Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Cyrus W. Field,
the Designer of the Atlantic Cable

The work done by Morse in inventing the electric telegraph and stretching it over the land was but half the battle to be fought. He had made the continents a pathway for thought, but the ocean remained to be conquered also, a channel needed to be made through the depths of the seas for the passage of human thought, and the invader of this watery realm came in the person of Cyrus West Field.

This man of enterprise, who was born at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, November 30, 1819, was a retired merchant of thirty-five years of age when the movement of events first brought him into the field of telegraph invention. He was one of four brothers who became notable in various ways. One of these, David Dudley Field, became prominent in the law, and was president of a commission to digest the political, penal, and civil codes of law in New York. A second, Stephen J. Field, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, and afterwards an Associate Justice in the Supreme Court of the United States. A third, Henry M. Field, was prominent as a clergyman and author, and editor of The New York Evangelist. The fourth, by far the most famous of them all, is the one with whom we are specially concerned. He entered into business, made a fortune, and retired to enjoy it while still young.

This was at the time that the newest great discovery, the electric telegraph, was becoming widely known, being laid rapidly in all directions, and men had not yet ceased to wonder at its marvellous powers. In 1854 a number of enterprising persons became associated in an ambitious scheme. They undertook to build a telegraph line across the island of Newfoundland, and connect it with a line of fast steamers from the eastern side of that island, arguing that these could reach Ireland in five days, and the news of Europe be brought to America within a week.

These men had ideas, but they lacked cash. They wanted a man with money to help them. After trying to build the line and failing for want of funds, they looked around for a suitable man of wealth. Some of them knew of Mr. Field as a man who had built up a big business from a small beginning, was able, rich, and enterprising, and was out of business and with leisure to look into their scheme.

The plan was strongly laid before the retired merchant. He was assured it would be of great benefit to the country and be certain to pay. He promised to think of it, and as he sat in his library, slowly turning a globe and looking for the situation of Newfoundland and its distance from Ireland, the thought came to him: "Why not carry the line across the ocean?"

It was one of those illuminating thoughts which lie at the basis of most great enterprises. Field turned it over in his head, studied what had been done with the telegraph, and became daily more assured that it could be accomplished. It had some warrant in preceding efforts. Morse had suggested an Atlantic telegraph in 1842, before his first land line was laid, and in 1852 a submarine cable had been laid from Dover to Ostend, thus connecting England with the continent of Europe.

The idea conceived, Field lost no time in putting it in practice. In 1855 he obtained from the legislature of Newfoundland the sole right for fifty years to land telegraph cables, from either Europe or America, on that island. He was the man for the work, full of energy, enterprise, and enthusiasm. He formed a stock company at once, and followed this by organizing in London the "Atlantic Telegraph Company." His faith in the project was shown by his furnishing one-fourth of the capital himself. So devoted was he to the work that he crossed the ocean nearly thirty times before it was finally carried out.

The project called for great care in the preparation of the cable. It needed to be made strong and flexible and to be thoroughly insulated. A mere pin-hole in its entire length might let the electric current escape. The centre steel wire was wound round with small copper wires, and these were covered with several coatings of gutta-percha and Manila hemp. Gutta-percha is a non-conductor of electricity, and was intended to prevent the current from leaving the interior wires. Outside of all these, eighteen strands of iron wires were laid.

The submarine lines already laid served as examples. In addition to that between England and France, one was now working from Newfoundland to the main-land of America. These short ones were successful; why should not a longer one be? Field's enthusiasm induced some wealthy men to put money into the enterprise, and in 1857 a wire was ready and an expedition set out to lay it on the ocean bottom, ships being provided by the American and English governments. This first attempt proved a failure, as did a second one in the spring of the following year. But in August of that year a third trial was made and this time with success. For the first time in history the thoughts of man were sent in an instant of time under and across the ocean.

Those who lived in those days will remember the vast interest, the great excitement, it produced. There were celebrations on both sides of the water. Messages passed between President Buchanan and Queen Victoria, words of greeting and congratulation. They passed very slowly, but they passed. It took sixty-seven minutes to send the queen's message of ninety words. The current was distressingly feeble. It gradually failed and ceased to work. The sending of messages across the ocean was at an end.

Field now found himself in a quandary. These experiments had been very costly, and the capitalists began to think that there was enough of their money lying on the bottom of the ocean. They tied their purse strings, and the enterprising projector found money for a new cable very hard to get. "It worked once. It will work again," he argued. "It failed once, it may fail again," they answered. They had the best of the argument, for they had the money and the answer both.

Then came on the American Civil War, which put an end to the enterprise for four long years. But Cyrus Field did not despair. All through the war he kept at it, arguing, persuading, beseeching, and in time the money for a new and stronger cable came in. In August, 1865, the new cable was ready. It was much superior to that of seven years earlier. Two ships had been used in 1858, and the wires spliced in mid-ocean. Now only one, the huge "Great Eastern," was employed. On her decks the whole length of cable, 2300 miles, weighing 4000 tons, was laid, and she steamed away from Valentia, Ireland, on her difficult task. All went well until she was 1067 miles out, when by accident too much strain was put on the cable, it broke and sank, and failure had come again.

But the end was near at hand. With great difficulty Field raised more funds, had another cable made, lighter and stronger than the last one, and this time the "Great Eastern" made her journey without an accident, the shore end was safely landed at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, messages passed freely from end to end, and one of the most wonderful of modern enterprises was safely accomplished. Then the ship went back to mid-ocean, grappled in the water's depths, two miles down, for the lost cable of the year before, caught it and brought it up, spliced it to the unlaid part, and set out again for Newfoundland. This, too, was landed, and two electric cables crossed the seas. Cyrus Field had not only achieved his great work, but had duplicated it.

The wires worked splendidly. Men began to talk across the ocean as they had formerly talked across the street. It was expensive at first, one hundred dollars being charged for twenty words of five letters each. But the rates soon went down, and now, instead of paying five dollars for a word, messages can be sent for twenty-five cents a word.

Mr. Field's success brought him the highest honor. Men no longer laughed at his enterprise as, years before, they had laughed at that of Morse, and, years earlier still, at that of Fulton. Congress voted him the thanks of the nation, and presented him a gold medal and other testimonials of honor and respect. The French Exposition, which was held soon afterwards, gave him its grand medal, and honors were showered upon him from other quarters. Success in his great enterprise had made him one of the conquering heroes of the world.

Mr. Field did not rest in his later years, but spent an active and useful life, taking part in various important business enterprises. In 1871 he went into a company which proposed to lay a cable across the Pacific by way of Hawaii and Japan to China. This was not done, but since then electric cables have been laid across that great ocean. He also took part in laying the street railways of New York, and engaged very actively in the building of the elevated railways of that city. He died in New York, July la, 1892.