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.


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.

One of the great figures in British science sailed with each of Field’s expeditions. “If one took half the talents of Einstein, and half the talents of Edison, and succeeded in fusing such incompatible gifts into a single person,” wrote Sir Arthur Clarke in 1958, “the result would be rather like William Thomson.” A professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University, Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) formulated the first statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and devised the temperature scale that was named in his honor after he died. His interest in transient electrical currents and the speed of telegraph signals in seawater had brought him in touch with Field, although the cable’s designers ignored his ideas in the first round. After the 1857 failure, however, Thomson gradually improved the cable’s conductivity and invented the mirror galvanometer, a highly sensitive instrument for measuring electrical current that has, according to Gordon, been essential to submarine telegraphy ever since. If Thomson supplied much of the intellect for this operation, he knew who supplied its voltage: when Field returned to London from New York one spring, the physicist told him, “You are not come too soon as the ATC [Atlantic Telegraph Company] seems to require an impulse, and I am sure will be better for your presence.”

It was not human error but one of the worst storms in North Atlantic history that doomed the second expedition, in June of 1858. This time, the two ships were to meet in mid-Atlantic, then pay out cable in both directions at once, but they ran into wild weather after three days. Nicholas Woods, a reporter from the Times on board the Agamemnon, wrote: “The sea kept striking with dull, heavy violence against the vessel’s bows, forcing its way through the hawse-holes and ill-closed ports,” and “the massive beams under her upper deck coil [of cable] cracked and snapped with a noise resembling that of small artillery.” Walls of water tossed the ship around like a fishing bobber. Forty miles of cable worked itself loose “in a hopeless state of tangle,” reported Woods, “resembling nothing so much as a cargo of live eels.” Finally, after ten days, the wind and sea calmed down. The ships actually met at the appointed longitude, held still enough for the splice, then set out for opposite shores. After each had gone about 110 miles, however, the Agamemnon’s cable broke—it had been damaged by the storm—and the end plunged into the sea.


Far more surprising than the project’s failures is that these clumsy early efforts succeeded as well as they did—and that Field persisted in the face of so many natural and mechanical disasters. “God knows,” he said later, “none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish.” In retrospect, technological innovations tend to seem inevitable, but hundreds of other start-up ventures did not survive the collapse of the 1850s bubble: a panic in 1857 brought on a depression that threw 200,000 people out of work and destroyed, temporarily, the market for American securities. Field himself nearly went bankrupt. In despair at the end of 1860, he asked Junius Morgan to take his essentially worthless Atlantic Telegraph stock and forgive his large debt—an offer Morgan refused while assuring him of “our warm sympathy.”

The economic contraction did not last long: $26 million in foreign capital returned to the US markets in 1859, and the march of enterprise resumed. Western Union, encouraged by Field’s near success in 1858, started a competitive effort to connect North America to Europe the long way, by means of a cable across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Siberia.

An international incident that almost brought England into the Civil War on the side of the South helped revive the Atlantic cable’s prospects. In November 1861, the commander of a Union warship stopped the British steamer Trent and arrested two Confederate agents on their way to Europe. Britain, outraged at this violation of international law, demanded an apology, sent troops to Canada, and prepared for war. Secretary of State William Seward sent a formal explanation to the British foreign secretary (the commander had acted without orders), and Lincoln released the two agents. But the exchange of communications took almost a month. “We nearly went to war with America because we had not a telegraph across the Atlantic,” said the London Times. Field used the Trent affair to lobby potential investors and both governments on behalf of the cable, and as the war came to an end he raised substantial new funding in England. But the greatest change in his project’s fortunes came from a British engineering genius named Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

If Cyrus Field learned to say “faster” in every new language, Brunel might have wanted to say “bigger.” He had designed the first steamship built to cross the Atlantic, the 1,340-ton Great Western, in 1838, and, five years later, the first modern transatlantic passenger ship, the iron-hulled Great Britain, weighing 3,500 tons. Since fuel capacity determined how far a steamship could go, just as it does for jets, Brunel decided to build a ship that could travel from England to Ceylon and back—22,000 miles—on the coal in her own hold.3 His Great Eastern, launched early in 1858, was the biggest ship in the world, more than twice the size of the Niagara and Agamemnon combined: 693 feet long, with a 120-foot beam, 22,500-ton displacement, a double iron hull, six masts, five funnels, two fifty-eight-foot paddle wheels, and a single bronze propeller twenty-four feet in diameter. She had to be built parallel to the Thames and launched sideways. Her crew called the main deck “Oxford Street.”

While she was under construction Brunel met Cyrus Field, invited him to the shipyard, and announced, “Here is the ship to lay your cable.” Brunel died just as his leviathan was launched, but in July of 1865, two months after the last Confederate troops surrendered, the Great Eastern started across the Atlantic carrying 2,700 miles of telegraph cable, five hundred men, and enough live animals to feed them for weeks. In geography that Gilbert and Sullivan might have dreamed up, she left from Foilhummerum Bay on Valentia Island, headed for Heart’s Content, Newfoundland—and one of her escorts was the HMS Terrible.

The ship’s tremendous size proved to be not entirely an asset. William Thomson and his colleague Charles Bright had designed a stronger, more ductile cable and tested it on shore, but when the signal faltered after eighty-four miles, the crew had to haul the line up to find the fault. Since neither the Great Eastern nor the paying-out gear could maneuver backward, the men cut the cable, carried the end to the bow (which took several hours), turned the ship around, then retrieved the line at the rate of about a mile an hour. Once they located the fault they resected the cable like a ruptured aorta, transferred the end back to the stern, and headed west. They performed this laborious operation two more times, the third just six hundred miles east of Newfoundland—at which point the cable broke, “flew through the stoppers and with one bound leaped over the intervening space and flashed into the sea,” reported the Times. The engineers attached a grappling hook to five miles of wire rope—the grapple took two hours to hit bottom—and began dragging the Atlantic floor. The next day they actually hooked the cable, but as they hauled it up, some of the shackles connecting hundred-fathom lengths of wire rope broke and their quarry disappeared again. Three tries later the rope ran out. The expedition headed back to Ireland in yet another defeat. Field told the press, “We learned a great deal, and next summer we’ll lay the cable without a doubt.”

They did. In July 1866, telegraph transmissions from the Great Eastern kept Britain apprised of her progress, but the crowd waiting at Heart’s Content had no news until July 27. Early that day, reported Field’s brother Henry, the hull of the Great Eastern suddenly “loomed up all glorious in that morning sky,” and the giant ship, “gliding calmly in as if she had done nothing remarkable, dropped her anchor in front of the telegraph house, having trailed behind her a chain of two thousand miles, to bind the Old World to the New.”

Queen Victoria and President Andrew Johnson exchanged greetings. In one day the Atlantic Telegraph Company earned $60,000. Within two weeks London and New York were quoting the same currency rates. Field and his team took the Great Eastern back out to sea, fished up the broken end of the 1865 cable, and by early September had a second line working between North America and Europe. The Queen handed out honors to Britons involved in the project. London newspapers anointed Field “Lord Cable.”

Nineteenth-century hopes for the political impact of transatlantic communication sound quaintly naive from this distance, as fiber optics and billions of gigabytes fail to head off lethal international conflicts. William Seward, still secretary of state under Andrew Johnson, wrote to Field in July of 1866 recalling the Trent affair and concluded: “Your great achievement constitutes, I trust, an effective treaty of international neutrality and reunion.” Samuel Morse described the cable in 1871 as

a sacred thing…a powerful advocate for universal Peace. Not that, of itself, it can command a “Peace be still” to the angry waves of human passions, but that by its rapid interchange of thought and opinion, it gives the opportunity of explanations to acts & to laws which…often create doubt & suspicion.

Lincoln had signed a bill calling for construction of a transcontinental railroad in 1862, and on May 10, 1869—three years after Field’s triumph—the Central Pacific heading east through the Sierras from California and the Union Pacific heading west through the Great Plains finally met at Promontory Summit near Ogden, Utah. Building railroad tracks across the continent had proved to be at least as difficult as laying cable across the ocean (at one point, Central Pacific workers tunneling through hard rock with hand drills and black blasting powder progressed at the rate of a foot a day), and far more costly in dollars and lives. Since the telegraph system that accompanied the railroads west created a national electrical circuit, San Francisco after 1869 could communicate with Europe as easily as New York and Washington could.

In a brief epilogue, Gordon fills out the story of international communications technology since the 1860s. By 1902 there were fifteen cables on the floor of the Atlantic, some of them extending to Argentina and Brazil, as well as lines to India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, China, and Japan. In August 1914, the crew of a British ship in the North Sea hauled up and cut Germany’s five transatlantic cables, which forced the Germans to use the much more easily intercepted and decoded wireless telegraphy imagined by William Thomson in the 1850s and developed by Guglielmo Marconi in the 1890s. The first transatlantic telephone cable, laid in 1956, carried thirty-two calls at a time; forty years later, a transpacific cable could carry 320,000 calls at once, and in 1997, 4.2 billion overseas calls originated in the United States. According to Gordon, nearly a century and a half after the Great Eastern reached Newfoundland, most transoceanic messages still take the submarine route—only about 30 percent of global communication travels by satellite.

Had Field surrendered his Telegraph shares to Junius Morgan in 1860, the success of the transatlantic cable would have made him famous but not rich. As things turned out, he was able to pay off all his debts and build a $1 million house in the Hudson River Valley, but in the late 1880s he lost his entire fortune through speculative investments.

As to what drove him to his “great achievement”: it is easier to ascribe causes to failure and suffering than to talent or genius—easier to see why something didn’t happen than why it did. A remark William Thomson made about another figure who changed the way the nineteenth-century world worked could apply to Cyrus Field as well. Years after Edison lit up the first light bulb in 1878, someone asked Thomson—now Lord Kelvin—why no one else had figured out how to do it. Kelvin replied, “The only answer I can think of is that no one else is Edison.”

This Issue

June 12, 2003