In today’s era of high-speed communications and global connectivity it’s difficult to imagine a time when news traveled no faster than it could be delivered in person. After all, a message can now be sent around the world in less time than it takes to read this sentence. But as late as the 1860s the only way to transmit information across oceans was by ship, which meant weeks of lag time between sender and receiver. Naturally, the completion of the first sustainable transatlantic telegraph line (1866) redefined international communications—literally overnight. But like many so-called overnight sensations, the transatlantic cable was years in the making—twelve years to be exact. It took five attempts, the largest ship in the world and millions of dollars of capital to overcome the long list of catastrophes and human errors that plagued the project.
The catalyst for this communications revolution was Cyrus Field, a doggedly persistent American businessman who made a small fortune in the paper and printing business before turning his attention to laying a cable across several thousand miles of ocean. Field was one of the world’s first notable entrepreneurs (the term was coined in 1852), pushing, pulling and cajoling his fellow investors to keep moving forward, even in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. While many of his early investment partners decided to cut their losses after the first few failed attempts, Field’s persistence eventually paid off, as the transatlantic cable earned him worldwide fame and enormous riches. Unfortunately for Field, he was a better entrepreneur than investor and lost nearly all his wealth before his death in 1892, perhaps diminishing his significance in our collective historical memory.
In the new book, “A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story Of The Transatlantic Cable” (Walker & Company), author John Steele Gordon revisits Field’s accomplishments and recounts this relatively unknown story in all its disastrous detail. Considering recent developments in communications, it’s a tale that is surprisingly relevant, even 150 years later.
Ignorance Is Bliss
Ironically, when a Canadian engineer named Frederick Gisborne presented Field with the comparatively modest idea of connecting New York and Newfoundland via telegraph line, he was unimpressed. “Why bother?” thought Field, who estimated it would speed communication from Europe by only a day or so. Then he looked at the map and saw that Newfoundland was one-third of the way [across the Atlantic], notes Gordon, “and knowing absolutely nothing about what was involved said, ‘Hey, lets put a cable across the Atlantic Ocean.’”
Field wrote to Samuel F.B. Morse (who produced the first telegraph of practical use) and Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury of the United States Navy (a premier oceanographer), asking about the feasibility of the concept. Ignorant of the technical problems involved, both expressed enthusiasm for the project and considered its success inevitable.
At that point, Field set out in search of investment partners, joining with four other exceptionally successful New York businessmen to form the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. They set out to raise the enormous sum of $1.5 million (2.5% of the total annual expenditures of the federal government) and planned to begin by connecting New York and Newfoundland—the easy part of the venture. This involved running a line across hundreds of miles of southern Newfoundland, laying an 85-mile submarine cable across the Cabot Strait and adding a 140-mile line across Cape Breton Island. “It turned out to be much more difficult to put the line across southern Newfoundland than they had anticipated,” says Gordon. “To this day nobody lives there[there are] precipitous cliffs and the weather is unbelievably awful, he continues.”
Come Aboard, We’re Expecting You
While Newfoundland’s weather and terrain presented its share of obstacles, the group’s first attempt at laying a submarine cable was an unmitigated disaster. The Cabot Strait expedition involved two ships; the Sarah L. Bryant, charged with laying the cable; and the James Adger, which was chartered to tow the Sarah L. Bryant as well as provide luxurious accommodations for the wives and distinguished guests of the investors. As a result, the expedition was part technology experiment, part romantic luxury cruise. “They didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” says Gordon. “They had ladies in long dresses and Newfoundland dogs galumphing about while they were trying to lay the cable from a sailing ship being towed by a steamer. In the end, the first attempt at crossing the strait cost $351,000—a dead loss—roughly one-quarter of the company’s capital.”
However, the lessons learned were invaluable and a year later, in 1856, a purely professional expedition managed to successfully lay a cable across Cabot Strait and complete the overland portion of the project. But by this time, the company had exhausted all of its resources.
Aside from overcoming the challenge of physically laying cable across vast expanses of saltwater, Field & Co. needed to purchase cable that would not deteriorate under the harsh conditions. Without the benefit of any technical expertise Field was forced to rely on the opinion of John Brett, head of England’s Magnetic Telegraph Company and the world’s foremost authority on submarine telegraph cable. For the company’s maiden project Brett recommended a cable made up of three copper wires, each individually insulated by gutta-percha, with the bundle then wrapped in tarred hemp, covered with another layer of gutta-percha and encased in galvanized iron wire.
In the end, the original cable didn’t function well anyway, mostly because of its small diameter. “It was only about as big around as a little finger,” recalls Gordon, “so it was subject to breaking and just wasn’t big enough to carry the electric load that needed to be carried.”
Show Me The Money
With the company flat broke, Field turned to England for additional financing. Owing to its far-flung empire, the British government had a keen interest in supporting any technological advances that might speed international communications. At the same time, they were decidedly passive in their approach. “They said, once you raise the capital and lay the cable and it works, we guarantee to use the cable to the extent that it will pay the interest on the capital. It makes it a lot easier to borrow money if you have a guaranteed customer,” reminds Gordon.
In October 1856 Field chartered the Atlantic Telegraph Company (ATC) in London and began selling stock in the new venture. Although British investors snapped up three-quarters of the stock in a matter of weeks, Field was forced to hold twenty-five percent of the company, leaving him financially vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government was far less enthusiastic about the project. Many Congressmen felt the cable would be of little practical use to the United States, while others distrusted new technology or resented England’s involvement. “You hardly ever encounter it anymore,” says Gordon, “but there was this distinctive Anglophobia, basically a hangover from the Revolution and the War of 1812.”
Addicted To That Rush
With the British now representing a majority stake in the venture, Field & Co. rushed to lay additional cable. “Cyrus Field’s greatest weakness was that he was always in a hurry. He should have taken the time to do more experimentation and training—practicing laying cables and stuff like that,” notes Gordon.
Despite considerable disagreement about the specifications necessary to ensure a functional transatlantic line, Field contracted for 2,500 nautical miles of new cable at a cost of £225,000. Two ships—the USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon—were hastily loaded with 1,250 miles of cable each, and sailed west from southern Ireland. After 400 miles of cable had been uncoiled and paid-out over a poorly designed wheeled track aboard the Niagara, the cable suddenly parted and plunged two-and-a-half miles to the ocean floor. Another year and £36,000 worth of cable had been irretrievably lost.
The Perfect Storm
In the intervening year, new paying-out machinery was designed under the watchful eye of Atlantic Telegraph’s chief engineer, William Everett, while scientist and physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin, for whom the Kelvin temperature scale is named) tested the electrical conductivity of the company’s cable. At this point, Thomson was probably making the best of a bad situation. “The first person who really understood the technical problems was Thomson,” says Gordon. “But by the time he came into the project the cable had already been manufactured. He was appalled by the cable when he saw it. I’m sure he didn’t say so, but he thought, ‘This ain’t gonna work.’”
Meanwhile, the company directors decided that on the next attempt the Niagara and Agamemnon should lay cable simultaneously beginning at a point in the mid-Atlantic and then proceed in opposite directions. On the way to their rendezvous point the ships encountered a fierce storm, with six consecutive days of gale force winds threatening to capsize both vessels. The vast majority of the cable on each ship was stored below deck, but the 250 tons above deck on the Agamemnon threatened to break loose from its moorings all the while. When the wind and rain finally abated, forty-five crew members required treatment for injuries that ran the gamut from broken limbs to temporary insanity, and 100 miles of cable was tangled in a ball.
Nevertheless, the ships eventually reached their destination and began their respective assignments. No sooner had they started when the cable came apart in the Niagara’s paying-out mechanism. They started over but after each ship traveled 40 miles, the cable fractured somewhere in between, resulting in another 80 miles of lost cable. Again, they resumed their mission, sailing more than 110 miles each when the line—a portion damaged in the storm—snapped yet again.
If You’re The President, I’m The Queen Of England
The psychological effect of the latest failed attempt was too much for several company directors to bear and a few resigned. Field argued that another attempt should be made immediately. After all, only 300 miles of cable had been lost at sea, and what were they going to do with a few thousand miles of submarine cable otherwise?
On July 28, 1858, the two ships set sail once more, and despite a few tense moments, both reached their respective coasts by August 5 with the cable successfully laid. While the telegraph instruments were fine-tuned, people on both sides of the Atlantic celebrated the achievement. “There was a huge uproar. It was thought to be the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of the world,” says Gordon.
On August 16, England’s Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic message—to the President of the United States—and President Buchanan responded with his own communiqué. When news of the messages became public, even more pronounced celebrations ensued, including one which ended in near-disaster when New York’s City Hall was set ablaze by wayward fireworks, damaging the roof and the cupola.
Can You Repeat That, Please?
Unbeknownst to the public, the cable was barely functional. Queen Victoria’s message took sixteen-and-a-half hours to be transmitted and the transmission quality deteriorated from there. The company’s chief electrical engineer, Edward Whitehouse, tried to address the problem by blasting more electricity through the line. “Apparently, he just burned out the cable,” says Gordon. “If you plug an ordinary lamp into a thousand volt socket the same thing happens. It just melts. By September, the cable was completely dead and the company was forced to come clean about the situation.”
In an instant, the public and media turned on Field and his fellow investors. “They were the butt of jokes,” says Gordon. “There was even a big rumor going around that the whole thing had been a fake—that Queen Victoria’s message had actually been sent by ship.”
However, before the cable died the British government utilized it to pass along critical military instructions that helped avoid unnecessary troop movements, thereby saving more than £50,000. With the practical benefits of the transatlantic cable so obvious it was only a matter of time before another was in the works.
Meanwhile, over in England a state-of-the-art, super-sized steamship was under construction, one that could single-handedly carry and lay several thousand miles of telegraph cable.
Field’s Ship Comes In
At 693 feet long, the Great Eastern was five times the size of the next largest ship when it was completed in late 1857. Designed to provide round-trip service (i.e., carry her own fuel) from Britain to the Far East and back, the Great Eastern turned out to be an unwieldy and unlucky vessel. It took three months and £120,000 to move her 40 yards from the launch into the River Thames, an exercise that forced the shipyard owner into bankruptcy. Then, on a voyage to New York the ship suffered an 83' x 9' gash in her hull upon hitting an uncharted rock (still referred to as Great Eastern rock) while rounding the tip of Long Island, damage that would have sunk any other oceangoing vessel of that era. Even Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the brainchild behind the Great Eastern, was done in by the stress and strain of conceiving his mammoth ship. But shortly before his death (after a paralyzing stroke) Brunel had the foresight to invite Field to the vessel’s construction site, greeting him with the words, “Here is the ship to lay your cable, Mr. Field.”
But first Field needed to overcome several new obstacles. “At that point, he found himself unable to raise any more money because people who had invested before said, ‘No, thank you, I’ve already gone down that road,’” says Gordon. Meanwhile, in 1861 the United States became preoccupied with the Civil War, effectively limiting its involvement for the next four years.
On a positive note, the Civil War demonstrated that a cable would help the U.S. and Great Britain respond more quickly to internationally-significant developments. Meanwhile, a board that had been commissioned to study the results of earlier attempts concluded its deliberations in July of 1863 and announced that the successful completion of a transatlantic cable was well within the realm of technological possibility.
Most importantly, the involvement of William Thomson provided Field & Co. with much needed technical expertise. So little technological knowledge was known then. “Words like volt and watt hadn’t been coined yet, so it was very hard to discuss problems on a technological basis,” reminds Gordon. “That was one of the things they learned—that they needed a technical vocabulary.”
With Thomson spearheading an updated design the new cable was almost three times as heavy as the preceding version, and featured copper that was as pure as possible, to maximize conductivity. An extra layer of gutta-percha was also added, along with a new insulation called Chatterton’s compound. In addition, the advent of the Bessemer process in 1858 allowed for the use of charcoal iron, a form of steel that provided improved protection for the cable’s exterior. Finally, both the core and armor were wrapped in pitch-soaked hemp, which protected the wire from seawater, provided increased flexibility and increased the cable’s breaking point.
After the new cable was manufactured and its entire length loaded onto the Great Eastern, the Prince of Wales boarded the ship on May 30, 1865, and sent a test message—“I wish success to the Atlantic cable”—that traveled through the 2,700 mile-long coil in less than a minute.
That Sinking Feeling
When the Great Eastern began its cable laying mission on July 23, 1865, Field was the lone American onboard the vessel. “Cyrus Field was still the motivator—the guy who was pulling it all together,” reminds Gordon. “But it was British money, technology and ships that were doing it.”
Just eighty-four miles into the voyage the signal through the cable faltered. After 10 hours of retrieval work the fault was discovered to be a small piece of wire that had penetrated to the cable’s core. Four days later the line went dead again, and another ten hours of hauling up cable showed the exact same fault, prompting concerns about foul play. Although fears of sabotage were assuaged later in the voyage when the charcoal iron sheathing was revealed to be the culprit, watches were set to monitor the cable handlers.
Then, just six hundred miles away from Newfoundland, diminished function in the cable forced another stoppage. While the cable was being hauled in it suddenly snapped and immediately plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic. The crew made four attempts to catch and raise the cable using wire rope—shackled together in hundred-fathom lengths—and a grappling hook. On three attempts they succeeded in raising the cable several thousand feet above the ocean floor, but a shackle broke each time, sending the cable and wire rope back to the bottom. After exhausting the ship’s supply of rope there was no other recourse but to return to Britain.
Let’s Try This ...
When the cable suddenly went dead back in Ireland, speculation ran wild as to the fate of the Great Eastern and the expedition. Rumors abounded that the ship had struck an iceberg or sunk, and the speculation continued until the Great Eastern returned to port.
Despite the latest bad luck, both Field and the public remained optimistic about the prospects for the following year. A new and improved cable was ordered from the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, one that was lighter yet less vulnerable to structural deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Great Eastern was outfitted with more powerful paying-out machinery and equipped with additional wire rope. Even crew members were provided with pocketless one-piece canvas suits that made it difficult to hide tools that might be used to sabotage the cable. “This is the process of entrepreneurial capitalism,” remarks Gordon. “People learn from their mistakes so the next time, at least, they make new mistakes instead of old ones.”
... One More Time
Before another attempt could be made, however, Field had to respond to a legal issue that prevented the Atlantic Telegraph Company from conducting business and issuing additional stock. Field’s solution—proposed by Daniel Gooch, owner of the Great Eastern—was to form a new company called the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, and deal with ATCs legal issues later.
In July 1866 the Great Eastern again departed Ireland, escorted by the HMS Terrible, Albany, and Medway. Except for a man falling overboard from the Terrible, a brief scare caused by some tangled cable, and the rain and dense fog commonly found along the coast of Newfoundland, the fifth attempt was relatively uneventful.
On July 29 Field telegraphed a message to the Associated Press in New York, announcing the success of the expedition. Within days, the line was open to commercial traffic and within weeks London and New York were comparing the prices of stocks and various commodities in their respective financial markets.
Meanwhile, the expedition returned to the site where the 1865 cable had been lost, and eventually succeeded in raising it, laying the remainder of its length (600 miles) without incident. As a result, a second transatlantic line was transmitting messages just a month after the first became operational.
Reach Out And Touch Someone?
At first, high rates made messaging prohibitively expensive for everyone except big businesses and the wealthiest individuals. “A dollar a word with a 15-word minimum in an era when five dollars a week was a good wage—that’s expensive communication. It was like picking up the phone and having it cost you $100 a minute,” relates Gordon.
As with the Internet of today, the commercial viability of the transatlantic cable was initially in doubt. But in 1869 a French company laid a cable from Brittany to Massachusetts and the resulting competition caused prices to fall and usage to rise. “By 1870 Wall Street was spending about a million dollars a year on cable traffic,” says Gordon. “They started laying cables across the Atlantic as fast as they could.”
The Six Million Dollar Man
In the end, Wall Street didn’t treat Field as well as his cable venture. By 1880 Cyrus Field was worth around $6 million, which by the standards of the day, made him enormously rich. “He would have easily been on the Forbes 400 list if such a list had existed,” says Gordon.
But Field proved to be a woefully inept investor. In fact, on a single day in June of 1887 he lost almost $6 million. “Nineteenth century Wall Street was a dog-eat-dog world and Field had no business being in that world—he didn’t have the personality for it. He was essentially broke at the end of his life,” laments Gordon.
Meanwhile, Field fared no better in his personal life, as he coped with a mentally ill daughter and a son who was mixed up in stock fraud. He died at the age of 72, shortly after the death of his longtime wife, Mary.
In the 137 years since the first transatlantic cable the speed and methods available for transoceanic communication have expanded beyond Field’s wildest dreams. Yet despite the advent of wireless technology and satellite communications, a large percentage of transoceanic communication is still transmitted by cable. Even the original 1866 cable was still in use as recently as the late 1960s.
Yet, all the technological advancements haven’t fulfilled the prophecy described in The Times of London in 1858: “The Atlantic Telegraph—has gone far to make us—in spite of ourselves, one people.”