The 150th anniversary of the first communications cable laid across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting Europe with America will be celebrated in a new and free exhibition entitled ‘Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy’.
This exciting collaboration between Guildhall Art Gallery, King’s College London, The Courtauld Institute of Art and the Institute of Making at University College London will explore how cable telegraphy transformed people’s understanding of time, space and speed of communication. Never-before-seen paintings from the City Corporation’s art gallery and work by prominent Victorian artists will be on display as well as rare artefacts such as code books, communication devices, samples of transatlantic telegraph cables and ‘The Great Grammatizor’, a specially-designed messaging machine that will enable the public to create a coded message of their own.
A new future
It took nine years, four attempts and the world's (then) largest ship, the Great Eastern, to complete. The cable enabled same-day messaging across the continents for the first time and sparked new opportunities as businesses were suddenly able to respond to world markets with breath-taking speed. Governments and military forces were the first to use it. The first 'official' transatlantic telegraph was from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan.
‘The Great Grammatizor’
Central to the exhibition will be an interactive messaging machine that will produce personal 'coded' poems for the public to enjoy. Three rotating buttons represent 'genre', 'feelings' and 'driving force' and when each is turned to one of seven options and a lever 'cranked' it will produce a one-of-a-kind text for visitors to decipher. Imagined by UCL PhD student Alexandra Bridarolli, it was inspired by 'The Great Automatic Grammatizator' a story by Roald Dahl from his collection Someone Like You (1953).
The long-distance cable completely revolutionised communications; rather than weeks by ship, messages took minutes (approximately one minute for eight words) to transmit. The cables challenged ideas of space and time and completely transformed the way the Victorians did business and thought about communications. This room features samples of transatlantic cables, William Ayerst Ingram’s ‘Evening’ (1898) and William Lionel Wyllie's ‘Commerce and Sea Power’ (1898).
The resistance in the 2,754 km of copper cables was huge and engineers barely understood it, making the passing of signals very difficult. Damage from vessels and the elements also hindered transmission. Edwin Landseer’s ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’ (1864), will take pride of place and depicts a British shipwreck and scavenging polar bears. Two never-before-seen paintings will be on display, Thomas Hope McLachan’s ‘The Isles of the Sea’ (1894) and Peter Graham's ‘Ribbed and Paled by Rocks Unscalable and Roaring Waters’ (1885).
The telegraph companies desired speed but the line needed to clear between signals. To speed things up smaller signals were sent requiring ever more sensitive detectors. Paintings including James Clarke Hook’s ‘Caught By the Tide’ (1869) and William Logsdail ‘The Ninth of November, 1888’ (1890) explore old and new ways of transmitting messages.
To shorten messages and hide secret content from telegraph clerks people used code books and ciphers. Transatlantic code books will be on display alongside paintings that reflect the concept of coding through human interaction. These include James Tissot’s ‘The Last Evening’ (1873) and Solomon Joseph Solomon's ‘A Conversation Piece’ (1884).