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“i’ll Put A Girdle Round The Earth In Forty Minutes”
It took a decade of effort, heart-breaking disappointments, and the largest ship afloat before Cyrus Field could lay a successful cable across the Atlantic
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
Cyrus West Field was one of the greatest Americans of the nineteenth century, but today there cm he few of his countrymen who remember him. I Ic opened up no frontiers, killed no Indians, founded no industrial empires, won no battles; tne work he did lias been !juried deep in the Atlantic ooze for almost one hundred years. Yet he helped to change history, and now that his dream of a telegraph to Europe has been surpassed by a still more wonderful achievement, the transatlantic telephone cable, it is only right that we should pay tribute to the almost superhuman courage which enabled him to triumph over repeated disasters.
His face is looking at me now, across the century that lies between us. It is not at all the face of the international financier or the company promoter, though Held was both these things. The thin, sensitive nose, the regular features, the deep-set, brooding eyes—these add up to a poet or musician, not to the stereotyped sad success, indistinguishable from all his ulcer-ridden colleagues we see today in the business section of Time magazine. “Visionary and chivalrous” were the words applied to Field many years later, and no one without vision would have set oil on the long and arduous quest that dominated his life for almost twelve years.
[A New Englander by birth, Field had already made a fortune in the wholesale paper business by the time he was 33, but the clfort had taken a heavy toll on his health, and he had been ordered by his doctors to relax. He took a trip to Europe with his wife, then toured South America with the famous landscape painter Frederick E. Church. To all intents and purposes Field, a millionaire by today’s standards and still a young man, had retired for good.]
He might have remained in retirement for the rest of his days if chance had not brought him into contact with F. N. Gisborne, an English engineer engaged in building a telegraph line across Newfoundland. When the Newfoundland company went bankrupt in 1853 before more than forty miles of line had been erected, Gisborne, who had been left holding the company’s debts, went to New York the next year in an attempt to raise more money lor the scheme. Dy good fortune he met Cyrus Field, who was then relaxing after his South American trip and was not at all keen on becoming involved in any further business undertakings. He listened politely to Gisborne but did not commit himsell to any promise of help. Only the uncompleted line across Newfoundland was discussed, but when the meeting was over and he was alone in his library, Field started to play with the globe and suddenly realized that the Newfoundland telegraph was merely one link in a far more important project. Why wait loi steamers to bring news from Europe? Let the telegraph do the whole job.
From that moment, ticld became obsessed with the Atlantic telegraph. True, lie was not the first man to conceive of a submarine cable linking Europe and America. In 1843 Samuel K. B. Morse, after successful experiments with an underwater telegraph cable in New York Harbor, had predicted that “telegraphic communication … may with certainty be established across the Atlantic Ocean. Startling as this may now seem, 1 am confident the time will come when the project will be realized.” Hut Cyrus Field was the first to do anything practical. The next morning he wrote letters to Morse and to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, founder of the modern science of oceanography.
By one of those coincidences that are inevitable when many people are thinking along the same lines, Maury received Field’s letter at a moment when he had written to the secretary of the navy on the same subject. Hc had forwarded a report of a recent survey of the North Atlantic, carried out by Lieutenant llerryman, disclosing the existence of a plateau between Newfoundland and Ireland. Maury had commented, in a letter to the secretary of the navy on February 22, 1854, that this plateau “seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a Submarine Telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm’s way.”
Field could hardly have hoped for better news, and a few days later Morse called to sec him with equally encouraging advice. With the world’s greatest names in oceanography and telegraphy to back him np, Field now had only to convince the financiers.
[Field turned first to his next-door neighbor in New York, the influential millionaire Peter Cooper, and with his backing and that of several other capitalists he went to Newfoundland in 1854, paid the debts of Cishorne’s company, and obtained exclusive rights for all cables touching Newfoundland and Labrador for the next fifty years. With these tangible assets, he managed to raise .S 1,250,000 in New York and organized the Xew York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, which opened a New York-to Newfoundland line in 1856, as a first stage for a transatlantic cable.
Meanwhile, Field had helped promote new HritishAmerican surveys of the North Atlantic which showed that, although the so-called “Telegraph Plateau” was not quite as flat as originally supposed, its slopes were not prohibitively severe. What was more, its greatest distance from the surface was less than 15,000 feet—and submarine cables had already been laid as dee]) as this.