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Before Marconi - The St. John's to New York Telegraph Cable

After Professor Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph system in 1844, the construction of telegraph lines to connect the larger communities in the United States began, the first lines being constructed between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in Maryland. Construction quickly spread to Europe and before long the various countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were serviced with telegraph lines to connect as many communities as possible with the new method of communication.
In 1851, Frederick Gisborne, an English engineer, arrived in St. John's, Newfoundland and proposed to the Newfoundland Government the construction of a telegraph line from St. John's to Cape Ray and a submarine cable across the Cabot Strait to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He organized the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company which was incorporated by an Act of the Newfoundland Legislature. His company was given a monopoly in Newfoundland for thirty years, five hundred dollars, and a grant of crown land in payment for conducting a route survey for the telegraph line along the south coast of the Island. Although the weather was severe and the terrain was rough he completed the survey, but later the same year, with little money to continue the project, he travelled to New York seeking additional capital for its completion. While there, he heard of a cable being laid between Dover in England and Calais in France. He sailed to England and bought a quantity of the submarine cable and returning to Canada laid it between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, the first underwater telegraph cable laid in North America.
In 1853, Gisborne returned to Newfoundland to start construction of a road from St. John's to Cape Ray. It was planned to be 8 feet wide, with bridges over all rivers and streams for servicing the telegraph line when built. After 40 miles of road was completed he went broke. In 1854, Gisborne went to New York where he met with Cyrus Field and Peter Cooper, among others, who became interested in the project.
A new company, The New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company was formed replacing the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company in the project. Despite the rough terrain, poor weather, and the many wolves and bears in the countryside, work continued during the summer and fall of 1854 with six hundred men employed in road building, transporting poles, wire, food and other items by horse and cart from the seashore where it had been ferried from ships anchored offshore. Work was slowly moving from east to west with poles being placed and wire strung between poles at a slow but continuing pace. As this part of the project was continuing, work on the underwater cable across the Cabot Strait was progressing simultaneously.
On August 7, 1855, the S.S. James Adger, which was chartered by the company to lay a cable across the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia, left New York for Newfoundland. On board were Peter Cooper, the chief financier of the project, Cyrus Field and Samuel Morse, along with family members and invited guests. After sailing for three days, on August 10, Captain Turner of the Adger docked the ship at Halifax to replenish the coal supply and take on a pilot who was familiar with sailing in Newfoundland waters. Proceeding on to Newfoundland, the ship arrived in the Cabot Strait on the morning of August 11 with Cape Ray visible in the distance. Sailing east along the coast, they finally arrived at Port aux Basques where they were to meet the barkentine Sarah L. Bryant which had left Liverpool, England on July 3 with cable for the Cabot Strait section of the project. Since the Bryant had not yet arrived, they sailed to St. John's where they were feted by government ministers and business people involved in the project. On their return to Cape Ray they found the Bryant at anchor and work proceeding on "setting up" to lay the cable.
A building to house the Newfoundland end of the cable was constructed in Cape Ray Cove with help from local residents. It contained a wooden post placed six feet in the ground surrounded by a puncheon filled with earth which was rammed into the puncheon to act as a stay for the Newfoundland end of the cable. A box to hold the glass jar which contained the battery mechanism was also built and installed in the house. A trench was dug from the belaying post to the beach to receive the cable when it was pulled ashore. In late August, the cable was landed ashore and secured to the post in the terminal building and the S.S. Victoria, which was chartered to tow the Bryant as it laid the cable toward a point on Cape Breton Island, commenced its work. After laying forty miles of cable a gale struck with such force that the cable was cut to save the Bryant from sinking. The following summer, in 1856, the cable was successfully landed at Cape Breton Island by the S.S. Propontia. The first message to Baddeck, on Cape Breton Island, was received on October 1, 1856.
In 1859, the Associated Press of New York stationed a boat at Cape Race to receive messages from Europe. The messages were thrown over the sides of steamers in watertight containers and retrieved by a waiting motor launch and telegraphed to association members from the telegraph office at Cape Race, decreasing the time for receiving messages from Europe by four days.
In 1856, Cyrus Field organized the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay a submarine cable from Valencia in Ireland to Heart's Content in Newfoundland, but it was 1866 before the first successful cable was landed there by the S.S. Great Eastern. Now the Old World could communicate with the new world almost instantaneously.
This method of communication with Europe continued until Guglielmo Marconi became interested in wireless telegraphy. After experimenting with the system in England and receiving signals from short distances, he travelled to Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the United States in an attempt to receive a signal from his station at Poldhu in Cornwall, England. Because of weather damage to the equipment in England which resulted in a weaker signal, he moved his operation to St. John's, Newfoundland, arriving on December 6, 1901, as it was nearer to Cornwall. After spending a number of days setting up his apparatus, around noon on Thursday, December 12, 1901, Marconi received signals from his station in Cornwall. A new era in communications had begun.
Henry K. Gibbons

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