‘The Wire that Changed the World’ – Trinity event examines legacy of 1858 Valentia-Newfoundland transatlantic cable
Posted on: 12 November 2021
Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in partnership with the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation welcomed the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe TD and H.E. Ms Nancy Smyth, Ambassador of Canada to Ireland to an event exploring the contribution of the remote western isle to the history of the global communications industry and the launch of the report to support its UNESCO World Heritage bid.
In 1858 the first ever message to be transmitted across an ocean – a note of congratulations from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan of the United States – was sent from Valentia Island in County Kerry to Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. Improvements in cable technology meant that when the next successful cable was laid, in 1866, messages that had once taken two weeks by ship could be sent in minutes. The era of global collaboration had begun. The then remote Valentia Island in County Kerry in Ireland played a major role in connecting the old and new worlds for the first time, placing Ireland at the ‘cross hairs’ of the emerging global communications industry.
With Valentia Island now looking to pursue UNESCO Heritage status for the Transatlantic Cable sites at Valentia, speakers gathered in Trinity yesterday to discuss Ireland’s enterprising environment from 1858 to today, and assess the enormous cultural and technological impacts of this scientific achievement.
H.E. Ms Nancy Smyth, Ambassador of Canada to Ireland commented: “The Trans-Atlantic Cable site in Valentia, together with its sister site at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland in Canada, represent together a historic spirit of creativity, innovation, and collaboration that changed global communications. I encourage these two communities to continue to work together in their efforts toward amplified recognition of this internationally important common heritage and efforts for a sustainable future.”
Speaking at the event this evening was Christopher Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin who put this major global scientific event into a cultural context revealing interesting parallels with many of the discussions around ethics and technology today.
Professor Morash commented: “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. 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.”
In his talk, Professor Morash called for the “ethical remembrance” of this suffering alongside a pursuit for UNESCO World Heritage status: “We must reintroduce the memory of place if we are to grasp a fuller understanding of what it means to say that the cable stations on Valentia Island and in Heart’s Content have claims to be considered as a transnational UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
The findings of a technical report developed for the Valentia UNESCO World Heritage bid were presented for the first time at the event by Dr Donard De Cogan who has spent forty years studying all the interconnected threads that resulted from the success at Valentia. This report describes how the trans-Atlantic link provided a stimulus for and an application of the development of electrical theory which is still relevant today. It also revealed how the project spurred the development of other essential technologies and in enabling communications between two continents, the cable ultimately advanced the human cause.
Mr Leonard Hobbs, Chairperson, Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation added: “This report which is being launched at this event today is the fruit of over twelve months work by a distinguished team of archivists, engineers, economists, geographers, and historians from different countries drawing on many years’ research and experience in their respective disciplines. While we are still at the early stages of a long journey towards UNESCO World Heritage inscription, the publication of this report is an important milestone on this journey.”