Laying Of The Atlantic Cable
Author: Field, Cyrus W.
Laying Of The Atlantic Cable
Twenty-two years after the completion of the first telegraph line -
between Washington and Baltimore, in 1844 - came the greatest triumph in the
history of telegraphy. The first successful laying of an ocean telegraph, the
Atlantic cable to 1866, marked the beginning of a new era in human
intercourse, for the first achievement has been followed by others of like
magnitude in various parts of the world. It is said that the first
experiments for demonstrating the practicability of a submarine telegraph were
made by Samuel F. B. Morse, under whose direction the Washington and Baltimore
telegraph line was opened.
The successful demonstration of submarine telegraphy was made through the
work of Cyrus W. Field and his associates. He was the son of David Dudley
Field, who also had several other sons distinguished in American history.
Cyrus W. Field was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1819. In 1853 he
retired from business in New York with a fortune, and devoted himself to the
enterprise that gave him his fame. About this time Peter Cooper, Moses
Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts, Chandler White, Robert W. Lowber, and David
Dudley Field, brother of Cyrus, met at the residence of the last-named on
"four successive evenings, and, around a table covered with maps and charts
and plans and estimates, considered a project to extend a line of telegraph
from Nova Scotia to St. John's, in Newfoundland, thence to be carried across
the ocean." The undertaking appeared to the projectors to be much less
difficult than it actually proved. They thought it might be accomplished from
New York to St. John's "in a few months," but it took two years and a half to
lay this line. Few persons had any faith in the scheme, and the money for
this great initial step was all furnished by Field and his friends mentioned
The development and carrying out of the enterprise to its transatlantic
completion are here related in the words of its leading promoter, to whom the
chief honors of this inestimable service to mankind are universally ascribed.
The account was written in 1866.
At first the Atlantic-cable project was wholly an American enterprise. It
was begun, and for two years and a half was carried on, solely by American
capital. Our brethren across the sea did not even know what we were doing
away in the forests of Newfoundland. Our little company raised and expended
over a million and a quarter of dollars before an Englishman paid a single
pound sterling. Our only support outside was in the liberal character and
steady friendship of the Government of Newfoundland, for which we were greatly
indebted to Mr. E. M. Archibald, then Attorney-General of that colony. In
preparing for an ocean cable, the first soundings across the Atlantic were
made by American officers in American ships. Our scientific men - Morse,
Henry, Bache, and Maury - had taken great interest in the subject. The United
States ship Dolphin discovered the telegraphic plateau as early as 1853, and
the United States ship Arctic sounded across from Newfoundland to Ireland in
1856, a year before Her Majesty's ship Cyclops, under command of Captain
Dayman, went over the same course. This I state, not to take aught from the
just praise of England, but simply to vindicate the truth of history.
It was not till 1856 that the enterprise had any existence in England. In
that summer I went to London, and there, with Mr. John W. Brett, Mr. (now Sir)
Charles Bright, and Doctor Whitehouse, organized the Atlantic Telegraph
Company. Science had begun to contemplate the necessity of such an
enterprise; and the great Faraday cheered us with his lofty enthusiasm. Then,
for the first time, was enlisted the support of English capitalists; and then
the British Government began that generous course which it has continued ever
since - offering us ships to complete soundings across the Atlantic and to
assist in laying the cable, and an annual subsidy for the transmission of
messages. The expedition of 1857 and the two expeditions of 1858 were joint
enterprises, in which the Niagara and the Susquehanna took part with the
Agamemnon, the Leopard, the Gordon, and the Valorous; and the officers of both
navies worked with generous rivalry for the same great object. The capital -
except one-quarter which was taken by myself - was subscribed wholly in Great
Britain. The directors were almost all English bankers and merchants, though
among them was one gentleman whom we are proud to call an American - Mr.
George Peabody, a name honored in two countries, since he has showed his
princely benefactions upon both.
After two unsuccessful attempts, on the third trial we gained a brief
success. The cable was laid, and for four weeks it worked - though never very
brilliantly. It spoke, though only in broken sentences. But while it lasted
no less than four hundred messages went sent across the Atlantic. Great was
the enthusiasm it excited. It was a new thing under the sun, and for a few
weeks the public went wild over it. Of course, when it stopped, the reaction
was very great. People grew dumb and suspicious. Some thought it was all a
hoax; and many were quite sure that it never had worked at all. That kind of
odium, we have had to endure for eight years, till now, I trust, we have at
last silenced the unbelievers.
After the failure of 1858 came our darkest days. When a thing is dead,
it is hard to galvanize it into life. It is more difficult to revive an old
enterprise than to start a new one. The freshness and novelty are gone, and
the feeling of disappointment discourages further effort.
Other causes delayed a new attempt. The United States had become
involved in a tremendous war; and while the nation was struggling for life, it
had no time to spend in foreign enterprises. But in England the project was
still kept alive. The Atlantic Telegraph Company kept up its organization.
It had a noble body of directors, who had faith in the enterprise and looked
beyond its present low estate to ultimate success. Our chairman, the Right
Honorable James Stuart Wortley, did not join us in the hour of victory, but in
what seemed the hour of despair, after the failure of 1858, and he has been a
steady support through all these years.
All this time the science of submarine telegraphy was making progress.
The British Government appointed a commission to investigate the whole
subject. It was composed of eminent scientific men and practical engineers -
Galton, Wheatstone, Fairbairn, Bidder, Varley, and Latimer and Edwin Clark -
with the secretary of the company, Mr. Saward - names to be held in honor in
connection with his enterprise, along with those of other English engineers,
such as Stephenson and Brunel and Whitworth and Penn and Lloyd and Joshua
Field, who gave time and thought and labor freely to this enterprise, refusing
all compensation. This commission sat for nearly two years, and spent many
thousands of pounds in experiments. The result was a clear conviction in
every mind that it was possible to lay a telegraph across the Atlantic.
Science was also being all the while applied to practice. Submarine cables
were laid in different seas - in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea, and the
Persian Gulf. The last was laid by my friend Sir Charles Bright.
When the scientific and engineering problems were solved, we took heart
again and began to prepare for a fresh attempt. This was in 1863. In the
United States - though the war was still raging - I went from city to city,
holding meetings and trying to raise capital, but with poor success. Men came
and listened and said it was all very fine and hoped I would succeed, but did
noting. In one of the cities they gave me a large meeting and passed some
beautiful resolutions and appointed a committee of "solid men" to canvass the
city, but I did not get a solitary subscriber! In New York city I did better,
though money came by the hardest effort. By personal solicitations,
encouraged by good friends, I succeeded in raising three hundred fifty
thousand dollars. Since not many had faith, I must present one example to the
contrary, though it was not till a year later. When almost all deemed it a
hopeless scheme, one gentleman came to me and purchased stock of the Atlantic
Telegraph Company to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. That was Mr.
Loring Andrews. But at the time I speak of, it was plain that our main hope
must be in England, and I went to London. There, too, it dragged heavily.
There was a profound discouragement. Many had lost before, and were not
willing to throw more money into the sea. We needed six hundred thousand
pounds, and with our utmost efforts we had raised less than half, and there
the enterprise stood in a deadlock. It was plain that we must have help from
some new quarter. I looked around to find a man who had broad shoulders and
could carry a heavy load and who would be a giant in the cause.
At this time I was introduced to a gentleman, whom I would hold up to the
American public as a specimen of a great-hearted Englishman, Mr. Thomas
Brassey. In London he is known as one of the men who have made British
enterprise and British capital felt in all parts of the earth. I went to see
him, though with fear and trembling. He received me kindly, but put me
through such an examination as I never had before. I thought I was in the
witness-box. He asked me every possible question, but my answers satisfied
him, and he ended by saying it was an enterprise that should be carried out,
and that he would be one of ten men to furnish the money to do it. This was a
pledge of sixty thousand pounds sterling! Encouraged by this noble offer, I
looked around to find another such man, though it was almost like trying to
find two Wellingtons. But he was found in Mr. John Pender, of Manchester. I
went to his office in London one day, and we walked together to the House of
Commons, and before we got there he said he would take an equal share with Mr.
The action of these two gentlemen was a turning-point in the history of
our enterprise; for it led shortly after to a union of the well-known firm of
Glass, Elliot and Company with the Guttapercha Company, making of the two one
concern known at The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, which
included not only Mr. Brassey and Mr. Pender, but other men of great wealth,
such as Mr. George Elliot and Mr. Barclay of London, and Mr. Henry Bewley of
Dublin, and which, thus reenforced with immense capital, took up the whole
enterprise in its strong arms. We needed, I have said, six hundred thousand
pounds, and with all our efforts in England and America we raised only two
hundred eighty-five thousand pounds. This new company now came forward, and
offered to take the whole remaining three hundred fifteen thousand pounds,
besides one hundred thousand pounds of the bonds, and to make its own profits
contingent on success. Mr. Richard A. Glass was made managing director and
gave energy and vigor to all its departments, being admirably seconded by the
secretary, Mr. Shuter.
A few days after, half a dozen gentlemen joined together and bought the
Great Eastern to lay the cable; and at the head of this company was placed Mr.
Daniel Gooch, a member of Parliament, and chairman of the great Western
Railway, who was with us in both the expeditions which followed. His son, Mr.
Charles Gooch, a volunteer in the service, worked faithfully on board the
The good-fortune which favored us in our ship favored us also in our
commander, Captain Anderson, who was for years in the Cunard Line. How well
he did his part in two expeditions the result has proved, and it was just that
a mark of royal favor should fall on that manly head. Thus organized, the
work of making a new Atlantic cable was begun. The core was prepared with
infinite care, under the able superintendence of Mr. Chatterton and Mr.
Willoughby Smith, and the whole was completed in about eight months. As fast
as ready, it was taken on board the Great Eastern and coiled in three enormous
tanks, and on July 15, 1865, the ship sailed.
I will not stop to tell the story of that expedition. For a week all
went well; we had paid out one thousand two hundred miles of cable, and had
only six hundred miles farther to go, when, hauling in the cable to remedy a
fault, it parted and went to the bottom. That day I never can forget - how
men paced the deck in despair, looking out on the broad sea that had swallowed
up their hopes; and then how the brave Canning for nine days and nights
dragged the bottom of the ocean for our lost treasure, and, though he grappled
it three times, failed to bring it to the surface. The story of that
expedition, as written by Doctor Russell, who was on board the Great Eastern,
is one of the most marvellous chapters in the whole history of modern
enterprise. We returned to England defeated, yet full of resolution to begin
the battle anew. Measures were at once taken to make a second cable and fit
out a new expedition; and with that assurance I came home to New York in the
In December I went back again, when lo! all our hopes had sunk to
nothing. The Attorney-General of England had given his written opinion that
we had no legal right, without a special act of Parliament (which could not be
obtained under a year), to issue the new 12 per cent. shares, on which we
relied to raise our capital. This was a terrible blow. The works were at
once stopped, and the money which had been paid in returned to the
subscribers. Such was the state of things when I reached London on December
24, 1865, and the next day was not a "merry" Christmas to me. But it was an
inexpressible comfort to have the counsel of such men as Sir Daniel Gooch and
Sir Richard A. Glass, and to hear stout-hearted Mr. Brassey tell us to go
ahead, and, if need were, he would put down sixty thousand pounds more. It
was finally concluded that the best course was to organize a new company,
which should assume the work; and so originated the Anglo-American Telegraph
Company. It was formed by ten gentlemen who met around a table in London and
put down ten thousand pounds apiece. The great Telegraph Construction and
maintenance Company, undaunted by the failure of last year, answered us with a
subscription of one hundred thousand pounds. Soon after the books were opened
to the public, through the eminent banking house of J. S. Morgan and Company,
and in fourteen days we had raised the six hundred thousand pounds. Then the
work began again, and went on with speed. Never was greater energy infused
into any enterprise. It was only the last day of March that the new company
was formed, and it was registered as a company the next day; and yet such was
the vigor and despatch that in five months from that day the cable had been
manufactured, shipped on the Great Eastern, stretched across the Atlantic, and
was sending messages, literally swift as lightning, from continent to
Yet this was not "a lucky hit" - a fine run across the ocean in calm
weather. It was the worst weather I ever knew at that season of the year. The
despatch that appeared in the New York papers read, "The weather has been most
pleasant." I wrote it "unpleasant." We had fogs and storms almost the whole
way. Our success was the result of the highest science combined with
practical experience. Everything was perfectly organized to the minutes
detail. We had on board an admirable staff of officers, such men as Halpin
and Beckwith; engineers long used to this business, such as Canning and
Clifford and Temple; and electricians such as Professor Thomson of Glasgow and
Willoughby Smith and Laws. Mr. C. F. Varley, our companion of the year
before, remained with Sir Richard Glass at Valentia, to keep watch at that end
of the line, and Mr. Latimer Clark, who was to test the cable when done.
But our work was not over. After landing the cable safely at
Newfoundland, we had another task - to return to mid-ocean and recover that
lost in the expedition of last year. This achievement has perhaps excited
more surprise than the other. Many even now "don't understand it," and every
day I am asked "How it was done"? Well, it does seem rather difficult to fish
for a jewel at the bottom of the ocean two and a half miles deep. But it is
not so very difficult when you know how. You may be sure we did not go
fishing at random, nor was our success mere "luck." It was the triumph of the
highest nautical and engineering skill. We had four ships, and on board of
them some of the best seamen in England - men who knew the ocean as a hunter
knows every trail in the forest. There was Captain Moriarty, who was in the
Agamemnon in 1857-1858. He was in the Great Eastern in 1865, and saw the
cable when it broke; and he and Captain Anderson at once took observations so
exact that they could go right to the spot. After finding it, they marked the
line of the cable by buoys; for fogs would come, and shut out sun and stars,
so that no man could take an observation.
These buoys were anchored a few miles apart, they were numbered, and each
had a flagstaff on it so that it could be seen by day, and a lantern by night.
Having thus taken our bearings, we stood off three or four miles, so as to
come broadside on, and then, casting over the grapnel, drifted slowly down
upon it, dragging the bottom of the ocean as we went. At first it was a
little awkward to fish in such deep water, but our men got used to it, and
soon could cast a grapnel almost as straight as an old whaler throws a
harpoon. Our fishing-line was of formidable size. It was made of rope,
twisted with wires of steel, so as to bear a strain of thirty tons. It took
about two hours for the grapnel to reach bottom, but we could tell when it
struck. I often went to the bow, and sat on the rope, and could feel by the
quiver that the grapnel was dragging on the bottom two miles under us. But it
was a very slow business. We had storms and calms and fogs and squalls.
Still we worked on day after day. Once, on August 17th, we got the cable
up, and had it in full sight for five minutes, a long, slimy monster, fresh
from the ooze of the ocean's bed, but our men began to cheer so wildly that it
seemed to be frightened and suddenly broke away and went down into the sea.
This accident kept us at work two weeks longer, but, finally, on the last
night of August we caught it. We had cast the grapnel thirty times. It was a
little before midnight on Friday night that we hooked the cable, and it was a
little after midnight Sunday morning when we got it on board. What was the
anxiety of those twenty-six hours! The strain on every man was like the
strain on the cable itself. When finally it appeared, it was midnight; the
lights of the ship, and those in the boats around our bows, as they flashed in
the faces of the men, showed them eagerly watching for the cable to appear on
At length it was brought to the surface. All who were allowed to
approach crowded forward to see it. Yet not a word was spoken save by the
officers in command who were heard giving orders. All felt as if life and
death hung on the issue. It was only when the cable was brought over the bow
and on to the deck that men dared to breathe. Even then they hardly believed
their eyes. Some crept toward it to feel of it, to be sure it was there. Then
we carried it along to the electricians' room, to see if our long-sought-for
treasure was alive or dead. A few minutes of suspense, and a flash told of
the lightning current again set free. Then did the feeling long pent up burst
forth. Some turned away their heads and wept. Others broke into cheers, and
the cry ran from man to man, and was heard down in the engine-rooms, deck
below deck, and from the boats on the water, and the other ships, while
rockets lighted the darkness of the sea. Then with thankful hearts we turned
our faces again to the west.
But soon the wind rose, and for thirty-six hours we were exposed to all
the dangers of a storm on the Atlantic. Yet in the very height and fury of
the gale, as I sat in the electricians' room, a flash of light came up from
the deep, which having crossed to Ireland, came back to me in mid-ocean,
telling that those so dear to me, whom I had left on the banks of the Hudson,
were well and following us with their wishes and their prayers. This was like
a whisper of God from the sea, bidding me keep heart and hope. The Great
Eastern bore herself proudly through the storm, as if she knew that the vital
cord, which was to join two hemispheres, hung at her stern; and so, on
Saturday, September 7th, we brought our second cable safely to the shore.
But the Great Eastern did not make her voyage alone. Three other ships
attended her across the ocean - the Albany, the Medway, and the Terrible - the
officers of all of which exerted themselves to the utmost. The Queen of
England showed her appreciation of the services of some of those more
prominent in the expedition, but if it had been possible to do justice to all,
honors would have been bestowed upon many others. If this cannot be, at least
their names live in the history of this enterprise, with which they will be
When I think of them all, not only of those on the Great Eastern, but of
Captain Commerill of the Terrible, and his first officer, Mr. Curtis (who with
their ship came with us not only to Heart's Content, but afterward to the Gulf
of St. Lawrence, to help in laying the new cable), and of the officers of the
other ship, my heart is full. Better men never trod a deck. If I do not name
them all it is because they are too many, their ranks are too full of glory.
Even the sailors caught the enthusiasm of the enterprise, and were eager to
share in the honor of the achievement. Brave, stalwart men they were, at home
on the ocean and in the storm, of that sort that have carried the flag of
England around the globe. I see them now as they dragged the shore end up the
beach at Heart's Content, hugging it in their brawny arms as if it were a
shipwrecked child whom they had rescued from the dangers of the sea.
The Victory ^1
[Footnote 1: When Samuel F. B. Morse died, in 1872, memorial services were
held in many cities, and full reports of the meetings were printed in a
handsome volume, by order of Congress. At Concord, N. H., were displayed
portraits that Morse had painted when, a young artist, he had sojourned there,
and this poem was a part of the memorial exercises. - Ed.]
When Man, in his Maker's image, came
To be the lord of the new-made earth,
To conquer its forests, its beasts to tame,
To gather its treasures and know their worth,
All readily granted his power and place
Save the Ocean, the Mountain, and Time, and Space;
And these four sneered at his puny frame,
And made of his lordship a theme for mirth.
Whole ages passed while his flocks he tended,
And delved and dreamed, as the years went by
Till there came an age when his genius splendid
Had bridged the river and sailed the sky,
And raised the dome that defied the storm,
And mastered the beauties of color and form;
But his power was lost, his dominion ended,
Where Time, Space, Mountain, or Sea was nigh.
The Mountains rose in their grim inertness
Between the peoples, and made them strange,
Save as in moments of pride or pertness
They climbed the ridge of their native range,
And, looking down on the tribe below,
Saw nothing there but a deadly foe,
Heard only a war-cry, long and shrill,
In echoes leaping from hill to hill.
The Ocean rolled in its mighty splendor,
Washing the slowly wasting shore,
And the voices of nations, fierce or tender,
Lost themselves in its endless roar.
With frail ships launched on its treacherous surge,
And sad eyes fixed on its far blue verge,
Man's hold of life seemed brittle and slender,
And the Sea his master forevermore.
And Space and Time brought their huge dimensions
To separate man from his brother man,
And sowed between them a thousand dissensions,
That ripened in hatred and caste and clan.
So Sea and Mountain and Time and Space
Laughed again in his lordship's face,
And bade him blush for his weak inventions
And the narrow round his achievements ran.
But one morning he made him a slender wire,
As an artist's vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire
That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain's crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean's breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.
Then the brotherhood lost on Shinar's plain
Came back to the peoples of earth again.
"Be one!" sighed the Mountain, and shrank away.
"Be one!" murmured Ocean, in dashes of spray.
"Be one!" said Space; "I forbid no more."
"Be one!" echoed Time, "till my years are o'er."
"We are one!" said the nations, as hand met hand
In a thrill electric from land to land.
Laying Of The Atlantic Cable