This article was written by Zack Jordan, one of our shiny new Damn Interesting writers.
In the grand old year of 1492, Christopher Columbus set out from Spain with a fleet of three tiny ships. His journey began in August of that year, but it was March of the next before the Old World heard from Columbus again. Time taken: nearly eight months.
Over a century later, in September of 1620, the Mayflower departed England on its historic voyage to the New World. In May of 1621, it returned, bearing news of a (relatively) successful mission. Total time taken: more than nine months.
Over two centuries after the Mayflower, in 1850, the western world was in a state of dynamic change. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the world was optimistic. The first railroads had been operating profitably for over a decade, steamships plied the rivers and coasts of America and Europe, and a network of telegraph wires had spread across territory on both sides of the Atlantic. Where once it had taken weeks to transmit news across hundreds of miles of land, it now took minutes. The world, it seemed, had shrunk. And between the two continents, where once it had taken months to deliver news, it now took… months. Nineteenth-century communications had hit a brick wall; the fastest way to get a message across the Atlantic was still floating and steam-powered, and it looked like things were going to stay that way unless someone was willing to take some huge risks.
As well-connected as Europe and America were internally, they were still cut off from each other just as effectively as they had been for centuries. Even with the advent of the steam ship, Atlantic crossings were still risky and of unpredictable length. Fortunately for the mid-eighteenth century, there was one man who not only saw the possibility of instant trans-Atlantic communication but was willing to put his formidable assets to work to make it happen.
Cyrus Field was the embodiment of the Victorian American dream. He was a self-made man with a taste for business, and one of the wealthiest men in New York City. He also had the benefit of nearly limitless charisma, drive, imagination, and— some would say— blockheadedness, all of which proved to be indispensable for the project. He was a rare example of a brilliant businessman/salesman with a philanthropist’s heart.
Fortunately, both sides of his personality saw the benefit of trans-Atlantic communication. Of course there was plenty of money to be made, but Field knew that good communication could solve many of the problems between distant countries. For example, the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812, while technically an American victory, was fought two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed; this event and others like it offered proof that news in the nineteenth century simply couldn’t travel quickly enough. Armed with his notable charisma, Cyrus was able to collect enough investors to begin the project by 1854. Initially, the sum of $1.5 million dollars was pledged to the project. In contrast, the entire budget of the United States that year was under $60 million.
This monumental feat of engineering required technology that was not only in its infancy- it was derived from technology barely into its toddler years. No one knew if it was even possible to send a signal through more than two thousand miles of cable. The concept of resistance, while known, had not yet been scientifically defined. No one knew how much an armored electrical cable weighed, or whether any ship in the world had the payload capacity to carry its entire length.
Fortunately, Cyrus was ignorant about all of this. He hired the best minds in the world- including Samuel Morse and William Thomson, later known as Lord Kelvin- and told them to make it happen. Field’s small group of engineers would soon learn that a well-armored nautical cable weighs over one ton per mile- resulting in a total weight of nearly 2,500 tons to span the Atlantic. Adding to this problem was the fact that no ship currently in existence had a payload of 2,500 tons.
For the first three attempts, steps were taken to reach a compromise between cost and quality. Corners were cut during the construction of the cable, and two ships began the massive undertaking of laying it. Unfortunately, the results were not encouraging. During the first two attempts, the cable snapped due to machinery inadequacies which were heightened by rough weather. The third attempt was a technical success, but the cable stopped working less than a month later. This failure was blamed on an operator who upped the potential to several hundred volts, blowing a hole in the cable somewhere in its two-thousand-mile length.
For the fourth and fifth attempts, Cyrus Field was able to purchase a ship- and not just any ship. Cyrus purchased the largest ship in the world, the recently-built Great Eastern. And if this in itself does not seem impressive, consider that this massive vessel held the distinction of being five times the size of the next biggest ship in the world. This was the nautical equivalent Spruce Goose, dwarfing all other seagoing craft and weighing in at 32,000 tons. The extra weight of the cable was a drop in the bucket of this Leviathan.
After ten years of effort, using this monstrosity of a steamship as well as the technology that had been developed in response to the previous failures, everything came together on July 28, 1866. The Atlantic Cable was stretched across the ocean floor from Ireland to Newfoundland, a distance of two thousand miles. It was a resounding success, wildly celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. Speeches were made, songs were written, and the public’s appetite for instant communication was whetted. Within months, another cable was laid. By the end of the century, fifteen cables crisscrossed the Atlantic. It would be nearly a century after the first successful cable was laid that trans-Atlantic telephone communications effectively put the original cable stations out of business in the early 1960s. It is a testament to the brilliance and sheer determination of Cyrus Field that from that day in 1866 to this, America and Europe have never again been out of direct communication.