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34 Atlantic Cable John M. Picker • Safe & well expect good letter full of Hope —Charles Dickens to W. H.Wills, 22 November 1867 (Dickens 487) Charles Dickens telegraphed the above message toW. H.Wills, his acting editor for All theYear Round, from Boston as he began his second American reading tour. Wills was what Dickens called his “factotum,” or all-purpose assistant, in his personal as well as professional life, and the acting editor knew that his boss was speaking, or signalling, in code.A surviving scrawl in a diary reveals that weeks before Dickens left on his transatlantic journey, he had indicated that he would cable one of two telegrams toWills upon arrival: “all well” if conditions were such that it would be possible to have his mistress EllenTernan, whom he referred to in letters as“the patient,” sent inconspicuously to accompany him on the trip, or “safe & well” if they were not.1 As the epigraph indicates, Dickens, by this time an international celebrity whose every move in the United States was tracked by the press, belatedly came to his senses, and, with Wills’s assistance—or it might be more accurate to say without it—EllenTernan remained in England. Dickens’s brief flirtation with the telegraph for romantic purposes at this historical moment draws attention to the then-current technological development that allowed him to communicate with such speed about the fate of his mistress in the first place. Just a year earlier, in 1866, Cyrus Field and the crew of the Great Eastern finally completed the laying of theAtlantic cable connecting the Old World with the New. Telegraphy and telegraph cables were familiar facts of life, of course, asVictorians by then had witnessed about three decades of the accelerating growth of electric wires and poles across their landscape. But the cable across the ocean was a new phenomenon altogether, in scope, in cost, in effort, and as a spark for what might be called theVictorian material imagination, the endearing but often just weird mix of fantasy and propaganda that resulted from fetishizing products of industrialized commerce. Others have told the story, beginning in the 1840s, of the initial ideas for, Field’s financing of, and the failed attempts and ultimate successful laying of the Atlantic cable, and the trial and error behind the construction and powering of it. Here I focus instead on what arguably was the critical aspect of its material composition, its insulation, and begin to suggest how this approach can influence the ways we interpret representations of the cable and the transatlantic connection it engendered. 35 Victorian THings: Picker The core of the Atlantic cable featured two essential components that had constituted the basic elements of submarine telegraph cables since the first was successfully laid across the English Channel in 1850: a wire conductor of copper and an insulator, or“insulating envelope” as it was sometimes called, of gutta percha, the textile found to be best suited to protecting the conductivity of the copper and ensuring the efficacy of submarine telegraphy. Gutta percha, a Malaysian tree gum, had been introduced to England byWilliam Montgomerie, a surgeon in the East India Company, who in 1843 sent specimens of it to the Society of Arts.2 In Prussia in 1846,Werner Siemens discovered that gutta percha, which could be easily manipulated in hot water and hold that shape at colder temperatures, made an excellent insulator for underground telegraph wires. In 1847 he invented a machine to coat wires with it, and in 1848 he conducted trials of gutta percha–coated wires in underwater telegraphy.3 In addition to widespread use in ear trumpets and speaking tubes, in surgery, and in dentistry (where even today it sometimes plays a role), gutta percha quickly became theVictorian telegraph insulator par excellence, not only for the failed first version of theAtlantic cable in 1857–58 but also for the later two versions in 1865–66.These three attempts alone consumed a total“insulating envelope” of over nine hundred tons of gutta percha.4 The Malay Archipelago was the only source for suitable gutta percha, and the enormous demand provoked unregulated tree removal, leading to what now would be recognized as an...


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