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article number 166
article date 09-18-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Cyrus Field Pushes for a Telegraph Cable Across the Atlantic 1857-1866
by Roger Burlingame

As the American people spread, it became increasingly necessary to supply them, as we have shown, from Eastern industrial centers. This centralization of industry, growing more intense as means of distribution improved, immediately met the labor problem. Men moved, industry stood still. But industry without men could hardly function. It was therefore necessary to move other men into the vacancies. For these men there was one obvious and, indeed, unique source—Europe. With a constant stream of Europeans moving by transport which daily improved and enlarged into America, it is hardly plausible, except in the ostrich mind, to maintain indefinitely the hope of complete aloofness from the rest of the world.

The other factor which, while affecting the union of the states, undermined the nation’s insular ambitions was the telegraph. Morse was always an artist. He thought in large masses not in the thin lines of national frontiers. Morse did not “invent” the telegraph,’ but he was willing to paint it over the map of the world, splashing his paint across the most sacred and meticulous boundaries. He was also a cosmopolitan. He knew Europe as well as he knew his own country. Besides all this the “system” which he had built upon the scientific performance of Joseph Henry and the mechanical performance of Alfred Vail was by far the best that had yet been devised for land telegraphs.

Untroubled by any doctrine of isolation, Morse predicted in 1843 “that a telegraphic communication on my plan may, with certainty, be established across the Atlantic.” The year before he had personally laid submarine wires insulated with tar in New York harbor. The prediction on the basis of this slight experiment plus a study of what was known of electrical laws at the time reveals the indomitable temper of this painter. But Morse was already passing middle age, his life had been hard and he was engaged in his busiest activity, the demonstration of the telegraph on land. In the twenty-three years before the prediction could be adequately fulfilled, other men more vigorous and less engrossed would have to share this vision.

Meanwhile however, various submarine cables were tried for short distances. In 1851 a cable insulated with the new guttapercha was laid successfully across the English Channel by Jacob Brett. The next year, a cable connection was planned from New Brunswick to Newfoundland by Frederick N. Gisborne and it is here that the story of the Atlantic cable begins. The leading American characters in this tale are the Field brothers.

The Fields were an astonishing family. Sons of a Congregationalist minister, they were all brilliant, dynamic men. One was an engineer, one a judge, two were merchants in one of whom business acumen amounted surely to genius. Cyrus Field was not, as many have supposed, a technician or an inventor. Like many American business men, however, he was so gripped by a fancy, that he believed the necessary technicians could be wheeled into line to make it a fact. Several technologies owe their development to such men.

Cyrus Field.

When Gisborne’s money gave out he came, as people still do, to New York to get more. There he met Matthew Field the engineer. Matthew went to Cyrus with Gisborne’s story. Cyrus had already retired from business and had no wish to become entangled in a Newfoundland cable. As he looked at the map, however, his eyes moved across the space between Newfoundland and Ireland. It was, indeed, the shortest line across the Atlantic. Now if the cable to Newfoundland could be extended to Ireland, he thought, the enterprise would be big enough to attract him. It would, of course, be a mad undertaking in the eyes of the world.

We must recognize here an important difference between the nineteenth-century mind and the twentieth-century mind. In the 1850’s men still thought in small steps. They found great difficulty in moving from one step to another. Because a submarine cable worked successfully for twenty or thirty miles made the proposal that it should work for a thousand miles scarcely less ridiculous. Nowadays, once a means of communication or transport has successfully traversed a hundred yards we instantly conceive of it as covering the globe. But that is a matter of psychological habit which it has taken many years to produce. The men of the 1850’s were like the men of the 1830’s who could grasp a five-mile railroad but laughed and tapped their heads when its builder suggested that it should now be extended to seventy-five miles.

With Field’s proposal a great deal of head-tapping began. The bottom of the ocean was very different from the bottom of the Channel. A great body of scientific fact and law which we have today at our fingertips, was still in embryo then. Out of this ignorance it was difficult to form a concept of an ocean bottom beyond all familiar disturbances being an easier resting place for a cable than a shallow strait swept by winds and currents.

Field wasted no time. With the instinct of such men he instantly picked the experts who could help him most. One was Matthew Fontaine Maury, head of the Naval Observatory, who already knew more than most men about the bottom of the ocean; the other was Morse who, by this time, had learned much about telegraphy. Maury wrote that the year before the Government had conducted a sounding expedition over the precise line which had already seemed obvious to Field as the bed of the Atlantic cable.

Here, wrote Maury, “the bottom of the sea . . . is a plateau which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a submarine telegraph, and keeping them out of harm’s way. It is neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed, will remain forever beyond the reach of vessels’ anchors, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow, that the wires may be readily lodged upon the bottom. The depth of this plateau is quite regular …

The most important result of the soundings, however, was the discovery that strong currents did not exist at the points where the cable would lie. This discovery was made through a beautiful invention by Lieutenant J. M. Brooke of the United States Navy. The Brooke sounding apparatus was able by a simple process to pick up a bit of the ocean bottom wherever a sounding was made. These bits under a microscope showed tiny shells intact. The shells had sunk, through the ages, from the surface and had rested quietly on the bottom. Unless they had rested quietly they would not be intact. Currents would have pulverized them, long since, into sand.

Brooke’s Deep Sea Souinding Apparatus. A) The instrument ready for sounding. It is very simple, consisting only of a cannon ball, pierced with an iron rod, and held in place by slings. As the ball goes down swiftly, it drives the rod into the ocean bottom, when an opeing at the end catches the ooze in its lips. The same instant (B) the slings loosen, the ball drops off, and the rod (C) with its “bite” is drawn to the surface.

Morse, always an optimist where the telegraph was concerned, came at once to talk to Field and reassured him as to the facility with which his Morse’s, electromagnetic telegraph, would operate through an Atlantic cable. This was overconfident, technically, as the Morse-Vail instruments proved inadequate to submarine telegraphy but the optimism from a man of Morse’s standing must have been of great moral value.

Field, however, was too thorough to accept either of these assurances on their face. He insisted on a new sounding survey which the Government contributed. Then he consulted the English experts on telegraphy. His enthusiasm attracted to him such geniuses as William Thomson, the Scotch professor (later Lord Kelvin) whose invention of receiving and recording instruments made long-range submarine telegraphy a useful practice, and the young telegrapher Charles Tilston Bright, who at twenty-four had probably more technical knowledge than the great visionary Morse ever acquired.

Field then founded the “New York, New Foundland and London Telegraph Company” and, in order not to arouse too much initial popular skepticism, began operations on the practical project of stretching a cable across the St. Lawrence gulf. It is an interesting reflection on the mastery of a large visionary project over a small practical one that when, in 1866, the Atlantic had finally been spanned by the telegraph, the connection across the St. Lawrence gulf was not yet complete.

Perhaps it was an instinct of isolation which caused Americans, in spite of the leadership of Field, to allow the cable operations to pass so largely into English hands. It is curious, for America had already taken the leadership of the world in land telegraphy. But there were other factors. In America there seemed to be no more fluid capital than was needed for internal progress. The conquest of the Continent, as we shall presently see, was far from complete. In a large part of the enormous western spaces, communication and transport did not yet exist.

Already, American capital was overextended, a fact of which the panic of 1857 was a sharp and alarming index. But perhaps more potent than any of these factors, the United States was on the brink of an internal convulsion which must determine its integrity for the future.

These things all being true and the cable being technically and capitalistically so largely an English effort, why do we devote such space to it in a history of invention in America?

The answer is that we are concerned here not primarily with technics and commercial enterprise but with their causes and their effects in America. We can hardly ignore a movement whose initial impulse came from such essentially American characters as Morse and Field. We cannot escape the technical impetus which the success of the Morse system must have given to the advance of electric communication through the world. But above all this the effect of the cable on the whole history of invention; its effect on American commerce, American internal development, the American “melting pot,” and the collapse of American insular tradition is so vital that its laying must stand forever as a landmark in our history.

Another reason for its dominant position in this record is that the interval from the first attempt to the last or, roughly, the decade from 1856 to 1866 contains so many evidences of the movement of invention into the scientific method. In the story of the Atlantic cable this progress is peculiarly visible.

In 1856 the English government offered a subsidy of fourteen thousand pounds a year. An English company was incorporated, the Atlantic Cable Company, which promised full accord with Field’s American company. This was the first great gesture of “hands across the sea”. For the first time almost since the founding of the colonies the hope of a bond of friendship was popularly felt on both sides. It was a technological product; something which the utmost skill in diplomacy could never have achieved.

The United States Congress met the English subsidy in 1857 with $70,000. Both navies offered ships.

Route of completed Atlantic Cable and two proposed routes.

The story of the laying of the cable forms one of the most thrilling yarns in the annals of the Atlantic. It is a tale of continuous heroism, of furious battle with elemental forces, of persistent trial and bitter error, of ragged nerves and broken bodies, of a fight of faith against the scorn of ignorance. It was well told by contemporary journalists who accompanied the ships.

In the first attempt, the English Agamemnon and the American Niagara, each with its convoy and bearing a half of the cable, set out from Valentia, Ireland, on the 5th of August, 1857. The Niagara was to lay her cable halfway across when the Agarnemnon would splice hers to it and continue to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. This arrangement included a pretty gesture: the British should bid godspeed to the Americans in parting, but the English were to be met with frenzied greetings by Americans. The first part of the program was carried out with banquets, solemn religious services, flag-waving, and abundant salvos from cannon. The landing ceremonies were not carried out at all.

The Niagara’s cable parted and sank forever in 2000 fathoms of water on the sixth day out. Nearly four hundred miles of cable had been paid, now cut and there was no machinery for recovering it. So there was nothing for the ships to do but return to their starting point to meet the jeers of the crowds which had cheered their leaving.


The second expedition left in June, 1858. This time gestures were abandoned and it was arranged for both ships to meet in mid-ocean, splice their cables and move apart, each for her home port.

Meanwhile the paying-out machinery, the electrical instruments, and the cable itself had been somewhat improved. We see the trial-and-error method working here. These things were improved; they had not been perfected beyond the possibility of error nor were there any means of knowing beforehand that they would work.

Professor Thomson had invented a delicate instrument, the mirror galvanometer, which by a flash of light would register the faintest current. The paying-out machinery was presumably foolproof, but it was far from automatic except in the smoothest weather. In a rough sea, when the rise and fall of the stern of the ship produced variables in the rate of paying out, it was necessary to have men of quick judgment and great skill in constant attendance.

The cable was inspected as it was made and submitted to what were considered rigid tests, but a cable is a complex thing and the technologies of metallurgy and insulation were still in their infancy. Physicists of considerable standing still held what we should consider fantastic beliefs about pressures, the condensability of water, strains and, especially, electric currents.

Electrical cable paying-out machinery.

The ships were of that bastard type universal in the 1850’s which carried sail to supplement fallible engines. The sails being on hand, it was considered extravagant to use steam when not necessary as indeed it was for no ship had adequate coal bunkers. It is, therefore, more proper to look upon the Agamemnon and the Niagara as sailing ships with what we should call “auxiliary” engines than as steamers with sails ready for a desperate emergency. Nevertheless, for cable-laying, steam was essential.

Proceeding to the rendezvous the ships moved under sail. It is a great tribute to the captain and crew of the Agamemnon that she ever got there intact. The precious cable, weighing over a thousand tons, was a precarious load when she met one of the worst Atlantic storms on record. For a week the ship was at the mercy of the wind and waves. Men, equipment, and the coal which had burst from its bunkers, were rattled about her like dice in a cup. With the sick bay full, with one man gone stark mad, with every one suffering from exposure, with beams shattered and the hull leaking, the Agamemnon finally reached the rendezvous. Under these conditions, the men were hardly in shape for such a delicate operation as cable-laying. Nevertheless, nearly three hundred miles of cable were paid out before it parted and the ships put back to Queenstown.

Forgetting all these hardships, they set forth again less than a month later. When they left England on the 7th of July on the third try, there were no ceremonies. No crowds saw them off and no flags waved. Popular interest in the whole adventure was nearly gone. It revived more than three weeks later when a signal was sent over a complete cable from Valentia, Ireland, to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.


The celebration on both sides of the water lasted for days. Bright and Field were banqueted, given medals, freedoms of cities, cannonades, torchlight processions, and every demonstration of hero-worship that could be devised. Meanwhile, however, the anxious operators at the end stations were sending experimental messages, receiving them with great difficulty, and constantly wondering at the weakness of the currents. Without Thomson’s delicate flashing mirror they never could have received them at all. For twenty days, this faint whisper continued beneath the fanfares of the celebration until, on September 1, the last message came through. The rest was silence and, overnight, the heroes became villains.

The public of the day seems youthful and fickle enough as we look back upon it. It is hardly imaginable today that the failure of a great experiment in applied science could be met with such universal contempt. On the other hand, it is also unlikely that the effort would be so eagerly followed by the masses of the people. Today such experiments make a quiet progress under the cover of laboratories; they seldom appear at all until it is known beyond the flicker of a doubt that they will be successful.

But in the 1850’s, in spite of the astonishing demonstrations they had already seen or read about, men were still skeptical about scientific novelties. They had, still, a romantic attitude toward them. They were ready to cheer the incredible new thing—if it worked—just as they would applaud a show of magic or a fine performance on the trapeze. But if it did not work, they were equally ready to shake their heads to shout “I told you so” or to smell out a “hoax.”

The day of colossal practical jokes is happily past at least in the realm of science. Hoaxes are still practiced in the form of rackets and totalitarian experiments but we no longer regard them as funny. April Fool’s Day, product of a peculiar phase of humor which reached its apogee in the Victorian era, has gone back to the recess yard of the grammar school where it belongs. But in the 1850’s such things were in vogue and men believed that the Atlantic cable was one of them. In English and American papers editorials appeared entitled, “Was the Atlantic Cable a Humbug?” and “Very Like a Whale,” and one writer laboriously proved to his own satisfaction that the whole laying of the cable was a myth. “The difficulty,” writes Cyrus Field’s brother Henry, “of finding a motive for the perpetration of such a stupendous fraud did not at all embarrass these ingenious writers. Was it not enough to make the world stare? To furnish something to the gaping crowd, even though it were but a nine-days’ wonder.”

It must have been one of the most heartbreaking periods in the history of invention-that interval between the old magic and the new science. It did not end until Langley’s heart broke with his flying machine. Yet in ten years after the first cable, great progress was made away from it.

For seven years, no further attempt was made to lay an Atlantic cable. War in the interval interrupted the interest and the availability of money in the United States. When it was proved that the first cable was not a hoax, popular admiration of Field revived but no capital was forthcoming. For these reasons the bulk of the later effort to lay a successful cable came from England.

In the meantime an immense amount of research was done. The first cable had been a terrible lesson to the experimenters. After it we see the new method in invention dominating. In the early 1860’s it was obvious that there would be no more trial-and-error activity as far as the cable was concerned. In 1859 a commission was appointed in England to make a scientific exploration of every detail of theory and practice. It reported the complete feasibility of an Atlantic cable. Still the capital was withheld. This was extremely fortunate because it allowed further time for research. Here we see a curious interplay: the absence of capital actually advanced the progress of invention. During these years, the scientific method gained a secure foothold.

By 1865, the success of several cables in various parts of the world had stimulated English investors. But by 1865, also, knowledge of electricity, electrical invention, engineering technique, and most of the collateral technologies had moved to a point where the likelihood of error was much reduced.

One of these technologies was shipbuilding. In London, an iron ship had been built of 27,384 tons, 692’ x 83’ X 58’, with paddle wheels and screw propellers, and engines developing over 3000 horsepower. The Great Eastern was ahead of her time. Once launched, no use could be found for her until the Atlantic cable companies were ready. By the time they had accumulated their capital, nothing short of this leviathan seemed adequate to their colossal dream. So the Great Eastern, by now a white elephant as well as a leviathan, was bought for the cable.

In the electrical field, new insulating material, new, beautiful devices for testing currents and discovering faults had been designed. The paying-out machinery was infallible. Everything was infallible but the men.

Cable manufacturing.

In the expedition of 1865, two faults were revealed in the cable due, apparently, to sabotage. No motive was ever discovered. The cable broke when the ship was within six hundred miles of its destination. It sank in about two miles of water. At this point a new technology developed which later saved this cable. To grapple for and raise to the surface, a cable lost in such a depth was an undreamed-of feat in 1858. It was almost done in 1865. Three times the cable was brought up—once halfway—when the ropes broke. At last there was no more rope and the Great Eastern put home.

The story grows duller as it nears success. This is often true of later technological achievement. Much of the thrill and romance of the older Stories was in the mistakes. It is difficult to enthrall the popular fancy with a set of blueprints or test tubes; a laboratory which strangles human error. So the successful laying of the cable in 1866 was accepted by the public with a seriousness and realism which revealed the dawn of a new era of thought.

We are not deeply concerned here with the final successful trip of the Great Eastern in 1866 or with the recovery of the lost cable which made possible the operation of two Atlantic cables instead of one. We have been concerned with the earlier details because they showed the progress and change of thought; the final phase of the transition which was so vital to our modern civilization. Our interest from this point is in the effect of the new, rapid, international communication upon American society.

On one of the decks of the Great Eastern stood a bulletin board. Here, every day, was posted the news from Europe. In the first day while the coast line was still visible, in the next day while the thought of men still lingered at home, the full, clear miracle may not have caught their minds. But as the vast ocean stretched behind them with its world-old tradition of peril and mystery, the continuous flow of words, of intelligent sentences which were written out and posted for all to see must have wrought a revolution in the mind. The difference between these words, this casual conversation and the vague, flickering signals seen on the Agamemnon galvanometer was probably greater than that between the telegraphy on the Great Eastern and modern radiotelephony.

Great Eastern laying cable.

During the voyage, war broke out between Austria and Prussia. It was a short war. By the time the voyage was over, a treaty of peace had been arranged. Both these intelligences were sent over the new cable. From the moment of landing, news was incessant: London market prices, debates in Parliament and, finally, personal news, business transactions, intelligence of life and death.

As the press made these things familiar, old antipathies disappeared, new relationships grew up. As more cables were laid, immediate contact came also with the rest of Europe. Overnight, Paris styles were adopted in New York, goods were ordered and commerce was stimulated. International disputes were settled by a word of instantaneous explanation. News of American industry stimulated emigration from Europe, helped fill the melting pot.

But the telegraph across the Atlantic had further consequences in the realm of invention. New transport must be devised to keep up with the speed of intelligence. Merchants who cabled orders expected quick delivery. People hearing through the cable of new things in Europe wanted them immediately in America. Often cabled news created an urgent necessity for someone to go to Europe before some emergency was over. Thus, the facilities for transport were multiplied and magnified and competition grew among the nations for the best and fastest steamers.

The news of scientific discoveries and technological inventions, instantaneously transmitted, quickened the pace of progress. An inventor working in England, getting news of the missing link in his device, was able to bring his invention to a quick finish. Knowledge of current demands and markets made dozens of new machines instantly necessary. Patent and copyright systems must be revised, made international. Indeed, a whole new conception and code of international law came into being.

Telegraph message operations changed our society.

It seems curious, under all these circumstances, that so many Americans still cherished the dream of isolation. This will be easier to understand, however, when we realize that when the cable was laid, the conquest of our own continent was not yet complete. There were still great empty spaces; between the Mississippi and the Rockies there were still unorganized wild lands whose people were red Indians. A civilization had grown up on the Pacific coast, but between this and the East there was still a hazardous overland journey by stagecoaches which were pursued by enemies. It is not surprising that so many preferred the long sea route and, for freight this was of course the only possibility.

And there were still the frontiers. There were remote and lonely outposts which held little communication with the rest of America, not to mention the rest of the world. In such places isolation was a fact, not a dream. And there were enough of them to keep the dream alive for another half century.

We have shown how the dream of disunion endured long after the fact of disunion had ceased to exist. We have shown how the social consciousness of this awoke only after a war had proved the underlying truth—a product largely of technology. In the same way it would take another war, a half century later, to shatter the fantasy of our aloofness from the other nations.

Meanwhile and immediately after the completion of the Atlantic cable, a transcontinental railroad—the project which so tormented Lincoln—became an irresistible necessity.

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