Cyrus Field and the epic struggle to lay the first transatlantic cable.
Written by Filed under History
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.