Scrambled Messages: 150 years of the Atlantic telegraph cable

Great Eastern Arrives in Heart's Content, Newfoundland

The Great Eastern arrives in Newfoundland having laid the first successful Atlantic Telegraph Cable 1866

As an archaeologist you sometimes (if you’ve been very good) find yourself visiting far-off shores to explore new and exciting landscapes and find cool stuff. Sometimes (if you’ve perhaps been slightly less good) you find yourself squirreled away in the bowels of an archive, braving the sub-arctic temperatures of the environmental control systems to discover new and wonderful documents. Sometimes, and really very importantly, it’s time to sit down at your computer and share these things with everyone else. That’s what I’m up to today.

For several years I’ve been researching the archaeology of telegraphy; the birth of our global world. Following cables all over the globe, I’ve been looking at what life was like on the far flung and isolated stations, how massive manufacturing industries change towns and villages all over the globe, and what happens when one country is suddenly put in immediate communication with another.

For the last three (nearlyish) years, I’ve been part of the Scrambled Messages project (KCL,UCL,CIA – no not that CIA, Courtauld Institute of Art!) been looking specifically at the four attempts between 1857 and 1866 to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable between London (entering the sea in Valentia, Ireland) and New York (via Heart’s Content in Newfoundland).

The 150th anniversary of the final successful attempt was the day before yesterday (Weds 27th) and the commercial service was begun just yesterday (Thurs 28th). To celebrate this momentous moment (can you have one of those?) I have been live Tweeting the 1866 cable laying exhibition under the hashtag #AtlanticCable150.

I started in March, when the cable was manufactured and have followed the tale as it moves onto boats, on to the Irish sea and then into the laying voyage itself. I’m going to continue to tweet fun snippets until 9 September when the second functioning cable was finished and the project ended.

I’m hoping that by stretching out the celebrations beyond the single day of the landing I can show people a little of the massive and very material operation which surrounds telegraphy projects. I hope the tweets will help connect our modern communications technology with what is arguably the foundation of our interconnected world. Best of all, I get to (virtually) meet loads of other historic cable geeks and swap stories about cool sites, objects and documents!

P.S. We’re running a free exhibition at the Guildhall City of London Art Gallery from September 20th to Jan 2017 to celebrate. All very welcome to come and see what the Scrambled Messages team has been up to.

An Archaeology of Junk Mail (or the unintended biography of Sir Charles Wheatstone)

WS2_3 7b Ad Blank order to Ruabon Coal Co 1871

Today I will be mostly cataloguing images (it’s more exciting than it sounds, honest. Do read on). The 304 images are the backs of the private notes kept by Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone, one of the Nineteenth Centuries greatest electrical pioneers. While this is not the traditional approach to recording the sage words of the famous there is a very good reason for it as I shall explain.

The experience of working with a person’s private archive, their uncensored outpouring of thoughts, generally leaves the researcher feeling closer to the subject of study. There is a distinct notion of ‘getting to know you’. When leafing through papers, pattern recognition (that most human of traits) kicks in and the researcher goes about the largely unconscious business of harvesting fragments of the person from the scraps of text. As informative as they are ambiguous, elements such as writing style, thought processes, influences, demeanour, the things a person chooses to write about or omits are stitched together in the mind of the researcher into a kind of operational humanity.

It can be like making friends (indeed, quite literally). Even if the researcher finds they don’t actually like the person they are constructing, they begin to understand and tolerate them, making excuses for them as you would an eccentric uncle. In fact, the idea of family – an underlying connection that goes beyond knowing or liking – may be the best analogy to the relationship a researcher has with a private archive. The faults and uncomfortable truths are as present as the great deeds. There has been no tidying-up, no sanitising and no hyperbolising.

With all this in mind I found it odd, even worrying, that on my many forays into Charles Wheatstone’s private papers I was experiencing none of this. Where was this man’s voice? The unquantifiable feeling of him? I was so aware of his discoveries and in awe of his work. I was better placed than most to understand both the physics and the intellectual circles in which he moved. I would not miss small connections, overlook names dropped, or misunderstand the importance of that reference at this particular time. In short, I had put all the usual effort into this relationship and had the distinct feeling of being snubbed. Where was he? Charles Wheatstone. He wasn’t a person, just a series of scientific discoveries.

All this is going on in my head at the same time as I’m leafing through his collected notes. Tiny scraps of paper covered in tinier, inscrutable writing.  A lot of it is double sided. Sometimes the content is contiguous, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s written at right angles. Sometimes torn through. Sometimes there is a definite ‘front’, sometimes not. As an archaeologist with a lively distrust of words (lying, terrible things) I’m looking at the scraps of paper as things in their own right. Paper quality, reuse, dating evidence, etc. and I noticed that CW was a horder. He kept everything. Wrote on everything. There were scraps no more than three by four inches. The bottoms ripped from the letters of others. The backs of bills and shopping lists. And piece after piece of advertising.

This man was frugal to the point of kleptomania! He saved all his junk mail. Everything that came through his letter box was roughly ripped, stacked and used as note paper. The backs of things became CW’s external brain. The download area for his ongoing thoughts. Every so often you could see he had a ‘clear-up’, making paper folders to collate his scrappy notes in. And at every one of these tidy-up sessions, more junk mail was employed to create order from the chaos of leaflets, tickets, bills and circulars.

And then it hit me. These weren’t the backs of things. They were just different fronts. The junk mail was doing a different job, telling a different story, that of Wheatstone’s life. As Spuybroek notes the influence of a famous person can be read through the actions of those they came into contact with. And it occurred to me that the junk mail Wheatstone received was a reflection of the type of person other people (his contemporaries in some way) thought he was. Circulars, advertising, solicitations and begging letters, invoices, memos and notes, invitations, compliment slips and receipts, all glimpses into his private life.

And so the piece is slowly growing, the unintentional biography of Sir Charles Wheatstone authored by 304 scraps of paper from the community in which he lived and worked.  It seems to be at the centre of a knot of thoughts, a nexus, doing several things at once. It is adding a much needed personal dimension to the biography of the eminent scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone. It is an exploration of the history of junk mail (something which – amazingly – doesn’t yet exist) and it’s also something perhaps more important. It is an approach to the study of archives which has been rather neglected. What other information lies beneath papers? How many fronts have interesting backs? How do our archiving systems obscure or indeed destroy this ancillary information? Either by its omission from the catalogue or its separation from the all important (for archaeologists at least) original context?

Now, my new project Scrambled Messages sees me based at the English Lit Dept at KCL where I was shocked to discover that context is a dirty word, pertaining to all that is extraneous, all that is background. Within the discipline of course it is perhaps the exact opposite. Context is King. For archaeologists it is all that connects and informs on the materials involved. In this case it would be the wider Victorian society of coal merchants, book sellers, clubs, societies and charities whose work was becoming implicated in Wheatstone’s life. It is also the process by which the paper arrives at his house, the process of making Wheatstone employs to transform it into ‘notepaper’ and the way in which it is stored and deployed by the great man himself. So perhaps this paper I’m working on today will also help to rehabilitate the term context within the wider setting of the Arts.