Before the 1860s, the only way to communicate between Britain and the United States was by mail. Links between the two countries had improved with the development of fast steamships, but considerable delays were still involved. The mid-nineteenth century was, however, the age of the telegraph.
Overland telegraphs in Britain, the US and throughout the world had enabled fast and accurate communication links. Experiments had also shown that cables could be laid underwater: the first submarine telegraph link between Dover and Calais was completed in 1851.
Scientists, engineers and businesses began to consider the possibility of a submarine link across the Atlantic. The distance was daunting: while the Dover-Calais cable was 25 miles long, the easiest route across the Atlantic (between Ireland and Newfoundland) was approximately 1600 miles. Initial surveys were, however, optimistic.
Lieutenant Maury, surveying the ocean bed for the United States Navy, found a plateau “which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a Submarine Telegraph…”.
This initial optimism led to the speedy financing and provision of a cable laying expedition in 1857. Difficulties with the cable and laying techniques led to delays and after the cable was laid it soon failed. An investigation blamed faults in the cable, which was not strong or well-insulated enough for the stresses of cable laying or the conditions on the ocean floor.