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19th century text messaging

The Great Eastern. There was nothing like her in the world. Launched in 1858, she was 692 feet and had a gross tonnage of 18,915 — the largest vessel of her day. Five engines generated 8,000 horses, driving her at 14 knots. Propulsion was by side paddles (56 feet in diameter), a single propeller (24 feet in diameter) and six masts — said to be named Monday through Saturday — that carried 18,150 square feet of sail.

Great Eastern was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century. It took three years to build her and three months to launch her, inch-by-inch, down the 200-foot ways at the J. Scott Russell yard in Millwall, England. She was built to carry as many as 4,000 passengers non-stop between Great Britain and Australia, but Great Eastern never made the run.

Instead, tragedy seemed to follow her. Brunel died before the ship’s maiden voyage. Bound for New York, she carried just 38 passengers; an explosion killed five people and cut the voyage short. In 1862, she hit a rock in Long Island Sound. Rumors spread that Great Eastern was haunted, with ghosts trapped between the ship’s double hull. Brunel’s grande dame was a bust, leaving several bankruptcies in her wake.

But all of that was about to change. The telegraph was rapidly affecting the way business and politics were conducted around the world. If a telegraph cable could be strung on land, why not connect Europe and North America with an undersea cable? There was only one ship in the world capable of carrying 3,000 miles of cable and sturdy enough to withstand the Atlantic for weeks at a time. The moribund Great Eastern was tapped for the job.

In July 1866, Brunel’s ship laid the last lengths of cable connecting Ireland and Newfoundland. A message could now be sent between continents in a matter of minutes, rather than weeks by packet. Great Eastern had found her place in history. From 1869 through 1874 she laid six Atlantic cables, repaired two and laid the first cable across the Indian Ocean.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.