Starting Research – questions & objects

Early submarine cables and grapnel, 1858-1866. © Science Museum, London

I have recently started work on my MA dissertation, which has meant I’ve identified my topic, my key sources and started to look at secondary reading. For my topic I’m planning on looking at the National Maritime Museum’s collection related to submarine telegraphy and to see how that represents submarine telegraphy and if that can tell me anything about how the contemporaries of this new technology considered it, which in turn might tell me something about how they viewed themselves.

There is quite a bit of secondary reading and I might try and put together a bit of a historiography post on it at a later stage. At the moment I have been looking at the NMM’s collection list and trying to get a feel for the objects before I am formally introduced to them.

The vast majority of objects are sections of cable, the submarine telegraph cables laid under the sea to convey the electric pulses between countries. They trace the development of these cables from the early attempts that were too light and inefficient, to the larger, heavier, well protected, and more efficient cables successfully used to link Britain and America in 1866 and Britain and the Empire shortly afterwards. I believe that these cables have prodomently been studied with the view of gathering a material and scientific history of telegaphy and electricity. However I’m more interested in imagery and representation.

The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Atlantic Cable. © National Maritime Museum, London

The most dominant imagery associated with the telegraph throughout the nineteenth century is the human body, more specifically the nervous system, highlighting the intelligence and possible control transmitted and the speed at which it is done. For probably the most famous submarine telegraphy, the transatlantic telegraph, popular connotations were of peace and harmony, many people believed this cable could bring world peace and a greater understanding between peoples. But can this be seen in the material culture produced at the time? Futhermore do they hint at other popular themes associated with the submarine telegraph such as empire, modernity and power?

At the moment without seeing the objects and only a small amount of information printed from the NMM’s collections database, I have more questions than answers. Though it is clear that some of the bits of cable are mounted and others not. Of the earlier bits of cable brass and wood are used to display them – so what is the significance of the use of these materials? Do they related to nature, modernisty, science or themes of masculinity? It also seems that there is a increase in the displayed cables after the successful transatlantic cable, was the romantic and harrowing tale of the laying of this cable what caught the public imagination and spurred the creation of souvenir items for that and later cables? Or was the cost so significant that thank you gifts were felt neccessary to keep funders on board?

What will be significant is these object biographies: who made them, where the cables parts salvaged from broke parts or specially spliced off working cables, how did them come into the NMM’s collection?

As you can see I have more questions than answers, but I look forward to getting my hands on those bits of cable and trying out my theories on you soon!