OFFICE OF ACADEMIC APPOINTMENTS AND INTERNSHIPS
Of Cables and Serpents
Why the transatlantic telegraph cable conjured dreams of sea monsters.
In summer 2022, I was performing research in the archives of the National Museum of American History when I read this account of the transatlantic cable. I was struck by the comparison between the cable and a sea monster. It wasn’t the only one, either. Other authors called the cable a “slippery eel,” “lazy brute,” “sea snake,” or “monster” (Field, 1896; McDonald, 1837; Verne, 1870). These descriptions prompted me to recall some advice written by historian W. Jeffrey Bolster, who counseled, “No marine environmental historian worth his or her salt can afford to ignore early-nineteenth-century sea serpents” (Bolster, 2012). While I’m a marine environmental historian, I typically study the interactions between technologies and scientifically recognized marine organisms. My research is not focused on sea monsters, per se, but I couldn’t disregard the connection between cables and serpents. Plus, I want to be worth my salt. I dug in a little further.
In the nineteenth century, reports of sea serpents came often and with confidence. Witnesses were a mixture of fishermen, coastal residents, and naturalists. Anyone who spent time near the sea might chance a glimpse at its most thrilling secret (Bolster, 2012). “The 19th century saw an explosion of interest in sea serpents as well as other mysteries of nature in the United States and Europe,” writes scholar Stephanie Hall. In 1817, for example, the residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts reported multiple sightings of a sea serpent, causing a regional frenzy. There was enough reputable hype around the Gloucester sea serpent that naturalists recorded it in the scientific literature as Scoliophis atlanticus. The Gloucester sea serpent, it turned out, was likely a bluefin tuna moving serpent-like in the water (Hall, 2016; Bolster, 2012). Still, “Sea serpent investigation was treated seriously, if cautiously, by men of science,” writes historian Helen Rozwadowski (Rozwadowski, 2005).
Stories of serpents appeared along the Pacific Coastline, too. “Sea Serpents: They Are A Reality and Not a Myth,” reported Portland’s Sunday Oregonian. The newspaper informed its readers that “the sea serpent is an accepted fact in nature,” although, admittedly, “a monstrous fish” or a “giant squid” could also be the culprit for recent sightings (Sunday Oregonian, 1913). At the heart of stories about sea serpents and sea monsters was this reality: a fear and curiosity about the ocean spurred on by a lack of knowledge about its depths. In many cases, where scientific guesswork existed, so too did sea monsters. For historians looking back on the country’s sea monster craze, reports of an uncatchable sea serpent revealed “how overwhelmingly large and unknown the deep ocean of antiquity remained” (Bolster, 2012).
Sea serpents still reverberated in the public imagination when Cyrus W. Field led an international effort to build and install the world’s first transoceanic cable. The initial attempt at laying the transatlantic cable occurred in 1857, but the cable broke during installation. The next year, 1858, Field was back out there in the middle of the Atlantic, this time installing it without problems. But the cable stopped working quickly thereafter. The year 1865 delivered a third failure. Finally, in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, Field and company attempted a fourth installation. This time, it worked; they not only connected a new line, but Great Eastern’s crew managed to find the 1865 cable and fix it. Celebrations rippled across North America and Great Britain—bells rang, people toasted, and newspapers printed front-page stories.
The celebrations were well-deserved, for the transatlantic cable was a monster of a project: stretching two-thousand miles and resting on a seafloor that plunged thousands of feet below, the cable compressed time and space like no technology had before. That a crew of sailors, a few engineers, and a retrofitted passenger ship could successfully install a transoceanic cable was nothing less than herculean (Rozwadowski, 2005). It mattered little that the average citizen would never have enough cash in their pocket to send an overseas cable. The project represented something bigger, a technological revolution that transcended the individual. Triumphant, writers across America and Europe fawned over Field’s accomplishment and groped for the right words to describe this newfangled technology.
With its futuristic design and global fame, the transatlantic cable conjured a memory of sea serpents. The cable, of course, also looked something like a sea serpent. Tubular and dark, it haunted the ocean’s depths accumulating anemones and algae along its slender spine. Its materials were familiar enough: copper core, gutta percha center, and a metal sheathing that were nothing otherworldly. And yet the cable inhabited an environment unimaginable, unseen, and unvisited. Down in the abyss the cable survived without need for air or land. The transatlantic cable was a wild, uncatchable thing that seemed to have a spirit and mind of its own. From that perspective, it was serpent enough. Even for those who did not believe in sea monsters, the cable provided a good stand in for one.
When writers repeatedly compared the transatlantic cable to a sea serpent, they unknowingly struck at a historical moment of transition: the ocean was becoming a better-researched place, its depths increasingly fathomable. But an age-old fear of the abyss and speculation about its sea monsters remained. The submarine telegraph cable resided somewhere in between the two: both fearsome monster and innovative technology. When onlookers and writers called the cable a sea serpent, the past and future collided in their description. A meeting of the familiar and unfamiliar, the normal and abnormal (Helmreich, 2009).
By the twentieth century, the romance of deep-sea monsters faded as scientific knowledge of the ocean increased. Writers no longer compared submarine cables to sea serpents. Cables were simply cables. When I think of submarine cable history, however, I prefer to remember them in the context of the mid-nineteenth century, when throngs of people headed to the beach to greet an incoming cable ship. In 1866, for example, when the latest iteration of the transatlantic cable arrived on land, celebrators crowded the beach. Engineers had coated the line in a black tar, its stickiness holding onto sand, shells, and bits of marine debris. That debris didn’t bother the crowd, who shoved forward to get their hands on the cable. Covered in the black goop, revelers displayed their palms as proof of their accomplishment. It was the closest these deep-sea dreamers would ever come to touching the slime that dripped from a sea serpent’s scales. The cable was a less thrilling substitute, for sure, but anyone worth their salt would jump at the chance.
Bolster, W. J. (2012). The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Massachusettes: Belknap Press.
Field, H. M. (1898). The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
McDonald, P. B. (1937). A Saga of the Seas: The Story of Cyrus W. Field and the Laying of the First Atlantic Cable (p. 149). Wilson-Erickson Incorporated.
Verne, J. (1870). Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, trans. F. P. Walter (p. Part 1, Chapter 16). Hetzel.
Hall, S. (2016). The Great American Serpent. Folklife Today.
Judson, I. F. (1896). Cyrus W. Field: His Life and Work, 1819-1892. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.
Rozwadowski, H. (2005). Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea. Cambridge, Massachusettes: Belknap Press.
Sea Serpents: They Are a Reality and Not a Myth. (1913). Portland, Oregon: The Sunday Oregonian.