The modern world of communication may be said to have begun on August 5th, 1858. On that day a telegraph message sent from Valentia Island in Co Kerry was received at the splendidly named Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.
The first transatlantic cable was described by one contemporary at the time as the greatest event of the 19th century making the world a much smaller place in an instant. It was widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There is not a town in the whole country,” the New York Times reported “nor an institution of learning, in which there has not been made some demonstration over the great event ... The cable has not only bound two continents together, but it has united all sorts of heterogeneous sects, parties, and classes, who never before found themselves in harmony on any one subject.”
The cable brought two erstwhile foes, Britain and the United States together. “May the Atlantic telegraph,” president James Buchanan cabled Queen Victoria, “under the blessing of heaven prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations and an instrument destined by divine providence to diffuse religion, civilisation, liberty and law throughout the world.”
The first 98 words were the equivalent of trying to download a Netflix on an old internet modem. It took 17 hours to transmit. Buchanan’s response took 10 hours.
The bridging of the new and old worlds was, according to the mayor of New York Daniel Tiemann “an era in history pregnant with results beyond the conception of a finite mind”.
The possibilities seemed endless as indeed they were, but the original cable only lasted three weeks before it failed for technical reasons.
As a consequence The Irish Times, founded in 1859, a year after the laying of the cable, was only able to report the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln 13 days after the event.
A second cable was laid in 1866 and this one endured. The world was never the same again.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and the Canadian ambassador to Ireland, Nancy Smyth, will both speak on Thursday evening at a conference remembering this historic event.
The conference, entitled The Wire that Changed the World, will be held in person and online at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).
Valentia Island is now looking to pursue Unesco heritage status for the Transatlantic Cable ensemble building there.
The findings of a technical report developed for the bid will be presented for the first time by Dr Donard De Cogan who has spent forty years studying all the interconnected threads that resulted from the success at Valentia.
TCD Professor of English Christopher Morash has spent years studying the circumstances around the cable and the communities on either side of the Atlantic.
Valentia Island and Heart’s Content were chosen because they were the two shortest points between Europe and North America, but their remoteness made them desperately poor.
One of the largest workhouses in Munster was in the mainland community closest to Valentia Island, Cahersiveen, and was roofed with slate quarried on the island.
The maps of deprivation in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine show the site of the cable station to have been in one of the hardest hit districts in all of Ireland.
“When the cable made instantaneous communication between Europe and America possible for the first time there was a wildly euphoric sense that time and space had been done away with and the world celebrated,” he said.
“However, both Valentia and Newfoundland were at the same time places that were experiencing the horrors of famine. While technology can be a marvel we should never lose sight of the gap between progress and the sufferings of those who lived through such major scientific developments.”
The wire that changed the world takes place between 7pm and 8.15pm on Thursday. To register see tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub