Pushing the Envelope (in the 1860s)

Oscar Hammerstein II, in “Getting to Know You” from The King and I , wrote that “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” In a sense the same is true of those of us who write nonfiction books. A person is asked to write on a particular subject, presumably, because he knows something about it. But by the time the book is finished, he has invariably learned far more than he knew to start with, for the process of writing is a great teacher. Often he finds that the most important part of the story is something he didn’t even suspect in the beginning. This has certainly been true of the book I’ve just completed, A Thread Across the Ocean , the story of the laying of the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic.

Today we live in a world so wired together that it is nearly impossible to imagine any other world. Thanks to the Internet, I correspond regularly with people half a world away whom I have never met in the flesh and probably never will. Yet I am old enough to remember when calling long distance required an operator and was expensive (“Quiet, you children, your grandfather’s talking long distance !”) and overseas calls were very rare indeed. But even those primitive times, 50 years ago, are as nothing compared with the isolation in which this country grew to nationhood.

I have a photocopy of a deed for a pew in St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, purchased by an ancestor of mine, Thomas Nightingale, in 1760. The deed is dated “the fifth day of December in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty and in the Thirty-Fourth year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King GEORGE the Second. …”

But George II had died suddenly on October 25, 1760. December 5, therefore, was in the first year of the reign of his grandson, George III. It is no small measure of the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean in the eighteenth century that the King’s richest North American possession would lie in ignorance of his death six weeks after the event.

The Industrial Revolution, then just dawning, soon began to change matters. The steam engine was first used in seagoing ships in 1819, and by mid-century the fastest ship could cross the Atlantic in about 12 days. The electric telegraph, long theorized about, became a practical technology on land in the 1840s and spread like wildfire.

But the globe, of course, is three-quarters covered in water. Could telegraph lines be laid across large bodies of water? Because the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on earth at the time happened to be located on an island off northwestern Europe, the question was soon answered. In 1851 two brothers, John and Jacob Brett, succeeded in laying a telegraph line, insulated with a natural plastic called gutta-percha, from Dover to the coast of France.

But the Strait of Dover is only 21 miles wide and a few hundred feet deep. The Atlantic Ocean is 3,000 miles wide and plunges to a depth of well over 2 miles. It was thought that decades would pass before a cable connected the Old and New Worlds. In 1854, however, a New Yorker named Cyrus Field decided to make it happen. Perhaps luckily, Field had made his fortune in the wholesale paper business and knew nothing more of telegraphy than what he read in the newspapers. If he had, he would never have made the attempt, for it was a bit like someone in the 1950s, having read of the Russian launching of Sputnik , deciding to mount a manned expedition to Mars.

LAYING THE CABLE SHOWED HOW ANY NEW TECHNOLOGY CAN BEST BE EXPLOITED TO IMPROVE THE HUMAN CONDITION.

It took Field 12 years and millions of dollars before he achieved final success in 1866. He required the help of some of the best financial, technological, and scientific minds in the world, along with no small measure of government assistance. And while the story of the laying of the cable is a great one, involving triumph and failure, terrible storms, the most remarkable ship of the nineteenth century, and geniuses and fools aplenty, the most interesting part of it from a business standpoint is not the laying of the cable itself but the process that had to be developed to make it possible.

Field was not rich enough to fund the project. Nor did he have the necessary technical and scientific expertise, or the nautical skills. Instead he brought all these resources together and welded them into an effective enterprise. In short, he was an entrepreneur, a word that entered the English language just about the time he started thinking about his cable. An entrepreneur is like the producer of a play. The producer does not act or write or direct or design scenery. But without him, neither does anyone else.

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.