This year marks the 150th anniversary of when Britain and America were permanently connected by the transatlantic cable and it should be the occasion to remember its forgotten architect. Cyrus West Field deserves to be better remembered as a giant figure in the history of international communications. In 1844 Samuel Morse said a telegraph line would be established across the Atlantic linking Britain and the US in real time. It was to be over 20 years before Cyrus Field could prove him right.
Ten years before Morse’s prediction, the 15-year-old Field was starting his working life as an office boy in New York’s first department store, A. T. Stewart Co. Cyrus did well enough that his salary was doubled each year until he left to join a paper manufacturing company. By 1839, aged 20, he was a partner in the paper wholesaler E. Root and Company. He proved an extremely savvy paper merchant. Profits from business ventures allowed him to retire at 33 with a quarter of a million dollars. His wealth allowed him to concentrate on a sudden burning passion: laying the first telegraphic cable across the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1854, he was approached by Frederick Gisborne, the developer of the cross-Newfoundland telegraph line. Gisborne was in financial strife and he tried to persuade Field to invest in his company. Field was not keen but the meeting produced an epiphany. As his brother Henry Field reported after Gisborne left the meeting, “Mr Field took the globe which was standing in the library and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him, that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.”
The globe showed Field that it might be possible to link Europe and North America via the two nearest land points: Newfoundland and the west of Ireland. It would shorten the time for messages to cross the ocean by two weeks.
Any cable living on the bottom of the ocean would need good waterproofing and electrical insulation. Samuel Canning had recently identified Gutta-percha, a resin from the Isonandra Gutta tree in Malaya as a suitable insulating material.
Field also knew that the transatlantic project would require an enormous amount of capital. From his home in Gramercy Park, he galvanised his wealthy neighbours and created what he called a “castle cabinet”. His first stop was neighbour, industrialist, and inventor of jello, Peter Cooper. Cooper was intrigued by the project and said it offered the possibility of “a mighty power for the good of the world”.
Field obtained other crucial backers in Gisborne, banker Moses Taylor, shipowner Marshall Roberts and his long-term ally from the paper business Chandler White. These were all powerful men who could see the financial value in urgent cross-Atlantic communication. The final member of his castle cabinet was Samuel Morse himself, whom the US Supreme Court had just confirmed as sole patent of the electric telegraph.
On March 10, 1854, the cabinet agreed to take over Gisborne’s company. They formed a new company called the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (N.Y.N.L.T.C., or given the difficult of remembering the initials called simply “the Company”). They managed to raise the extraordinary amount of $1.5 million in private funding for the project, an amount equal to roughly 2.5 percent of what was then the total expenditure of the US government. Yet this colossal amount wasn’t enough and Field was forced to travel many times to Britain to drum up more support.
By July 1857, all 2,500 nautical miles of the first transatlantic cable was manufactured and ready to load. No one ship could shoulder the entire load so the British and American navies provided one each carrying half a cable. They went to the middle of the Atlantic where their cables were spliced and set off in opposite directions. The USS Niagara was a modern ship and much faster than the ancient hulk of HMS Agamemnon. But it was the Niagara that hit trouble. It had laid 400 miles of cable when a huge wave struck and snapped the cable.
Field took this defeat in his stride and tried again twice in 1858. The second voyage failed again with a snapped cable. But the third time they got lucky. Once again it was the Niagara and the Agamemnon who faced off across the Atlantic. This time the cable held and the two ships successfully made shore. North America and Europe were linked.
This was an occasion of great, if shortlived, joy. In August 1858 Field arranged for Queen Victoria to send the first transatlantic message to President James Buchanan. The Queen’s 99 word message to Washington took almost 18 hours to transmit. Despite the slowness, New York erupted in celebrations, lauding Field, Morse, modern technology, and American ingenuity in general.
Compared to 2 weeks, 18 hours was a vast improvement. But it was still a work in progress. Field posed for Mathew Brady, who would achieve greatest success for his realistic Civil War photography. Brady added two key props for his portrait of Field – a length of wire cable and a globe.
But the cable would provide Field’s undoing again. Victoria’s message took too long to transmit and it was getting worse. The cable finally broke after three weeks. Celebration turned to anger. The Boston Courier newspaper suggested that the entire project had been part of an elaborate stock fraud and the cable had never worked. Their front page screamed a conspiracy theory headline: “Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?”
When the British cable in the Red Sea failed a year later, a committee of enquiry was asked to find out why underwater cables were humbug. Field and his electrician Dr Edward Whitehouse gave evidence. Serious problems emerged from the design of the cable. The cause was twofold. The first cause was the hastiness of the project due to Field’s relentless monomania, proving both a plus and a minus to the project. The second was Whitehouse’s excessive voltage to the cable. Whitehouse was trying to overcome the problem of low current which slowed down the operation.
Scottish physicist William Thomson solved that problem with his mirror galvanometer. The mirror galvanometer was a long distance receiver which could detect signals a thousand times fainter than other receivers.
But the cable project was put on hold for five years by the Civil War. A new attempt was undertaken in 1865 with much-improved material. This time just one ship was used to lay the cable, the massive SS Great Eastern designed by Brunel. Built since Field last laid the cable, it was the largest steamship in the world and completed the job in July 1866. The new connection was successful, more durable than before and many times faster. Even more public confidence resulted when a second cable was established shortly afterwards. The modern age had safely begun.
Field’s finest hour would herald an astonishing downfall in his fortunes. With the profits from the Atlantic Cable company, Cyrus Field invested in New York’s elevated railroad. The railroads were successful, but Field was double-crossed by business partners, Jay Gould and his friend Russell Sage, who had well earned their nicknames of “robber barons”. Field suffered the ultimate indignity when his remaining fortune was stolen by his son. Field died in 1892, almost penniless.
But his cable had profound impact. It brought London and Wall St into each others sphere of instantaneous communication and influence. News and information could now spread quickly across the world from San Francisco to Singapore. Field remains relatively unknown but his transatlantic cable was one of the major birth pangs of the global village.