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.