Valentia Island potential UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to role in world’s first transatlantic cable

Two Irish scientists played a key role in the success of the world’s first transatlantic cable from Valentia Island to Newfoundland which heralded the information age.
Valentia Island potential UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to role in world’s first transatlantic cable
A RTÉ documentary has revealed that there are ambitious plans to convert the cable stations in both Valentia Island and Heart’s Content in Newfoundland into a UNESCO World Heritage sites. File picture.

Valentia Island could be on track to become a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to role in world’s first transatlantic cable, according to RTÉ documentary.

Two Irish scientists played a key role in the success of the world’s first transatlantic cable from Valentia Island to Newfoundland which heralded the information age.

The roles of Dublin chemist Henry Bewley and pioneering Belfast scientist William Thomas provided key pieces of equipment to ensure telegraph messages could criss-cross the Atlantic for the first time is examined in RTÉ’s series, Building Ireland.

Dublin chemist Henry Bewley came up with the idea to put a rubber called gutta-percha on the copper telegraph wire to protect it from the Atlantic sea water while Thomas invented a new machine to read the faint electric messages humming across the ocean.

Prior to the laying of the cable from Ireland’s west coast to the Canadian shores it took approximately two weeks from a message to reach North America from Europe as all communications were sent by boat.

The cable – which could read four words in a minute - had such an impact in the 1800s it has been compared to the advent of the internet.

Now the RTÉ documentary has revealed that there are ambitious plans to convert the cable stations in both Valentia Island and Heart’s Content in Newfoundland into a UNESCO World Heritage sites.

"The Canadian and Irish governments are working together to secure UNESCO status as a trans-boundary world heritage site to celebrate the vital role of both Heart’’s Content and Valentia in the evolution of global communications", said Building Ireland presenter, engineer Tim Joyce.

Trinity College Director of Research and Innovation, Leonard Hobbs, said Ireland’s place as a hub of the world’s multinationals could be traced back to Valentia Island.

“It made the world a smaller place.” But he said the work of Irish scientists who helped to solve the gnarly problems around the laying of the cable have a legacy which reaches to the 21st century.

“But what was also going on here was electrical engineering in particular, the world has been transformed by communication, by this kind of internet technology – and it all began in Valentia.

“It was the start of Ireland’s technical journey that today has led us to the point where every multinational in the US has a place in Ireland. It all began again in (Valentia) which established a confidence and competence in this new thing called engineering and technology.”

Engineer Tim Joyce details in the programme how the first cable laid in 1858 failed after 27 days when it abruptly stopped working.

But thanks to an ingenious invention by pioneering Belfast man William Thompson, who would later go on to become the pioneering scientist Lord Kelvin, a mirror galvanometer solved the problems of reading the very faint signals miles under the sea.

After a few very costly, failed attempts, a new cable was finally laid in July 1866 and on its first day of operations it earned 1000 pounds on what was termed the internet for the Victoria age.

The RTÉ documentary revealed the magnificent compound built to house 200 telegraph operators and their families on the island came complete with tennis courts.

“They worked three shifts from 6 to 2, 2 to 10 and the night shift”, said local man Michael Lyons, who worked in the cable station building.

“There two nine-hole golf courses, three tennis courts out the front, cricket in the sport field next door and everybody had a sailing boat and the lads had regattas every week.

“It had a big influence on the island and economically as well as everything else their wages were supposed to equivalent to a bank manager, so you can imagine 200 bank managers in Valentia “If you were walking down the village and met a local and a grapher you would have no problem identifying the grapher, he would be dressed in a suit and top hat and waistcoat with a gold watch and chain.

“The local man would be the guy without the shoes or if he was lucky a pair of hobnail boots.” Meanwhile Valentia Island resident, Gordon Graves, explains how his great, great grandfather was one of the original graphers.

Prior to the laying of the cable from Ireland’s west coast to the Canadian shores it took approximately two weeks from a message to reach North America from Europe as all communications were sent by boat, pictured Valentia Island cable station. File picture.
Prior to the laying of the cable from Ireland’s west coast to the Canadian shores it took approximately two weeks from a message to reach North America from Europe as all communications were sent by boat, pictured Valentia Island cable station. File picture.

“My great, great grandfather came here in 1865 to supervise the sending of messages as the cable was being paid out.

“It was the first of his 44 years here, he always signed himself off as Old Electric. “ Today, 99% of the world’s international data traffic is carried on 400 cables than are laid on sea floors across the world great oceans.

Building Ireland will be shown on RTÉ One on Thursday April 23 at 8pm

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