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Triumph at Heart’s Content

1.

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 the third attempt succeeded, in early August 1858, the price shot up to £920.

On August 16, Queen Victoria sent the first transatlantic cable to President James Buchanan: “Her Majesty desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work….” New Yorkers celebrated the achievement with battalions of flags, a hundred-gun salute, a banquet honoring Cyrus Field, and fireworks on the roof of City Hall. Not reported in all the excitement was that the Queen’s ninety-nine-word message had taken sixteen and a half hours to transmit or that the signals were weak and often incomprehensible. In September the line went dead.

New technological ventures rarely succeed at the outset. When Thomas Edison figured out how to record and reproduce sound in 1877, he demonstrated the first “talking machine” to a dubious assistant at his research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, by shouting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a hand-cranked recorder that scratched sound waves onto a revolving cylinder covered with foil. Then he replaced the recording stylus with a primitive playback needle, turned the crank again—and later said he was “never so taken aback in all my life” as when the song came crackling out: “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”

By the time Cyrus Field’s third attempt failed in 1858, leaving nearly $2 million in materials at the bottom of the ocean, the US was in the midst of a severe economic contraction and heading for civil war.

2.

Flying recently from Rome to New York on a cloudless day, I looked down at the spectacular immensity of the Atlantic—once in a while a freighter or passenger liner appeared, like a grain of rice—and found it almost impossible to imagine how Field and company ever thought they could pull off this preposterously difficult feat.

Part of it had to do with timing. The project got underway during the roaring bull market of the early 1850s, a period of easy credit, rising prices, and wild speculation in stocks and land. California gold fed the boom. High yields on US securities attracted foreign investors. In one ebullient decade, railroad companies built the beginnings of a national transportation system—22,000 miles of new track running through the heavily settled states along the eastern seaboard and west to the Great Lakes—and networks of telegraph lines followed the rails. It had taken three weeks to ship grain from Chicago to New York in the 1830s; in the 1850s it took three days. Productivity soared as the vast American marketplace opened up, new ventures made their progenitors immensely rich, and everything seemed to be speeding up by previously inconceivable orders of magnitude.

Cyrus Field once said that the first word he learned in any language was “faster,” yet the idea for radically accelerating communication between America and Europe occurred to him almost by chance. Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1819, into an unusually gifted and enterprising family,1 he went into the wholesale paper business in New York and made over $200,000—roughly equivalent to $3 million today—by the age of thirty. In 1854 one of his brothers introduced him to a Canadian engineer named Frederick Gisborne who was building a telegraph line across Newfoundland to Nova Scotia but had run out of money.

Since St. John’s, Newfoundland, lies six hundred miles east of Halifax and that much closer to the British Isles, ships stopping at a Newfoundland telegraph station could cut two days off the time it took information to travel between the continents. Field listened to Gisborne’s plans but did not immediately respond. Alone in his library later, however, he looked at his globe and suddenly reconfigured the proposition: Why reduce the transit time of news by just forty-eight hours—why not telegraph information all the way across the Atlantic?

He was not the first to come up with this idea. Samuel F.B. Morse had experimented with electrical signals under water and predicted transatlantic telegraph communication in 1843, a year before he first spelled out “What hath God wrought?” in dots and dashes of code. Two English brothers named Brett laid a cable across the English Channel in 1851—connecting England to the Continent for the first time, Gordon notes, “since the last Ice Age.” By 1854, when Field met with Gisborne, submarine telegraph lines linked England to Ireland and Holland, and Italy to Corsica and Sardinia.

Over the next three months Field consulted Morse, organized a small group of investors, set up the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, and raised $1.5 million—“a huge sum for those days,” writes Gordon, pointing out that total government spending in 1854 came to $58 million, but “it would not have been nearly enough even if every-thing had gone right, which it certainly didn’t.” (Gordon, who brings a career of writing well about business to this story, is especially good on the relative values of money, offering an introductory note on the subject and crisp comparative measures.) In fact, just about everything went wrong. The company spent more than a year and a third of its capital on the easiest part of the project—building the Newfoundland– Nova Scotia connection. Shortly after workmen finished laying a cable across the Cabot Strait from Cape Ray to Cape Breton Island in the summer of 1856, Field went to England to raise more money.

American ambition and ingenuity still needed British capital and expertise. The emerging US economy did not have the resources to build enormously expensive railroads, bridges, and communication systems—the country remained a net debtor until 1914. With Morse’s help, Field persuaded the British government to provide ships for the project plus £14,000 a year once the cable was working, on condition that government messages take priority over other traffic. The Atlantic Telegraph Company, chartered in London, issued 350 shares of stock at £1,000 each—the subscribers included Lady Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Peabody.2 In Washington a few months later Field secured the US government’s backing on roughly the same terms as the British, though not without a struggle: eighty years after the Revolution, American Anglophobia still ran high, and Congress was not eager to subsidize rich men. Field’s brother Henry described lobbying for the cable in Washington as “worse than being among the icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland.”

The first cable, ready in July 1857, consisted of seven strands of copper wire twisted together and wrapped in three layers of gutta-percha, all of which was coated with tar- and linseed oil–saturated hemp, armored with iron wires, then coated with tar again. Gutta-percha, Gordon explains, is a hard yet flexible natural plastic made from the sap of Malayan trees: the nineteenth-century German industrialist Werner von Siemens found it to be an excellent waterproof electrical insulator, and in 1848 Michael Faraday published a paper about its properties. The 1857 cable was 2,500 nautical miles long (a nautical mile is about 800 feet longer than a statute mile), weighed 2,500 tons, and cost £225,000. Since no ship in 1857 could carry that much freight, the expedition engaged two—the USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon—each equipped with paying-out gear and huge cones for storing miles of coiled cable.

The Massachusetts politician and orator Edward Everett, who later had the misfortune to precede Lincoln at Gettysburg, held up a piece of the cable at a dedication ceremony in 1857 and asked if it were not a “miracle of art” that men’s thoughts about markets, seasons, elections, wars,

and all the fond nothings of daily life, should clothe themselves with elemental sparks, and shoot with fiery speed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, from hemisphere to hemisphere, far down among the uncouth monsters that wallow in the nether seas, along the wreck-paved floor, through the oozy dungeons of the rayless deep…?

On August 6 the Niagara set out from the coast of Ireland accompanied by the Agamemnon and a fleet of smaller escorts, laying down a cable that transmitted messages to shore. Engineers planned to splice the Niagara‘s cable to the Agamemnon‘s in mid-Atlantic. After the inevitable hitches everything seemed to work, until just before dawn on August 11: in deep water, the tremendous weight of dangling cable increased the strain on its braking gear, a mechanic failed to release the brake, and the cable snapped. When news of the failure reached shore, skeptics chanted, “Pop goes the cable.” Field saw the setback as temporary, caused by human error rather than anything more fundamental, and made plans to try again.

  1. 1

    One of his ancestors, the astronomer John Field, brought the Copernican revolution to England, and another emigrated to America in 1629. Several generations later, Field himself, his father, and three of his brothers earned listings in the Dictionary of American Biography. The father, David Dudley Field, graduated from Yale, went into the Congregational ministry (the hellfire-and-brimstone branch), and wrote several books. David D. Field Jr., a lawyer, represented “Boss” Tweed, Samuel J. Tilden, and the Erie Railway, and reformed common law with the Field Code of Civil Procedure. Stephen Johnson Field, also a lawyer, was appointed to the US Supreme Court by Lincoln in 1863, and sat on the bench for seven years with his sister’s son, David J. Brewer. Henry Martyn Field followed his father into the ministry and wrote, among other things, a highly popular History of the Atlantic Telegraph.

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    Field himself took eighty-eight shares, hoping to sell them in the United States. He borrowed the money (£88,000, or $440,000) from George Peabody & Co., but was unable to sell most of the shares and remained in debt to the bankers for a decade. The English company issued another £75,000 of stock in March 1858, at £20 a share. Field subscribed for a portion of that as well.

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