Transatlantic cable handled 8 words a minute in 1866

Today we have transatlantic cables of massive capacity, handling all sorts of telecom traffic (including the internet). However, these submarine cables had a modest beginning. The first successfully deployed commercial transatlantic cable was in 1866, after a decade-long series of less successful attempts. Sending messages over this cable was incredibly expensive.

The cost of speed in 1866

The 1866 transatlantic cable could transfer 8 words a minute, and initially it cost $100 to send 10 words ($10 per word and a 10 word minimum).

That was 10 weeks’ salary for a skilled workman of the day. After inflation, $100 translates to about $1,340 today. Due to the cost, it was mainly used by the British and American governments and large corporations.

It should be mentioned that after a while they cut the prices to a “mere” $46.80 for 10 words.

For truly urgent information, cost clearly wasn’t an issue. A New York Tribune editor spent $5,000 in 1870 to transmit one report about the Franco-Prussian War.

Map of 19th century Atlantic cables
A larger version of this image can be found over at Wikipedia.

The 1866 transatlantic cable was laid out by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, a company founded specifically for this reason by Cyrus West Field, a pioneer in the field.

The past 150 years

A lot has happened with our transatlantic cables in the last 150 years. Here is a look at how the capacity has changed over time.

History of the Atlantic Cable
Cable Year Speed or Capacity
Atlantic, Ireland-Newfoundland 1858 A few words per hour
Atlantic, Ireland-Newfoundland 1866 6 – 8 words per minute
Long cables with automatic transmitting equipment 1898 40 words per minute
Newfoundland-Azores 1928 2,500 characters per minute (~400 wpm)
Atlantic, TAT-1 1956 36 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-2 1959 48 telephone channels
Atlantic, CANTAT 1961 80 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-3 1963 138 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-4 1965 138 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-5 1970 845 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-6 1976 4,000 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-7 1978 4,000 telephone channels
Atlantic, TAT-8 1988 280 Mbits/s (40,000 telephone channels)
Atlantic, TAT-9 1992 2 x 565 Mbits/s (each 80,000 telephone channels equivalent)
Atlantic, TAT-10 1992 2 x 565 Mbit/s
Atlantic, TAT-11 1993 2 x 565 Mbit/s
Atlantic, TAT-12/13 1996 2 x 5 Gbit/s
Atlantic, TAT-14 2001 640 Gbit/s (9,700,000 telephone channels equivalent)
Atlantic, VSNL (TGN) 2001 2 x 2,520 Gbit/s

Data courtesy of FTL Design.

Something tells us that our uptime monitoring service wouldn’t have been much of a success in 1866…

Wikipedia article about transatlantic telegraph cables.
The Great Transatlatic Cable from PBS.
History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from FTL Design. (A great resource with a huge amount of information.)


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