📸 The HMS Agamemnon laying the transatlantic cable.
Ten years after Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraph message in 1844, the world was hooked on the new form of rapid communication. Transmission lines criss-crossed the world—even 20 miles of the English Channel could not hold back the constant flow of messages. Yet even with all this progress, overcoming the Atlantic Ocean seemed an impossible task. About two thousand miles of ocean separated the closest two points between Europe and North America, and the depth along the route often exceeded two miles. Spanning this enormous gap would require the insurmountable will of a person of immense vision and grit.
📸 Field, circa 1870.
Born in 1819, Cyrus West Field was one of eight children. He began an early career in business as a dry goods merchant in New York, leaving to become a paper salesman. Still young, he joined a paper manufacturing partnership, then nearly fell into financial ruin when the business collapsed and he somehow came out personally responsible for the debts of his partners. Not to be held down, Field went out and started a new paper manufacturing business, becoming a primary supplier to the burgeoning penny presses of the day. Field sold his business and found himself incredibly wealthy.
The young Field was suddenly a retiree, but he still hungered for his next challenge. It was during this time that he was introduced to Frederick Newton Gisborne, a British-Canadian engineer who dreamed of a cable that connected North America to Europe. Attempting the project himself had landed Gisborne in hot water—he was $50,000 in debt and his attempts to link New York to Newfoundland had ended with his cable stranded on the bottom of Cabot Strait. Field was just the man to revitalize Gisborne’s dream. Beyond his incredible wealth, Field had the political cache and social connections to make the transatlantic cable a reality.
Field drew on a recent U.S. Navy survey that found the Atlantic seabed between Newfoundland and Ireland was uncharacteristically flat. The perfect place for a cable also had the perfect conditions. Bolstered by wealthy investors like Moses Taylor of the City Bank of New York, Field set to finishing Gisborne’s initial work of connecting New York to Newfoundland. Arriving in London, Field sold £1,000 shares of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, primarily to cotton brokers seeking to break into the American market. With funding secured, Field turned his eyes to the hard part: the actual laying of cable across over 2,000 miles of open ocean.
📸 A length of excess cable being carried during the parade.
On July 29, 1858, two ships met in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara, to link their cables and set sail in opposite directions across the sea. They had met twice before, but both attempts had ended in snapped cables. This time, they were successful, but it would be no easy sailing for the two ships, especially the Agamemnon. When it arrived in Ireland on August 5, the ship was a skeleton of itself, the crew having burnt parts of its deck to power the engines after its coal had been depleted in stormy seas. The ship’s length of cable was linked to a galvanometer at the Knightstown telegraph office.
In that moment, the world shrunk, information now able to travel in seconds across a distance of 2,000 miles. Initial public skepticism of the project was shattered on August 16, when the first non-test message was transmitted. Church bells rang out across New York as the city came to standstill, a fireworks display in Central Park that night attracted a sixth of New York’s 600,000 residents. A parade in honor of the cable was attended by half a million, Field and crew members of the Niagara cruising down Broadway aboard a miniature replica of the ship.
📸 A cartoon commemorating the link between the U.S. and U.K.
As rapturous as the celebrations were, they were ultimately short-lived. The cable, which at first was able to broadcast messages across a matter of seconds, quickly slowed. Just a few weeks after its first transmission, the cable was functionally useless. Chief Engineer Edward Whitehouse attempted to revitalize the system by sending 2,000 volts through the cable, ultimately destroying it, but Whitehouse only sped up what was inevitable. The cable’s insulation had been compromised during its transport, its failure was only a matter of when, not if. Just as they had been elated by its success, the public was dismayed by its failure, with an unfounded conspiracy theory circulating that the cable had been a con all along.
The first transatlantic telegraph cable, for a brief window of a few weeks, represented the height of utopian idealism and fledgling globalization that defined the mid-nineteenth century. Its failure was a major dash to this idealistic time, but Field, never one to be put down, refused to give up. He set back to work immediately, creating a new company and ten years later a new, sturdier cable was set in place, one that did not fail. The end of the first transatlantic cable, while a disaster at the time, was an important first step to a better-connected world, one that we live in today.
Before the cable failed, Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. purchased the remaining material from Field with the intent of fashioning it into jewelry and other souvenirs. Tiffany was unable to sell more than a few of the finished pieces before the cable's failure, after which the material was unwanted by a disheartened and angry public. Fortunately, that means there is plenty of the material to be had today, a relic of a doomed by valiant first attempt to connect the world and bring it into the very beginnings of the Information Age.
You can check out some of this fantastic cable in the shop right now! Mini Museum is excited to offer a piece of this magnificent moment of history for your collection.
Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s Online Pioneers. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.
Hearn, Chester G. Circuits in the sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Nathan, Adele Gutman. The First Transatlantic Cable. 1959
Wilson B. Heyday : the 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age. First edition. Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group; 2016.