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1858 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

“Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Many joyful sermons were preached on these words of the Psalmist in August: the first cable had been laid across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Old World was in telegraphic communication with the New. Back in 1843 Samuel Morse had predicted “with certainty” that this would happen. In 1854 Thoreau had observed that Americans were “eager to tunnel under the Atlantic,” but he was not impressed with the idea; England and America might have as little to say to each other as Maine and Texas.

The feat was incredible, given the technology of the time, and it is due almost entirely to the heroic perseverance of one man, Cyrus West Field. He began to raise money for the project in 1854. The first try was in 1857 when a British ship, the Agamemnon , and an American, the Niagara , tried several times to lay a cable (seven strands of copper wire twisted together and weakly insulated) between Ireland and Newfoundland. It always broke at sea. In 1858 they rendezvoused once more in mid-ocean, spliced the cable, and went their ways. The Niagara sailed west, the Agamemnon east. Three times the cable broke, three times it was repaired. On August 5 Field radioed his success from Newfoundland: 2,350 miles of cable were intact on the floor of the Atlantic.

On August 16 a ninety-eight-word message was sent by Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. It took sixteen and a half hours to get through, but this seemed like a miracle of speed and efficiency. Field was the toast of the continent. On September 1 the line went dead. Field was now called a fraud, and there was some suspicion that the whole thing had been a fake from the start.

Undaunted, Field began again. This time the cable was played out from the largest ship afloat, the steamer Great Eastern , and on July 29, 1866, New York received this message from Newfoundland: “We arrived here at 9 o’clock this morning. All well. Thank God the cable is laid and in perfect working order. Cyrus W. Field.”

AUGUST 21 : The first of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates is held in Ottawa, Illinois.

AUGUST 23 : The temperance drama Ten Nights in a Barroom opens in New York City. Second in popularity only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin , it included the famous song “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” It ran, on and off, for a century.

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