires were coated with gutta-percha, making a tube about half an inch in diameter. The tube was then wrapped in tarred yarn. Finally the layer of yarn was encased in protective spirally wound iron wire. The resulting cable weighed just under one ton per mile and was ropelike—light and flexible enough to be tied around the arm. Morse and Whitehouse tested the cable each day as it was being stowed, by sending signals through its entire length. They used a 24-plate zinc-silver battery, and handsome Morse instruments made by the Berlin electrical engineer Werner Siemens. Michael Faraday stopped by one day, and seemed “quite delighted” by the stowing operation, Morse said.

The directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, Field’s British partner, consulted Morse about a proposed change in strategy for laying the cable. The original plan called for the Niagara and the Agamemnon to depart from Ireland together, each bearing one half of the cable. They would proceed to the mid-Atlantic, where the two halves would be joined. One ship would head back to Ireland, paying out cable. The other ship, paying out cable, too, would head in the opposite direction toward Newfoundland, where a land-and-water line to the United States was now in operation. Under the proposed new plan, the ships would leave Ireland together, but the Niagara would begin at once laying cable to mid-ocean. There its end would be joined to the cable on the Agamemnon, which would lay the rest of the cable to Newfoundland.

Morse met with the directors at the elite Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall. Dining elegantly on Aiguillettes de Canetons and Caille Bonne Bouche, he recorded the names and titles of those present, including several MPs, the mayor of Montreal, and the Lord of the Admiralty. He believed that under the new plan it would take longer to lay the cable, raising the risk, as fall approached, of encountering stormy weather. He nevertheless recommended the plan because it made ship-to-shore communication possible over the entire distance. The progress of the expedition could be continually reported to the company in London. And the working of the circuit could be continually tested all the way from Ireland to Newfoundland. He submitted two lengthy statements on the proposed change, which the company featured in a pamphlet, Reports and Opinions in Reference to the Selection of the Best Point for Laying the Cable.

The new plan was adopted. The revised schedule called for the Agamemnon to leave Greenwich late in July and meet up with the Niagara in Queenstown, Ireland, where both ships would take on coal and be joined by escort ships. From Queenstown the ships would steam together to the island of Valentia, where a cable-end aboard the Niagara would be attached to a telegraph onshore. Then the squadron would set out across the Atlantic, the giant American frigate paying out cable behind it.

Morse reboarded the Niagara in Liverpool, where he spent a Sunday with brother Sidney and his family, then traveling in Europe. When the American vessel left Liverpool harbor, British tars in the rigging of nearby warships cheered, flags of other nations dipped in salute, cannons fired, crowds on the quays waved handkerchiefs. Next day the Niagara reached Queenstown, picturesquely set on green hills overlooking the Cove of Cork, “one of the most beautiful harbors in the world,” Morse thought. The Susquehanna, the largest paddle steamer in the American navy, dropped anchor close by, having been ordered from the Mediterranean to serve as an escort. Two days later the Agamemnon arrived from London with its British tenders Cyclops and Leopard. A steamer plied all day between the assembled British-American squadron and the shore, filling the streets of Queenstown with rambling sailors, and the ships with inhabitants of Queenstown and Cork—“wildly enthusiastic,” reported a Queenstown correspondent: “This country is now filled with some of the most distinguished scholars and philosophers in the universe, all having in view the ambition of being eye witnesses of the grandest undertaking history can record.”

On July 30 Morse performed an important experiment. With the Niagara and the Agamemnon lying a few hundred yards apart in the harbor, the two 1250-mile halves of the cable were to be temporarily joined, to test whether the line functioned through its entire length. Climbing down the side of the Niagara, Morse stepped in and out of a pontoon of several small boats, making his way toward a tug that carried the span of connecting cable. The small boats rocked in the rough water. Morse misstepped. His left leg went down between two boats, scraping several inches of skin from near the knee. He had similarly injured his legs several times over the years: in 1830 a fall in Washington had lamed him for six weeks; in 1846 he fell into a coal chute on Broadway, taking off from his leg three inches of skin with some flesh and bone; only recently he had bruised his hip and leg in a heavy rolling sea. A surgeon dressed the wound, leaving Morse mobile enough to assist in connecting and testing the cables. To his great satisfaction a signal sped through the 2500 miles in half a second.

Morse’s injury confined him to his berth on the Niagara for about three days, lying on his back. He emerged on August 4, when the ship steamed into Valentia, an island of neat cottages on gently sloping hills in the far southwest corner of Ireland, two and a half miles from the rock-bound coast. He delivered a speech at a public breakfast, at which the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who had come down from Dublin, pronounced the venture a consummation of the voyage of Columbus and prophesied an end to European bloodshed.

Next day Morse stood beside Sidney on Valentia to watch the cable on the Niagara being attached to a telegraph on the mainland. The bay was studded with small craft and yachts. Some two thousand persons who had gathered from all over Ireland huzzahed from shore. As they all looked on, sailors carried the cable by hand through the surf, depositing it in a trench dug in the sandy cove. The sailors brought the end into a tent temporarily erected to house the batteries and other telegraphic instruments. The connection was secured and tested both ways from ship to shore, communication passing freely.

Landing of cable from the Niagara (Illustrated London News, August 22, 1857)

Morse left no record of his reaction to the public observances that followed. But given his view of Irish immigrants to America as little less odious than savages, he could not have been pleased. The people of Valentia island had suffered fearfully during the famine of the late 1840s, hundreds dying of starvation. The Lord Lieutenant—Queen Victoria’s representative—received twelve cheers when he reflected on how many Irish families had left the country and found “hospitable shelter” in America. Cyrus Field had joined Morse aboard the Niagara, and he too spoke, promising that if any Irish came to his door across the Atlantic, they would have “a true American welcome.” The evening’s festivities included a ball, a bonfire of peat piled two stories high, and a dinner attended by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kerry.

Early next morning, August 6, the Niagara, the Agamemnon, and their escort ships headed out over the Atlantic, close enough together to hear each other’s bells.

News that the historic squadron had set off arrived in America by August 18, creating thrilled expectation. “The attention of the whole world,” the Herald reported, “is now fixed upon the movements of that small combined fleet of American and English war steamers … every ship of which will be memorable for all time.” What might be the content of the first transmission? Cyrus Field had received a letter from President James Buchanan, saying he would be honored if the first transatlantic message came from Queen Victoria to him. Morse decided that if he were allowed to send the first message, it would consist of two scriptural texts: “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace and good will to men …. Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be all the glory.”

An immense coil of 130 miles of cable dominated the Niagara’s, deck, even larger coils lying below. It stood amidst what Morse described as a bewildering mass of other equipment, some of which would be dumped before the ship reached mid-ocean: “steam-engines, cog-wheels, breaks, boilers, ropes of hemp and ropes of wire, buoys and boys, pulleys and sheaves of wood and iron, cylinders of wood and cylinders of iron, meters of all kinds—anemometers, thermometers, barometers, electrometers,—steam-gauges, ships’ logs.” Equally prominent on the ship’s deck was the paying-out machinery: four massive iron wheels, about six feet in diameter, deeply grooved to support the cable.

The squadron had moved out barely five miles from Valentia when the cable caught in the paying-out machinery and snapped. The mishap forced the Niagara to turn around and reanchor in the bay so that the broken ends could be lifted from the water, spliced, and reinsulated with gutta-percha. Morse tested the splice the same afternoon and informed the ship’s captain that the electrical connection performed Cross section of the Niagara, ca. 1855 (New-York Historical Society) well: “not likely again to occur,” he noted. But departure was delayed a full day.

When the Niagara steamed out again, on August 8, it did so at no more than two miles an hour, going slowly to avoid another accident. Over the next few days the ship and crew would face three critical moments. The shore end of the cable was a sort of eight-mile-long tail, deliberately made thicker than the main cable to withstand the rocky bottom of the coast. Soon the vulnerable connection point between the heavy tail and the much lighter main cable would pass through the paying-out machinery. About a day later, the first, on-deck coil of cable would run out and have to be replaced, its work taken over by a second coil, belowdecks. And after that the Niagara would begin making its way through much deeper zones of the Atlantic.

Cross section of the Niagara, ca. 1855 (New-York Historical Society)

Operations resumed on the 8th, but without Morse. His activities in Valentia had so much inflamed his injured leg that the Niagara’s, surgeon restricted him to his berth. He could not sleep that night, kept awake by the ruckus overhead of the paying-out wheels, scrunching like jumbo coffee grinders. He sensed, too, that the juncture was near—the point where the shore cable, weighing 18,000 pounds per mile, was spliced to the nine-times-lighter main cable. Soon he heard the machinery stop. Then voices, one saying, “The cable is broke.” The unequal sections had come apart. Prudently, care had been taken to buoy up the end of the shore cable so that, by bright moonlight in the moderate sea, the connection was repaired in half an hour: “the joyous sound of All right’ was heard,” Morse noted, and “the machinery commenced a low and regular rumbling.”

For about the next twenty-four hours the Niagara steamed smoothly through the pea-green water, uncoiling cable day and night at the rate of three miles an hour, in fine weather. Telegraphic communication was kept up continually with Dr. Edward Whitehouse at the station in Valentia.

The morning of August 9, a Sunday, brought the “critical point of change,” as Morse called it. The Niagara had almost completely paid out the first (and smallest) of its five coils, some 120 miles of cable. Coil two had to be fed onto the wheels from beneath the deck—a worrisome moment when the cable might kink. But as the last loop of coil one unfurled, the captain slowed the ship slightly. The crew handled the slack cable deftly, and in two minutes made the changeover without accident. The new cable came up uncrinkled from the hold, unwound itself easily, and passed through the machinery over the stern into the sea.

Morse telegraphed to Whitehouse onshore: “214 miles out. All well. Beautiful day. Every thing going right.” His leg apparently improved, he attended Sunday services on deck, impressed anew with the workings of Providence. “The more I contemplate this great undertaking, the more I feel my own littleness, and the more I perceive the hand of God in it, and how he has assigned to various persons their duties, he being the great controller, all others his honored instruments.”

Next day provided the third and more critical test of control. The Niagara had passed beyond the shallow waters of the coast. Paying out cable at an increased rate of five miles an hour, the ship was approaching a point where the ocean floor gradually dropped to about 400 fathoms, then suddenly fell to 1700, then to 2050—nearly the greatest depth of the Atlantic over the entire route. The paying out would have to be closely watched: increased depth tended to accelerate the flow of cable.

Morse was lying in his berth at six o’clock that evening when he heard alarmed voices calling “Stop her! Stop her!” Going up to the deck he saw the cable, fallen off the feeding wheel, running out at great speed. In the confusion a cool-headed engineer managed to halt the surge by using ropes. But the cable strained so mightily it perspired drops of tar.

About three hours later, telegraphic communication with shore suddenly went dead. Morse speculated that the strain to which the cable had been subjected after it fell off its wheel had split open the gutta-percha, destroying the insulation. For two and a half hours he tried without success to send a signal. With the circuit defunct there seemed nothing to do but cut the cable and wind back all of it that had been laid. The decision to do so was no sooner made, however, than the electrical current again came alive. No one could explain how or why.

The two crises, only a few hours apart, left behind them an atmosphere of foreboding. And at about three-forty-five in the morning, the cable began racing out again, this time over the feeding wheels. The paying-out machinery was equipped with brakes to slow or halt the flow. As Morse recounted what happened next, the chief engineer of Atlantic Telegraph, Charles Bright, ordered the application of an extra hundred pounds of braking force. The brakeman questioned the wisdom of his order, but Bright had designed the paying-out machinery himself and he persisted.

As the Niagara steamed on, the length of cable on its deck was stretched taut. Held by the brake, it pulled against the hundreds of tons of cable lying on the ocean floor behind the ship. The already rending tension increased as the Niagara’s, stern rose and fell in the moderately heavy sea. “Such circumstances,” Morse wrote, “would have parted a cable of 4 times the strength. Hence it is no wonder that our cable subjected to such a tremendous & unnatural strain should snap like a pack thread.”

One end of the broken cable swung loosely over the stern. The other end dropped in the Atlantic Ocean and vanished—together with three hundred miles of five-strand, triple-sheathed copper wire. With the sun beginning to rise, everyone aboard the Niagararushed to the deck, gathered in groups, conversed in subdued voices. “I believe there was not a man in the ship,” Morse said, “who did not feel really as melancholy as if a comrade had been lost overboard.”

Also lost overboard was the Columbus-rivaling, God-glorifying Event of the Age. News of the ruinous accident reached America two weeks later, evoking both sympathy and skepticism. Many judged the expedition a noble failure: “When we consider the courage which could undertake this Herculean feat,” the Tribune editorialized, “we are almost as proud of our age as if everything had gone on smoothly, and the lightning were now leaping from continent to continent.” Others found a sobering lesson for Americans: “we cannot but fear that the success so much hoped for, will not be so easily and so readily attained as our always over sanguine people seem to expect.” Some suspected a coverup, wondering whether “the failure of the undertaking was more complete than has been reported, and … there is some disagreeable fact connected with it, not yet given to the public.”

Morse contributed to public uncertainty about the cause of the failure. As he retold the Niagara affair, it was “the fatal mistake of Mr. Bright, which caused the breaking.” His account was published in the Observer, widely quoted, and accepted as authoritative. Scientific American, a popular weekly founded twelve years earlier, repeated in a lead editorial Morse’s condemnation of the “fatal mistake of Mr. Bright” and gibed that “Mr. Bright is evidently not bright enough to lay a telegraph cable.” The young engineer, although barely twenty-five years old, was at least bright enough to have patented two dozen inventions, and to defend himself. He wrote to Morse denying that he had ordered any change in the force of the brakes. “I gave the man at the brake no orders to alter the adjustment,” he said, “nor did he demur to any, nor make any such observation as you allude to.” The accident occurred, he insisted, while he was in the electrical room belowdecks.

In fact, Morse’s accusations against Bright were irresponsible. At the time the cable ruptured, Morse was in his berth, confined there again by his leg injury. His report of the braking incident represented not what he saw and heard, as he implied, but what others told him. After Bright challenged his hearsay narrative, he publicly acknowledged through the Observer that he had not witnessed the “fatal mistake.” He had given his account in a private letter, he said, and had not intended it for publication. With this embarrassing admission he dropped the matter, although he still suspected Bright. He told a few correspondents—“entre nous,” he said—that Bright’s official report contradicted his public statements. “As I wish not to engage in controversy on the subject, I shall let others find this out.”

Morse remained on the Niagara as it steamed to Plymouth, flags at half-mast, there to await instructions from the Atlantic Telegraph Company. His leg injury proved to be far worse than he had thought. He had not simply abraded the skin below his knee, but had also bruised the bone. With the Niagara anchored in Plymouth harbor he was forced to stay in bed on his back, unable to sit up without pain.

After two weeks he managed to go up on deck, where he lay on some netting to watch target practice by warships anchored in the harbor.

Meanwhile the company’s directors met in London to discuss what to do next. Should they order new cable and immediately try again? Should they first improve the paying-out machinery? The company asked Morse to attend their meetings, but being hobbled he offered his views in a letter. He advised them to put off a second expedition until next year: with fall weather coming in, the Newfoundland coast would be blustery. Still convinced that no insurmountable obstacle existed, he reminded the directors that misfortune was to be expected in any great enterprise. The failure of the first trial provided a lesson in how God dispenses all things for good; it should be seen as “a providential interference to ensure final success.” For much had been learned from the attempt, and a postponement would give time for further experiment and more learning.

Having sent his recommendation, Morse waited impatiently to hear from the directors about their plans. Again and again they promised he would have their decision “tomorrow”: “So it goes; to-morrow, and to-morrow, but to-morrow never comes.” As it happened, the directors were deluged by advice and proposals, including an offer from a clairvoyant to divine the undersea location of broken cables. After more than three weeks in Plymouth harbor, Morse still had heard nothing from the company. Others on the Niagara grumbled, too: the alterations of the ship compelled officers and men to sleep, wash, and dress wherever they could. Increasingly restless, and longing to see Sarah and their children, Morse decided that if his slow-healing leg improved enough he would simply up and leave.

News from home deepened Morse’s frustration. A letter that Kendall had written from America six weeks earlier caught up with him. It described meetings in New York of representatives from the principal Morse lines, to work out a union for mutual protection. Members of such an alliance might pledge, for example, to connect their lines only with each other. Cyrus Field had attended the meeting before sailing to London to join the cable squadron.

Kendall gave Morse an unnerving report of Field’s behavior. In a “defiant tone,” he wrote, Field declared that his American Telegraph Company would not enter the union unless the other members purchased from him the patent for the Hughes telegraph, for $60,000. Field also alluded to the power his group would have by its exclusive connection to the transatlantic cable. It seemed evident to Kendall that Field hoped to divide the Morse companies and prevent them from uniting, weakening them so that they could not stand in the way of his ambitions. “This conviction is a serious drawback upon the satisfaction I should feel at the success of the Atlantic Cable,” he told Morse. “Indeed, I apprehend the utmost danger to all our Telegraph property from the power which success will place in the hands of these gentlemen.”

Morse was already peeved at Field’s London partners for making him “wait their convenience.” But Kendall’s letter revived all over again the nagging feeling, never put to rest, that for all the promised glory of the cable adventure, it was his duty to disengage himself from it. The owners of Morse lines had dealt honorably with him, and he could not act equivocally toward them: “I shall do nothing that can lead them justly to charge me with doing anything adverse to their interests.” Still, he meant not to act hastily and hoped there might have been some misunderstanding.

The second week in September, after a full month of waiting, Morse at last heard from London. As he had advised, the Atlantic Telegraph Company decided to put off a new expedition about six months, until the spring. For the present, the Niagara would unload the thousand miles of cable still in its hold at a dockyard in Plymouth harbor—a labor, Morse foresaw, that could keep the ship there until November. He had hoped to take the “noble” warship home again, but given the possibly two-month-long wait he settled on the steamer Arabia.

Morse was accompanied on his passage home by Cyrus Field. His feelings about Field had grown more conflicted than ever, a welter of affection, distrust, respect, and dependence permeated with guilt over compromised loyalties and the shame of self-betrayal. He looked forward to soon joining Field on the second cable-laying endeavor. Nevertheless, during the voyage he brought up his “great uneasiness” over the letter from Kendall. He asked blunt questions. At the New York meeting of representatives from the Morse companies, had Field used “defiant language”? Was there some “intrigue” afoot to prevent a union among the companies? Would the cable be open to all the established Morse lines? Field denied the charges and assured him that the negotiations for an alliance were “going on favorably.”

A little relieved, Morse offered to help Field secure government aid for the new cable attempt by composing a public endorsement, explaining why he expected it to succeed. Kendall’s report had an effect, however. Morse said he would write nothing until he had investigated the situation and become “properly posted upon the state of affairs at home.”

Morse’s 140 fellow passengers included a Quaker, an Episcopalian, and members of other Christian denominations, with whom he enjoyed exchanging views on religious subjects. But as he settled in he found the Arabia wet and dirty, a miserable contrast with the formidable Niagara. And heading across the Atlantic the ship battled gales as fierce as he had ever experienced, twisting crosscurrents that made it near impossible to get about. “Our meals are thinly attended, every one complaining of soreness from such incessant tossing,” he recorded, “the sea every now and then breaks over our bows, and deluges every thing from stem to stern.”

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