Maxwell’s Atlantic Telegraph

Hearing about what broke the Falcon 1 rocket made me think of a poem I once heard, a poem by James Clerk Maxwell — yes, he of the Maxwell Equations. Called “The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company,” it was written to honour a transatlantic telegraph cable, or rather the failure of said cable to work. Maxwell’s friend William Thomson was an engineering consultant to Atlantic Telegraph, and when Maxwell heard that the cable-layers had failed to follow Thomson’s advice and thereby snapped their cable, he was inspired to versify.

(When the next attempt to lay a cable worked, Thomson became Lord Kelvin, and his name lives on in the Kelvin scale, which measures temperatures in units the size of Celsius degrees but starting at absolute zero.)

“List to the new words to a common song,” Maxwell wrote to a friend, “which I conceived on the railway to Glasgow. As I have only a bizzing, loose, interruption-to-talking- &-deathblow-to-general-conversation-memory of the orthodox version, I don’t know if the metre is correct; but it is some such rambling metre anyhow, and contains some insignificant though apparently treasonable remarks in a perfect thicket of vain repetitions.” For the sake of efficiency, Maxwell introduced the notation “2(u)” for the refrain, “Under the sea, under the sea.”


Mark how the telegraph motions to me,
Signals are coming along,
With a wag, wag, wag;
The telegraph needle is vibrating free,
And every vibration is telling to me
How they drag, drag, drag,
The telegraph cable along,

No little signals are coming to me
Something has surely gone wrong,
And it’s broke, broke, broke;
What is the cause of it does not transpire,
But something has broken the telegraph wire
With a stroke, stroke, stroke,
Or else they’ve been pulling too strong.

Fishes are whispering. What can it be,
So many hundred miles long?
For it’s strange, strange, strange,
How they could spin out such durable stuff,
Lying all wiry, elastic, and tough,
Without change, change, change,
In the salt water so strong.

There let us leave it for fishes to see;
They’ll see lots of cables ere long,
For we’ll twine, twine, twine,
And spin a new cable, and try it again,
And settle our bargains of cotton and grain,
With a line, line, line,—
A line that will never go wrong.

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