Sometimes, when tending to the rare books in the stacks, you have the opportunity to find a hidden treasure, a book that is not well known but catches the eye. My favorite books are rarely the famous ones, but rather the ones that seem more approachable or are visually striking. The Atlantic Telegraph was one such book for me. Its colorful and highly decorative cover stands out in a sea of brown leather, white vellum, and red bookcloth. Yet, I never really had a chance to dig deeper than the cover until recently. Looking for a break from some of the monotony and sameness of working from home (cataloging clean-up and video meetings are all well and good, but sometimes I do want to look at books again) I decided to dig deeper. I had enough forethought to take some photos of the cover and illustrations in the book before I left, but I was quite pleased to find the full text digitized and available through HathiTrust.
I did a little research and discovered that I’m hardly the first person to have my eye caught by this book. In fact, it was created for exactly that purpose! The Atlantic Telegraph was created as a Victorian gift book, a highly decorative and commemorative ploy developed by publishers to sell books for the Christmas season. They weren’t really intended to be read, but they were beautiful. It’s good to know we weren’t the first generation to produce the beautiful but unread coffee table book.
Despite the intention of the publishers, I forged ahead and dove into the content of the book. The Atlantic Telegraph was published in 1866 and it documented the second attempt to lay trans-atlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland (the first cable had been successfully laid in 1858 but stopped working after three weeks). To learn more about both the 1858 and 1865-1866 missions, I skimmed some of the history Bern Dibner wrote, available online through the Smithsonian, here.
Although telegraphs were already in use when Samuel Morse patented his single wire electric telegraph in 1847, his invention was far cheaper to operate and became the most popular version. It revolutionized communication around the world, making it much easier and faster to communicate across long distances. Both Europe and North America were quickly criss-crossed with telegraph cables, and what was next? Well obviously, the Atlantic Ocean. But that was easier said than done. The effort was subsidized by both the U.K. and U.S. governments and carried out by the Atlantic Telegraph Company, which sold shares in both countries to raise money. The first attempt to lay cable started in Ireland in 1857. It was quickly abandoned when the cable kept breaking. The second attempt, in 1858, would start from both ends (Newfoundland and Ireland) and meet to splice the cable in the middle of the ocean. Though they encountered their own troubles, they successfully spliced the cables on July 29, 1858. News quickly reached America and England and both countries celebrated with long congratulatory telegraphs between leaders and the obligatory parades. Sadly, the celebration was short-lived; the cable broke for good in September. But failure taught the scientists and engineers many lessons for the future.
In 1865, the SS Great Eastern (a steamship designed by a man with the greatest name in history, the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel) attempted to lay another transatlantic cable. Yet again, they had to return home in failure; the cable snapped after laying over 1,000 miles. They marked the spot of the break and came back the next year to try again, this time determined to find the previous year’s cable in the ocean and splice it. Looking for a small cable in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean may seem like hunting for a needle in a haystack, but finding it was actually the easy part (they used a five pronged grappling hook to hunt for it and pull it to the surface). The difficult part was holding onto it long enough to splice it properly; in all it took 30 attempts and several weeks before the cable was successfully brought on board the ship. They discovered that the cable was still working properly and were able to splice it without incident, thus connecting the United States to the United Kingdom across the Atlantic Ocean again. Celebration was subdued in America, which was still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War, but England was enthusiastic enough for the publisher, Day & Sons, to think it could make a profit out of producing a commemorative and highly decorative gift book.
What really makes this book shine is not the story of the cable-laying (I admit, as interesting as it is, some of the details of electrical engineering are lost on me) but the cover and the illustrations. We don’t know for sure, but the publisher, Day & Sons, probably commissioned author W.H. Russell and illustrator Robert Dudley to join the voyage of the SS Great Eastern as it lay cable across the Atlantic. W.H. Russell had written other books for Day & Sons in the past (he worked with Robert Dudley on a previous book on a British royal wedding) and was an esteemed war correspondent for the London newspaper, The Times; he had covered several years of the Civil War in Washington, D.C. and was well-known in the U.K. for his coverage of the Crimean War.
The illustrations within The Atlantic Telegraph are incredibly detailed, thanks to Dudley's artistic skill and the new printing technologies that could replicate his original vision. The illustrations, based on Dudley's original watercolors, really focus on the majestic beauty of the sea, as well as the adventure and danger of laying the telegraph line, and even more of the humdrum parts of the job. Robert Dudley was a gentleman artist who specialized in working in lithographs, his original watercolors were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1892- check them out here.
In Dudley’s time, chromolithography was a relatively new and high-tech way of creating colored prints. As the first planographic, or flat, printing process, it involved drawing an image in reverse in grease on damp stone; ink would stick to the image and not to the stone. When run through a press it transferred a positive image onto paper. Printing in color involved an arduous process of layering colors overtop of each other; a new stone was required for each color used.
Dudley’s prints show the work-a-day process of laying the cable as well as the high-drama moments.
In addition to the illustrations, Dudley also designed the colorful and symbolically decorated cover as a celebration of humanity’s technological might and the cooperation of the U.S. and U.K. The cover is a bright green (though hopefully not an arsenic green!) with an explosion of maritime and oceanic embellishments like rope and seashells. The rope is tied into complex sailors knots in and around emblems of the United States and the United Kingdom, signalling the close connection between the two countries themselves and the increased connectedness the telegraph itself would bring.
As we spend more time physically distant from each other than ever before, we’ve become even more dependent on the technology that brings us closer. In fact, we still rely on cables under the Atlantic Ocean, only now they’re fiber-optic cables for internet access. We may take for granted our internet and phone connections, but those were hard won, and something that not everyone in America, much less the entire world, has equal access to. As we call or video-chat with our loved ones, let’s take a moment to appreciate our ability to be together from afar. And hopefully we never take our connectedness for granted again.
Boba, Eleanor, "For All Time: The Victorian Gift Book," Book Binders Museum, https://bookbindersmuseum.org/for-all-time-the-victorian-gift-book/
"Chromolithography: The Art Of the Stone," Winterthur Unreserved Museum & Library Blog, January 16, 2014, http://museumblog.winterthur.org/2014/01/16/chromolithography-the-art-o…
Cooke, Simon, "Robert Dudley: artist, illustrator, and book cover designer," The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/dudley/intro.html
Dibner, Birn, "The Atlantic Cable," 1959, Smithsonian Libraries, https://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/hst/atlantic-cable/sil4-0041…
Russell, William Howard. "The Atlantic Telegraph." Hathi Trust, 1866, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.319510022909651&view=1up&seq…