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Library and Archives - The Importance of a Thimble in the History of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable
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March 21, 2014
The Importance of a Thimble in the History of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable

One of the collections in the IET Archives, rediscovered as a result of the move of the archives out of Savoy Place, is an album of transatlantic telegraph ephemera which contains material from the period 1862 to 1872 (catalogue reference SC MSS 254). The album, titled, ‘Atlantic Telegraph 1865’ is likely to have belonged originally to Sir Peter FitzGerald, the 19th Knight of Kerry (1808-1880). Sir Peter was a Vice-Treasurer of Ireland in the last ministry of Sir Robert Peel and he succeeded his father as an Irish landlord, residing on Valentia Island just off the coast of mainland Ireland.

Valentia is important in the history of the transatlantic telegraph cable as it was the location of one end of the cable that was successfully laid over the period 1865 to 1866 and Sir Peter devoted much of his time and efforts to ensure that the laying of the cable was a success.

The album contains press cuttings, letters, photographs and other paper-based ephemera primarily related to the 1865-1866 Atlantic telegraph cable. There is a significant amount of correspondence with noted politicians of the time such as a letter from William Ewart Gladstone when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, letters from Sir Robert Peel, 3rd Baronet, the Irish Secretary in Palmerston's ministry, and letters from Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe. There is also a significant amount of correspondence and ephemera related to those closely involved with the 1865 Atlantic telegraph cable such as the Atlantic Telegraph Company and officers/passengers on the various ships involved with the cable laying operations.

The relevance of a thimble to the transatlantic cable was mentioned to us recently by a thimble researcher, Anne Jansen, who was made aware of a ‘thimble letter’ contained within the album, having heard about it from Tessa O’Connor at the Valentia Heritage Centre in 1988. A press cutting in the album next to the letter says:-

 “The contents of a lady’s thimble would hardly be expected to constitute a very powerful instrument. They would scarcely have been thought capable of one of the most astonishing feats ever performed by science. The Chairman, however, of the Atlantic Telegraph Company informs us that this little instrument has actually achieved such a feat. By way of experiment, the Engineer of the Company joined the extremities of the two cables which now stretch across the Atlantic, thus forming an immense loop line of 3,700 miles. He then put some acid in a lady’s silver thimble with bits of zinc and copper, and by this simple agency he succeeded in passing signals through the whole length in little more than a second in time.”

The letter in the album, relating to this thimble, is reproduced below;

The letter, dated 12 September 1866 is from Latimer Clark, who acted as an engineer for the Anglo-American Telegraph Company at the time (the engineer referred to in the press article) and went on to become the 4th President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (predecessor of the IET). The letter sent to Emily Fitzgerald, daughter of Sir Peter, says,

“Mr Latimer Clark presents his compliments to Miss FitzGerald and begs to return her thimble with many thanks, assuring her that when containing a little acid and a fragment of zinc, it formed the most efficient battery, and messages were readily transmitted by its means through both the Atlantic cables, even when they were joined together in a loop at Newfoundland, so as to form a circuit 3742 miles in length. Valentia September 12 1866.”

The album contains a small image of Emily next to the letter and the press cutting. The photograph is shown below. 

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Jon Cable
Assistant Archivist
The Institution of Engineering and Technology

Edited: 21 March 2014 at 09:09 AM by Jonathan Cable

   

    Posted By: Jonathan Cable @ 21 March 2014 08:57 AM     Archives  

March 31, 2014

Comments


This is a very interesting re-discovery, as the note from Latimer Clark was thought to be lost for many years. The thimble itself is at the Science Museum (inventory number 1949-177), where it was donated by Emily FitzGerald's nephew, R.B. FitzGerald, in 1949. The donation was reported in the press at the time.

I believe the thimble will be on display at the Science Museum when the new Information Age opens in September 2014.

Bill Burns, Atlantic Cable History Website

 Posted By: Bill Burns @ 31 March 2014 04:00 PM   :  Post a reply

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