A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable
by John Steele Gordon
Walker, 240 pp., $26.00
On August 6, 1858, the day after teams of men organized by the American entrepreneur Cyrus W. Field finished laying two thousand miles of copper telegraph cable on the floor of the Atlantic between Britain and North America, the lead article in the London Times proclaimed that not since “the discovery of Columbus” had the world seen anything comparable to the “vast enlargement which has thus been given to the sphere of human activity.” The piece went on, with a certain irrational exuberance: “In regard to the great American Republic [the Atlantic telegraph] has half undone the declaration of 1775, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.” (In spite of themselves, the Times‘s writers had granted their coun-try’s former colony an extra year of independence.)
In A Thread Across the Ocean, John Steele Gordon gives a fine account of this revolutionary transatlantic exploit. Cyrus Field had tried and failed twice before to lay a cable from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Valentia Bay, Ireland—the closest points of land between America and Europe. The success of his venture stood to cut the time lag in international communications from weeks to minutes. The Mayflower had taken nearly two months to cross the Atlantic in 1620, and two centuries later the sailing time had not appreciably diminished. By 1857, the fastest steam-driven passenger liners could make the trip in nine days, but most transatlantic mail still went under sail, there was no regular international postal service, and the new electric telegraph wires stitching across Europe and parts of the United States in the 1850s stopped at the coasts. American newspaper accounts of European politics and economics were at best ten days old.
People with urgent international business wrote the name of the ship that carried a letter on the outside of the envelope (“per Baltic,” “per Eu-ropa“), and sometimes enlisted its captain to deliver messages. From London in October 1857, the Anglo-American merchant banker Junius Spencer Morgan told his twenty-year-old son John Pierpont in New York how to send a letter by the Baltic:
…give it to the Capt, unsealed (addressed to the telegraph office, L’pool—the Capt to seal it when del’d), & ask him to have it telegraphed immediately upon reaching L’pool. Thus you see some two hours or more would be saved before letters could be del’d coming in the port.
Two hours of advance notice about foreign affairs conferred huge advantages on the recipient. With news traveling the other way, telegraph operators in Halifax, Nova Scotia, could wire New York.
Morgan and his partner George Peabody were helping to finance Cyrus Field’s ambitious deep-sea venture, and the Atlantic Telegraph Company rented rooms above their banking firm at 22 Old Broad Street in the City of London. Shares of the company’s stock, issued at £1,000 (about $5,000) in 1856, had fallen as low as £300 when the early efforts failed. The day …