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The Story of the First Transatlantic Cable

Connecting New York to London, and to the rest of the world.


This October, historian and New York Times Bestselling author Kevin Baker (known for Paradise Alley) will release his new book, America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World. It’s filled with over 75 short stories of the people and innovations that changed the world — the stories behind iconic structures like the New York subway, Golden Gate Bridge and Transcontinental Railroad, as well as much of the tech that we take for granted today, like the electric guitar, the elevator and the athletic shoe.

The excerpt below, titled “Faster: The Transatlantic Cable,” is one of those stories. It follows the trials and tribulations of Cyrus Field, an American entrepreneur who headed the task of laying telegraph wire — 2,500 nautical miles of it — from London to New York.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from America the Ingenious by Kevin Baker (Artisan Books). Copyright ©2016. Illustrations by Chris Dent.

By 1860, just sixteen years after the original thirty-eight miles of Morse’s wires were strung up, there were fifty thousand miles of telegraph lines in the United States, or about 40 percent of all the mileage in the world. Every year, some five million messages zipped back and forth between Americans — but it still took a ten-day ocean voyage to get any news from Europe.

Telegraph cables had recently been laid across the English Channel and New York Harbor, but deep ocean? Any cable would have to be incredibly well insulated and somehow avoid deep water canyons and jagged rocks. Who knew if ships could even carry all the heavy coils of cable necessary, much less lower them smoothly enough that they did not snap or pile up on themselves? Who knew if telegraphic signals, without the relays available on land, could travel such a distance at all?

Cyrus Field was willing to find out. A paper magnate and art patron who, whenever he visited a foreign country, always asked first what the word for “faster” was, Field was introduced to a telegraph company owner with a scheme to lay an under-water cable across the Cabot Strait, from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. Field proposed a more audacious idea: Why not lay a cable all the way across the Atlantic Ocean?

Living up to his favorite word, Field quickly raised $1.5 million in private funds. Consulting the country’s leading oceanographer, Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, he was informed that recent deep-sea soundings indicated there was a perfect “telegraph plateau” across the North Atlantic. When most of the company’s seed money was exhausted in the unexpectedly difficult effort just to get the cable across Cabot Strait, Field rushed off to England on what would be the first of more than thirty transatlantic crossings for his baby. There British foreign secretary Lord Clarendon asked him, “Suppose you make the attempt and fail — your cable is lost at sea — then what will you do?”

“Charge it to profit and loss, and go to work to lay another,” Field replied, so impressing Clarendon that he secured for him a subsidy of £1,400 a year and the promise of a ship.

All 2,500 nautical miles’ worth were wrapped in gutta-percha, a sort of natural plastic extracted from the sap of Malaysian trees.

Field raised still more money from London investors, then raced back to America to lobby Congress. After two months of heated debate, backing for the cable passed by one vote in the Senate. President Franklin Pierce signed the Atlantic Cable Act into law on his last day in office, and the transatlantic cable quickly captured the imagination of America. The New York Herald called it “the grandest work which has ever been attempted by the genius and enterprise of man.”

The cable itself was manufactured in England, seven strands of copper wire connected strand by strand by riggers, with a copper penny soldered in for luck. All 2,500 nautical miles’ worth were wrapped in gutta-percha, a sort of natural plastic extracted from the sap of Malaysian trees. Too heavy for any one ship, it was carried on both the USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon.

The Atlantic would not go quietly. The cable broke the first day, was repaired, then went dead for a few hours for no perceptible reason. Then, just four hundred miles from Ireland, it snapped after a heavy wave hit the Niagara and sank in water two miles deep. They tried again the next year. But the Agamemnon nearly sank in a storm, and the cables repeatedly snapped again.

Field stayed publicly calm, but privately his resolve had begun to crack. Only the intervention of his friend and president of the company, Peter Cooper, had kept his paper business from going bankrupt during the 1857 financial panic, and now the cable had failed again.

The Niagara and the Agamemnon set off once more. All the metal aboard the Niagara made its compass go awry and pulled it off course, but the problem was discovered in time and another ship sent ahead to show the way. The Agamemnon nearly ran out of coal and had to rely on its sails to get back to Ireland. But at 1:45 on the morning of August 5, 1858, Field rowed himself up on a Newfoundland beach and woke the local telegraph operators with the announcement “The cable is laid!”

Both sides of the Atlantic erupted in joy — prematurely. Messages across the Atlantic were faint and interminably slow. Within three weeks, they had stopped altogether. The House of Commons held its first committee of inquiry on a technological matter and found that the cable was essentially “blown out” from massive electrical bursts. Field had proceeded without sufficient testing and preparation. “Faster” was too fast.

Field learned from the committee’s findings. In July 1865 he was back at it again with more investors, better cable, and a single, gigantic vessel, the Great Eastern, the largest ship yet put afloat. As it proceeded across the Atlantic from Ireland, multiple flaws were found in the cable’s connections, and each time it had to be hauled back up, as one reporter wrote, like “an elephant taking up a straw in its proboscis.” The breaks were caused by small spikes in the line, a fault in the iron sheathing around the cable. Each flaw was corrected — but during one such procedure, less than six hundred miles off Newfoundland, the cable snapped and sank. Eleven days of grappling the ocean floor failed to retrieve it.

“We’ve learned a great deal, and next summer we’ll lay the cable without a doubt,” Field announced.

He was right. On July 27, 1866, the first transatlantic cable was successfully connected.

Many more cables would follow, and communications around the world — and particularly between New York and London — were soon so fast that it was another reason why historians referred to the telegraph as the “Victorian Internet.” Phone and fiber-optic cables followed the telegraphic lines, and to this day they remain much cheaper than satellite phone connections — and vital to world finance. A privately owned cable line was installed in 2010 simply to reduce the “latency” of a call across the Atlantic from sixty-five to sixty milliseconds.

As for Field’s old cables, most of them are still down on the ocean floor, including the very first, failed ones. Ships repairing new wiring occasionally pick them up by accident, a reminder of our first connections.

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