Before the 1850s the only way of communicating between Europe and the new world was by sending letters by ship. This could take at least 2-3 weeks. Cyrus Field, an American entrepreneur and visionary could see a solution to this problem by laying an underwater cable across the Atlantic. The cable would run for 2,500 miles across the ocean that was 2 miles deep in places.
If at first you don’t succeed …
This was a serious undertaking, requiring huge financial investment as well as commitment from leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to support the project. The first attempt was made in 1857, but after only 300 miles, the cable broke. They tried again in 1858 with a plan for two ships to meet mid Atlantic, the Aggememnon sailed towards Valentia and the Niagara for Newfoundland and this time it was a success. The first message was sent from The Slate Yard in Knightstown from Queen Victoria in London to President Buchannan in Washington. But the speed was slow, taking 16 hours to send. In efforts to speed things up they cranked up the generator and burned the insulation and cable stopped working in only 3 weeks.
It took seven years before another effort was made but meanwhile advances were made in transmission times and all the best scientists of the day were involved in improving equipment and tools that would support future endeavours. Advances were made in insulation, units of electricity were standardised and importantly, Lord Kelvin developed the Mirror Galvanator so that they were no longer reliant on high voltages and the speed of transmission was greatly increased.
Success as last …
In 1865 they were ready to start again but this time with The Great Eastern, the largest ship of the time, which was able to carry the cable to full distance. To everyone’s huge disappointment, this attempt also failed when the cable snapped 600 miles off Newfoundland and they were unable to reconnect it.
The following year The Great Eastern left Valentia Island on 13 July 1866 and arrived finally without a hitch in Newfoundland two weeks later on 27 July. They also regrappled the 1865 cable which meant that there were now two working cables across the wide Atlantic.
Valentia, the home of modern communications ….
The first permanent cable station was built at Foilhammerum Bay. A small hut was replaced by a more permanent structure with accommodation for workers. But in 1868 the whole operation was moved to Knightstown. The original hut was donated to become the first Valentia Voluntary Hospital which is still running today. The Cable Station as we still know it today, was designed by architect Thomas N Deane. The first Superintendent was James Graves who served from 1866 to 1909.
Other cables were laid in 1873, 1874 1880 and 1885 and Siemens laid a cable in 1881 known as the ‘German Cable’ but this was cut by the British during the First World War.
The cable had a huge impact on island life bringing new families to the area and improving all aspects of the economy. Direct employment was created at the cable station with 200 people employed at its peak in the 1920s. But indirect employment was created too, with local people supplying turf and other services to the station and families employed there. There were two hotels catering for the increased number of visitors and local shops, including hardware store, bakery and butchers all benefited from the increased population. The village boasted tennis courts, cricket fields and even a cinema. And all this while the only access to the island was by ferry.
The cable station closed in 1966 with the advancement in satellite technology but the great impact it had on the global economy for 100 years can never be underestimated. And so Valentia Island was and remains the home of modern communications.