Via Metallum

Photo by Liam Gant on


Via Metallum

There is no metal in the metalled roads,
But still they’re made of steel –
They take the feet and hooves and loads,
And the ever-turning wheel.
The dust and ruts and highwaymen
Were swept away in dale and fen
By smooth and fast and tarmacked threads
With footed feet and watersheds.

But these have all been laid with stone
A century or more –
The job is done, the back is bone,
The soles are growing sore…
We surely now have roads enough
To leave the wilds unpaved and rough,
And only build our future trails
As metalled roads of shining rails.



Transatlantic Cable 13 – The Future

maiden lane
View of Broadway, north from Cortlandt and Maiden Lane, 1885


Transatlantic Cable 13 – The Future

I write you this, my love,
By paper and by boat.
The old-fashioned way
Is the only way you’ll ever get my note.

But have you heard,
A telegraph now spans between we two ?
Is this the modern world, my love,
The endless chase for something new ?

Though sometimes, when I think how long
We take to send our hearts’ desires,
I fancy, on the breeze, that angels sing
Along those wires –

Pensmiths, calling pensmiths,
What you write today,
You’ll get to say tomorrow –
We shall carry all your precious words,
The small, the silly and absurd,
From off your lips to willing ears –
Allying fears that letters reach too slow –

It’s hardly for the likes of us, my love,
Who must still write –
No spark or semaphore will speed
These words as fast as light.

I cannot see how just one simple cable
Can unite us all.
Messages are paper still and boats,
For those whose means are small.

And yet, so many weeks until
Your next reply can stoke my fires,
If only, on the breeze the angels sang
Along the wires –

Scribers, calling scribers,
What you write today,
Shall fly away tomorrow –
We shall carry ev’ry precious thought,
The playful and the overwrought,
That bring their homes to foreign parts,
Assuring hearts that letter reach too slow –



Transatlantic Cable 12 – The Messages

The Progress of the Century by Nathaniel Currier


Transatlantic Cable 12 – The Messages

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way –
That’s four-hundred-eighty transmissions each day –
Four-hundred-eighty, and what will they say ?

Good news and bad news and news that can’t wait,
Tidings and greetings and offers and meetings,
And orders and treaties and threats and debate,
Departures, arrivals, and lovers and rivals.

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way,
Of profits and prices and projects and pay,
With no words misspoken or scattered astray.

Old news and new news and news of the world,
Battles, elections and plagues and infections,
As fast as the lightning, each message is hurled,
And back comes each answer – an undersea dancer.

Ten full transmissions each hour, each way,
Through storm and through snow and through come-all-what-may,
With no need to worry and no need to pray.

What hath God wrought, they asked, what hath God wrought ?
Nation to nation in communication.
So is this the peace the philosophers sought ?
No need to be shy, just send your reply.



“What have God wrought” was the first one of the first telegrams sent by Samuel Morse in 1844.



Transatlantic Cable 11 – Hooking the Cable

cable breaks
The Breaking of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable on Board the Great Eastern


Transatlantic Cable 11 – Hooking the Cable

We’re fishing with hooks
For a monster eel –
He’s somewhere around here, we know.
We’ll scrape in each nook
And each crevice with steel,
To catch us a live one below.

We’re plumbing the depth
With our long-corded prong
To land him right out of the wet.
He’s only a thumbs-width,
But boy, is he long.
We’ll fetch him up here with us yet.

He isn’t so slippy
When grabbed by his tail –
We know where he’s likely to lay.
His head may be whippy,
His body may flail,
But he won’t be wriggling away.

So surface our booty,
Our highly-prized freight,
More precious than gold by the ton –
So haul up our beauty,
And haul up his mate,
And splice them together as one.



Transatlantic Cable 10 – Laying the Line

great eastern


Transatlantic Cable 10 – Laying the Line

Niagara and Agamemnon –
Those were the ships that sailed
Paying out the precious flex
From wheeling drums upon their decks –
Meeting in the middle as they trailed.
The cable failed.

The tide comes in, the tide goes out,
We have no doubt it will be so –
We’ll wait until it turns about
For soon the current has to flow.

“Make new lines and load them on
The Great Eastern !”, they yelled –
“We need the best and largest beast
To string the West and thread the East
Until the seas and shareholders are quelled.”
The cable held.

The tide goes out, the tide comes in,
We know the when, we know the why –
We cannot hope to stop them,
But let’s ride them when they’re high.



Transatlantic Cable 9 – Gutta-Percha

Palaquium gutta by Franz Köhler


Transatlantic Cable 9 – Gutta-Percha

Forests gone
Trees no more
From Formosa down to Singapore
They hacked them down
Shore to shore
Felled them for the precious sap they bore

Send a message
Round the globe
To spare the trees that let your message probe
Send a message
In good faith
To spare the trees that keep your message safe
Send a message
To the top
Or else some day all messages must

Perished rubber
Turns to brittle
Gutta-percha won’t degrade a little
Latex stretches
So does leather
Gutta-percha keeps its form forever

Send a message
Through the gloam
To spare the trees that bring your message home
Send a message
Dit by dah
To spare the trees that speed your message far
Send a message
Spare the crop
Or else some day all messages must



Transatlantic Cable 8 – Crafting the Cable



Transatlantic Cable 8 – Crafting the Cable

Five thousand miles of cable are ordered from two different firms,
Made and delivered in only six months, are the explicit terms.
As thick as a forefinger, Kerry to Newfoundland, under the tide –
Valentia Island to Heart’s Content Harbour, it spans the divide.

It has to be easily coiled, yet rigid and strong by design,
And weigh-in at one ton per mile, for five thousand miles of line.
For make it too heavy, and then it gets far too unwieldy to lay,
But make it too light, and the currents will catch it and tug it away.

The core of the cable is untainted copper in two-mile lengths –
This strand has been plaited from seven pure wires which give it its strength.
Then coated three times with refined gutta-percha, then dowsed and immersed
In longer and shorter arrangements, to test it and weed out the worst.

And next are the layers of hemp under pitch under tar, tightly bound,
Then this is all drawn through a rig where the outer sheath wires are wound –
Eighteen quick bobbins with bright charcoal iron strands weave day and night,
To wrap thirty miles of cable per day per machine at their height.

The copper and iron in wires in strands in the cable, if strewn
In a single long filament, easily stretches from here to the moon.
Then finally, more pitch and tar, and it’s done and it’s set for the deep,
So load it onboard and we’ll soon have it working and earning its keep.



Transatlantic Cable 7 – The Businessmen

men of progress
Men of Progress by Chriatian Schussele

Transatlantic Cable 7 – The Businessmen

For all your sparks and all your dreams,
And tinkering in sheds,
Without our means, your greatest schemes
Would never leave your heads.

Who paid for Archimedes’ tools ?
Who built each church and pyramid ?
Who funded Oxford’s ancient schools ?
I’ll tell you who – we did !

The business of business is building your dream,
By priming the pump and by working the seam –
Alone, we’re but tepid – together, we’re steam !
So stoke up the pressure
And speed up the thresher
To reap our returns in the Future’s regime.

To fund savants and engineers,
Don’t trust in dons or lords –
It’s we who lift your valves and gears
From off your drawing boards.

Who built up Caxton, Bacon, Hooke ?
The musket and the blunderbuss ?
Who floated Cabot, Drake and Cook ?
I’ll tell you who – it’s us !

And if we should falter or labour in vain,
We’ll swallow our losses and start out again –
We’ve plenty of patience to wait out the rain.
So get the cogs turning
And set the coals burning
To forge the brave Future and ride the big train.

Transatlantic Cable 6 – The Engineer

Cartographer by Donato Giancola


Transatlantic Cable 6 – The Engineer

Bigger, faster, higher, stronger,
Pressures greater, pistons longer,
Pumping, thrusting, pulsing, striving,
Flywheels spinning, crankshafts driving.
I built for you a braver world,
A place of pulleys, springs and gears
Where fates enmeshed and fortunes swirled
Within the palms of engineers.
You had the road, you had the wheel,
But what you lacked-for was the dream –
You brought me rust, I gave you steel –
You brought me rain, I gave you steam.
For all I did,
There’s so much greater, greater that I could’ve done.
For all I strode,
There’s so much further, further that I could’ve run.
For all I built,
There’s so much higher, higher that I could’ve got.
For all I planned,
I was ready, always ready, but the world was not.



Transatlantic Cable 5 – The Senator’s Speech

Effect of the Submarine Cable by John Leech


Transatlantic Cable 5 – The Senator’s Speech

Does it seem, I say,
All but the most incredible
A slender copper wire is stretched
Across two thousand miles ?
Across the all-but-fathomless,
Where humans cannot penetrate,
There spans a thread across the sea
To link our distant isles.

Does it seem, I say,
All but a miracle of art
That thoughts of living men
In the cheerful light of day,
About the markets and the seasons,
And elections, and the wars,
And tender nothings from our lives,
Should manifest this way ?

Does it seem, I say,
All but the most remarkable
These thoughts should clothe themselves
In such an elemental spark,
And shoot with fiery speed
In a moment, in a twinkling,
From hemisphere to hemisphere,
Through vast abyssal dark ?

Does it seem, I say,
All but the work of genius
That through such nether oceans
Streams of thoughts should race and leap ?
Among the uncouth monsters,
Along the wreck-paved floor,
And throughout the oozy dungeons
Of the silent, rayless deep.