The Remarkable Journey of the Great Eastern: Pioneering Transatlantic Communications

Noah Silverbrook

Updated Sunday, July 7, 2024 at 1:02 PM CDT

The Remarkable Journey of the Great Eastern: Pioneering Transatlantic Communications

The Great Eastern: A Maritime Marvel

The Great Eastern was a colossal ship, six times larger than any other vessel afloat during its time. Originally constructed to transport up to 4000 passengers non-stop between the UK and Australia, the ship was an engineering marvel. However, despite its grand design and ambitious purpose, the Great Eastern initially proved to be a commercial disaster.

The ship's fortunes changed when it was commissioned by the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1865 to lay a new transatlantic cable after the first attempt failed. This marked the beginning of the Great Eastern's significant contribution to global communications.

The Herculean Task of Laying the Cable

To prepare for its new mission, the Great Eastern's interior was gutted to accommodate 5000 tonnes of cable—about 2500 miles worth—on three giant drums. This transformation was necessary to carry the massive load required to connect continents.

On its first attempt in 1865, the mission faced a setback when the cable snapped near Newfoundland in waters over 4000 meters deep. Undeterred, the Great Eastern returned in 1866, successfully linking Ireland to Newfoundland and recovering the initial broken cable. The ship spliced the recovered cable and added a second link, thus establishing a reliable communication line across the Atlantic.

Expanding Global Communication Networks

Following its success with the transatlantic cable, the Great Eastern continued to play a crucial role in expanding global communication networks. The ship laid additional cables between France and the US, the UK and South Africa, and from the UK to India via the Red Sea. These cables were instrumental in maintaining the British Empire's communications, ensuring swift and reliable contact across vast distances.

The cables laid by the Great Eastern were not manufactured as single 2000-mile lengths but were spliced from shorter sections. This method ensured the durability and functionality of the cables. Additionally, fiberoptic cables require repeaters along the way to prevent signal degradation. These repeaters are special devices integrated into the cable itself, rather than being housed in land stations.

The End of an Era

Despite its monumental achievements, the Great Eastern's story came to an end in 1888 when it was laid up on Merseyside and broken up for scrap. However, its legacy lives on; one of its masts now serves as a flagpole at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Ground.

The process of installing and repairing transatlantic cables, as demonstrated by the Great Eastern, continues to be a fascinating subject. There are numerous videos on YouTube that showcase these intricate procedures, providing insight into the complexities of maintaining these vital communication links.

A Lasting Legacy

Today, thousands of miles of cables lie on the sea floors, forming the backbone of global communications. These cables are thick and solid, containing multiple wires inside to ensure robust and reliable connections. The sections are meticulously "soldered" together to avoid mechanical joints, maintaining the integrity of the signal.

The Great Eastern's pioneering efforts in laying transatlantic cables set the foundation for the modern communication networks we rely on today. Its remarkable journey from a commercial failure to a key player in global communications is a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance.

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