Pushing the Envelope (in the 1860s)


Field, having decided to try, quickly wrote to Samuel Morse, asking about the technological problems, and to Matthew Fontaine Maury, director of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., asking about the océanographie ones. Fortuitously, Maury had just completed a report to the Secretary of the Navy on a recently charted area in the North Atlantic with gradual slopes and gentle currents that he dubbed the Telegraph Plateau. It ran from Ireland to Newfoundland, the shortest distance between Europe and North America, and was directly on the great circle route from New York. It was the ideal place for the cable.

The plan was to string a telegraph line from St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland (a full third of the way to Ireland from New York), along the southern shore of the island, and then lay a cable across the Cabot Strait in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia. There it would connect with the existing telegraph grid. Then Field would lay a cable across the Atlantic.

He raised money from wealthy New Yorkers, ordered cable from Britain, then the only country with the capacity to manufacture it, and figured the telegraph to St. John’s would be complete in a year. However, just running the telegraph line along the rugged and inhospitable southern shore of Newfoundland took more than two years.

Without waiting for that to be finished, Field hired a steamer and set sail for Newfoundland. He planned to have the steamer meet the sailing ship bringing the cable from Britain and tow her across the Cabot Strait while the cable was payed out behind her. On board the steamer, along with Field and Samuel Morse, were several backers, a lawyer or two, and several wives and children. At St. John’s they encountered the large, black, amiable, and intelligent dogs for which Newfoundland is famous and acquired several.

With children, dogs, lawyers, and clergymen, it was as much a yachting party as an economic and technological enterprise. It was also a disaster from start to finish. It turned out that laying a cable from a sailing ship under tow was nearly impossible. The captain of the chartered steamer did as he pleased instead of what he was told. The weather turned foul, and the expedition was abandoned, at great cost.

Three years later, however, a cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic, occasioning great celebrations (New York’s City Hall was nearly destroyed when fireworks set it ablaze). There was just one problem: The cable didn’t work. Queen Victoria’s 99-word congratulatory message to President Buchanan took 16 hours to transmit. In a few weeks the cable went silent, and all the vast sums expended and high hopes entertained lay with it at the bottom of the Atlantic.

What to do? Simple, the investors did what has been done ever since when technological disaster has struck, from the Titanic sinking in 1912 to the Challenger explosion in 1986. They convened a board of inquiry to find out what had gone wrong and what could be done to prevent a repetition.

A great deal had gone wrong, they learned. The cable, designed in haste (Field’s greatest weakness as an entrepreneur), was woefully inadequate. Technological disputes had been papered over rather than settled. Testing and rehearsal prior to the actual laying had been skimped on. Even the very vocabulary of electrical science was not adequate and needed to be standardized so that problems could be discussed without confusion. (Such terms as watt, ohm, ampere , and volt were soon adopted, the first honoring of great scientists and technologists of the past with verbal monuments.)

By the time the next attempts to lay the cable were made—in 1865, when simple bad luck prevented success as the cable snapped and was lost on the floor of the Atlantic, and in 1866, when final success was achieved—the technology of cable laying had been turned into a process. Instead of ladies in fashionable dresses strolling while Newfoundland dogs galumphed about, an attitude of strictly business prevailed. Everyone on board had a vital function and knew exactly what it was and how to perform it. The 1866 expedition went like clockwork and became the model for future cable-laying expeditions. These quickly became so routine that by World War I the globe had been girdled by submarine cables, and the global village, united by instant communication, had been born.

But even more important, the process by which new technology, any technology, can be most effectively exploited to improve the human condition had been developed. It would prove to be an engine of progress of unprecedented power. It has taken us to the moon and leads to the stars.