The cable reduced communication time between North America and Europe, two of the most important regions in the global economy, from days to mere seconds.
Under the leadership of Field, an investment company received monetary support from the British and American governments to attempt to lay the first transatlantic cable in 1857. Two warships, HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara, converted to temporary cable-layers, rendezvoused in the middle of the Atlantic, connected their cables, and headed toward their homelands, rolling out the cable behind them. The line soon split, and the ships abandoned the project for the year. The next year, the ships tried again, and this time succeeded in laying the cable. On August 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent the first message over a transatlantic cable to President James Buchanan.
An 1858 woodcut celebrating the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable.
The success was short-lived, however, as the cable failed within a month. Investors were hesitant to spend money on another attempt, and the U.S. Civil War disrupted plans to try to lay another cable. Field was ready to try again, however, in 1865. The new cable would use a better, more water-resistant insulation. Field leased the mammoth RMS Great Eastern to lay the cable. At 32,000 tons and nearly 700 feet long, it was by far the largest ship in the world at the time. More important, it could carry the three thousand miles of cable needed by itself, making a mid-ocean rendezvous and the splicing of two cables unnecessary. Its first attempt ended in failure, however, when the cable snapped in mid-ocean. In 1866, Field tried one last time. This time, cable was laid without a flaw, and it proved to be much more durable than the earlier line. The cable became a financial success, justifying Field’s confidence in the new technology.
Gordon, John S. A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. New York: Walker, 2002. Hearn, Chester. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. McDonald, Philip Bayaud. A Saga of the Seas: The Story of Cyrus W. Field and the Laying of the First Atlantic Cable. New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1937.
Alexander Graham Bell
American Industrial Revolution
Transatlantic steamer service