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The Laying Of The First Transatlantic Cable Was A Modern Miracle. Here Is The Awe-Inspiring Story

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John Steele Gordon, First Transatlantic Cable

With John Steele Gordon, Contributing Editor at American Heritage, Prolific Author of books on business and financial history including A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

Today, at the touch of a button, we can instantly communicate with family, friends, and business associates across the globe.  Steve’s guest, John Steele Gordon, walks us through the hundreds of years of technological advancements and refinements that made today’s lightning fast communications possible.

John Steele Gordon is a full-time writer on business and financial history.  His books include An Empire of Wealth, The Great Game, Hamilton’s Blessing, The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, and A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable.

A Brief History Of Transcontinental Communications

In the mid-19th century, communication between the United States and Europe was as quick as the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic.  At this time, Europe was the center of world affairs.   Ships traveled from America to England in about six weeks.  They made the return journey anywhere from eight weeks to three months, depending on the weather.  This isolated the United States from the rest of the world, making it vulnerable.

Moreover, when people left Europe to come to America, traveling back and forth between the Old and New Worlds was impossible.  The only exception was for certain business or wealthy elites.

In parallel, Britain expanded its empire across the world and was keen to hasten communications with its colonies.  These two purposes drove the tremendous desire to hasten communications across far lying lands, which Gordon describes in detail in A Thread Across the Ocean.

In the United States, the Industrial Revolution began in the early 19th Century.  By the middle of the 19th Century, more efficient steamships cut travel time to about 10 days with the fastest ships. However, it still took weeks for news to travel across the Atlantic.

The Morse Code Laid The Foundation For Modern Communications

By the early 1800s, scientists in the U.S. knew that electricity could be transmitted long distances down a wire.  Then, in 1838, Samuel Morse developed the Morse Code.  Thereafter, it took him five long years to obtain financial support from Congress for the first telegraph line in the United States.  The first line was completed in 1844.  It connected Baltimore to Washington, and on May 24, Morse sent the first message, “What hath God wrought.”

By the 1850s, overland telegraph lines reached all the way from New Orleans, to Canada, and across Europe.  People then started laying underwater cables to bridge small seas and straits.

Cyrus Field Builds Transatlantic Cable

After a cable was successfully laid across 25 miles of the English Channel, an American named Cyrus Field seized on the idea of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean.  But implementation of his idea was easier said than done.  Unsurprisingly, initial attempts to lay a cable ran into a host of problems.  These problems ranged from wire insulation and weight to having ships big enough to lay the long and heavy cable.

After several failed attempts and a lot of money spent, Field’s Atlantic Telegraph Company finally connected the two continents.  The transatlantic cable was officially opened on August 16, 1858.  Queen Victoria sent the first message to President James Buchanan in Morse code.

This breakthrough was met with much jubilation.  Unfortunately, the historic cable broke down three weeks later.  Field then enlisted technical assistance from William Thomson, a physics professor from Scotland.  After key design changes, the cable was finally made secure in 1866.

As an aside, Thomson honored Baron Kelvin for his work and had the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature named in his honor.

Thereafter, transatlantic communications boomed, laying the foundation for much of the modern telecommunications technology that we take for granted today.


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Read The Entire Transcript Here

Steve Pomeranz: Today in a world in which news flashes around the globe in an instant, time lags are inconceivable. In the mid-19th century, communication between the United States and Europe (which was the center of world affairs back then) was only as quick as the fastest ship could cross the Atlantic, making the United States isolated and vulnerable. But in 1866, the Old and New Worlds were united by the successful laying of a cable across the Atlantic.

My guest is John Steele Gordon, who has written many books chronicling the growth of America. The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street: A History of Wall Street in the 1860s, Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt, The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power: 1653-2000, and A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. Now I read A Thread a few years ago, and it seems I’m going through a phase of understanding the historical context of our world today, and John Steele Gordon’s book chronicles this extraordinary achievement that changed our world forever. I have him on the show with me right now. Welcome, John.

John Steele Gordon: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

Steve Pomeranz: John, it’s a great book.  I’ve now just recently re-read it.  And again it holds up really quite well. What was the state of communications between the old world and the new?

John Steele Gordon: Well, they had been improving throughout the 19th century. In the 1800s, a ship could …the average time going from America to England was about six weeks and going the other way was about eight weeks, but if the weather was really lousy, it could be three months.

By the middle of the 19th century they had steamships, and the timeframe was going down and down and down. By the 1860s, it was about 10 days for the fastest ship.

Steve Pomeranz: All of the news that was happening in Europe, any wars, or volcanoes like Krakatoa, and so on, nobody really knew about that for quite a long period of time, correct?

John Steele Gordon: Yes, and it could be two weeks before you heard some big news that happened in Europe.

Steve Pomeranz: You wrote in your book that when people came to the United States, they basically had to stay here. There was really no going back, except for a few business people and elites, traveling back and forth between the Old and New World was literally impossible.

What was the kind of person, I’m not—and this is rhetorical. I have to ask myself, what was the kind of person that would make that one-way trip knowing …not what faced them in the New World at this early period time in our country’s history, but the fact that this was basically it, almost all ties to the Old World were cut? And there was this tremendous desire now to try to bring the two worlds together.

Now a lot of things were happening both in England and in the United States in the early 1800s. New England was going through a tremendous upsurge in manufacturing in the industrial revolution. Tell us a little bit about that.

John Steele Gordon: Well, the industrial revolution began in England in the middle of the 18th century. Historians are forever arguing about exactly when; it’s just not very important ,which is why they argue about it.

In the United States, the industrial revolution began very early in the 19th century with cotton mills in New England, where they had quickly flowing rivers that could power it, and that became a very big industry and it was growing quickly in the United States, but England was still by far the industrial powerhouse of the world.

Steve Pomeranz: They were expanding their own empire to faraway lands and climes, and so on, right? So England reached how far?

John Steele Gordon: England reached around the world. It was literally true that the sun never sets on the British Empire. It was the biggest empire in the history of the world.

Steve Pomeranz: Also, we were starting to create electricity through the use of steam and other technologies, which started to improve manufacturing of cotton and other things as well. Tell us about that.

John Steele Gordon: Yeah, well, the steam engine was what really powered the industrial revolution because it was the first new form of work doing energy since the windmill, which was invented in the 7th century A.D.

Here was…you turned a low-value energy, heat, into something that can move things and it transformed the world and rapidly developed with new kinds—the Watt steam engine was obsolescent by early the 19th century. So they had a new kind of steam engine, often called a puffer engine because it exhausted the steam in both the upstroke and the downstroke. So it made a puff up, puff up, puff up noise, and that was powerful enough to move railroads. And that meant that you could move freight over land cheaply and quickly.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

John Steele Gordon: And that was a big revolution.

Steve Pomeranz: It was also the harnessing of electricity at that point in time. I mean, we all know about Benjamin Franklin and the kite experiment with the key. Electricity was discovered early on, it was not understood early on, but this idea that you could actually move electricity through a cable was important, or through a wire, was important. Tell us about that.

John Steele Gordon: Well, indeed, at that time electricity was not well understood, although we understood much better by the 1840s than we had in Franklin’s day.

Steve Pomeranz: Yep.

John Steele Gordon: But we knew that it could be transmitted long distances down a wire, and the trick was to find a way to use that as a signal. And it was Samuel Morse who—lots of people, they wanted England and stuff—but Morse came up with the Morse Code, which was a marvelously simple way to transmit information through a wire. Once you learn Morse Code, if you’re good at it, you can interpret it by ear.

Trained telegraphers would simply…they’d listen to the Morse Code and just write it down. So this could move information, and it started in 1844, when he had a … from the Capital Building in Washington, he telegraphed to his partner up in Baltimore, “What hath God wrought?” And it then took over, and by the 1850s, telegraph lines were reaching all the way down to New Orleans and up into Canada, and what have you. And of course, also in England and Europe.

Steve Pomeranz: These were overland wires in which the electricity traveled pretty easily, very fast, and there was a lot of talk about trying to lay some underground or underwater cable, in order to bridge straits and small seas and other things, and that was actually happening on the European continent by this point, right?

John Steele Gordon: Yes, well, they wanted to lay a cable under the English Channel, that’s only about 25 miles or even less than that. And actually the first time they did it, a French fisherman accidentally caught it in his net and pulled it up and didn’t have any idea what it was so he cut a piece out to take home and show people, and that was the end of that cable. But pretty soon, it was working.

Then it was Cyrus Field who, he said, “Boy, that’s a great idea. Why don’t we lay a cable across the Atlantic Ocean?” And he said later that if he had known anything about it, he would never have started because it was sort of like somebody reading about Sputnik in 1957, and saying, “Hey, let’s send a manned expedition to Mars.” I mean, it was just an order of magnitude more complex and probably two orders of magnitude more expensive.

Steve Pomeranz: Cyrus Field is the main protagonist in the story, who was he?

John Steele Gordon: Cyrus Field came from a remarkable New England family. One of his brothers, Stephen Field, sat on the US Supreme Court, another was David Dudley Field, who was probably the greatest lawyer of the 19th century and wrote the “Field Code of Civil Procedure,” which is now used around the whole English-speaking world.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

John Steele Gordon: So Cyrus Field went into business, and he became a paper manufacturer and made a fortune. He was one of those people who always had to be doing something new. Once the paper company was up and running and throwing off money, just running, it was boring.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

John Steele Gordon: So he went to South America with a great artist— sorry, I just can’t think of his name off of the top of my head—and then he read about the cable, and he said, “Let’s do that.” And he started, and he was … once he got the bit in his teeth, he just wouldn’t stop until he succeeded. Frederic Church is the artist I was thinking.

Steve Pomeranz: Sure. There’s a quote in your book that he had the desire to own the means of instant communication, which I thought it sounds like a very modern phrase, this idea of instant communication. He wanted to be the first, and obviously, there were many drivers, but not the least of which was to continue to build his fortune. He basically put together a consortium of pretty well-known people at the time.

I know Samuel Morse was involved on his board, or in this initial group. Peter Cooper, who formed the Cooper Union, if you know of New York, you’ll know the Cooper Union. It’s actually where Lincoln spoke and basically, became noticed by the world after the Cooper Union speech. Who else was involved in this consortium that we may or may not be familiar with?

John Steele Gordon: They were a bunch of New York businessmen, most of whose names are now pretty much forgotten. It was the head of the city bank, it was the head of one of the gas companies that was supplying gas for lighting. People like that, they’re names are now no longer in current use. But they were a group of the richest men in New York, which meant they were the richest men in the country.

Steve Pomeranz: What were the difficulties? I mean, there were numerous attempts. Let’s talk about the first attempt, it seemed very naïve looking back at this thing. What was the cable made up of, how did they insulate the cable? There’s all these considerations, and really, how did they roll the cable out through all of this 2,500 miles they were trying to cover?

John Steele Gordon: Well, the first cable was very badly designed because they didn’t know how to design it, there was a steep learning curve to climb here. It was heavy in terms of its volume. What it was, it was strands of copper wound around each other, then there was iron used to armor the cable, and then it was insulated with a stuff called gutta-percha, which came from a tree in Asia. Basically, it’s a kind of plastic.

It was used for lots of things, they made…it would harden and they used it to make walking sticks, and they also discovered that it made much better golf balls.

Steve Pomeranz: All right.

John Steele Gordon: Basically, it was the first plastic. It came from a tree, I mean it wasn’t created chemically. But still, it was functionally a plastic.

Steve Pomeranz: The quality of the ships back then also were a problem as well, right?

John Steele Gordon: Well, they simply weren’t big enough. There was no ship in the world that could carry 2,500 miles of cable. So the British used one of their warships and we used the Niagara, which was one of America’s biggest and best warships. And the original theory was that the British would start in Ireland, and we would start in Newfoundland, and we’d meet in the Atlantic and splice the two together.

Steve Pomeranz: The first attempt, there was a lot of celebrating, a lot of newspaper accolades, but it was an utter failure, right?

John Steele Gordon: Yes, they got about 400 miles and dropped the cable, and they couldn’t find it again, and that was the end of that.

Steve Pomeranz: The cable broke. 400 miles of cable irretrievably lost.

John Steele Gordon: Yep.

Steve Pomeranz: So, they went back-

John Steele Gordon: And so they did it the next year.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, okay.

John Steele Gordon: They tried again the next year, and this time they decided to start in Ireland and go to the mid-Atlantic, and then they would meet up, splice the cable there and then continue to Newfoundland.

Unfortunately, they ran into a horrendous storm and both ships barely survived. So they had to abandon. The next year, in 1858, they actually succeeded in getting the cable across to Newfoundland. And Newfoundland had already been connected by telegraph to Nova Scotia, across what’s known as the Cabot Strait at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River.

Once they got to Newfoundland, then they were connected to the American telegraph network, and everything was supposed to be fine. And they had a huge celebration; they had a big parade up Broadway; they set off fireworks from New York City Hall; burnt the cupola on the top of City Hall. They almost lost the whole building. Then Queen Victoria sent a message to President Buchanan, it was 99 words, and it took 16 hours to transmit.

Steve Pomeranz: Which they didn’t tell anybody. They didn’t tell anybody that they were having problems transmitting.   They just said, “It’s working.”  The Queen Victoria message actually got across.  What happened then?

John Steele Gordon: Well, what happened was, they kept having to repeat it. Basically, the guy at the other end kept saying, “What? Re-transmit,” because it was barely detectable. And then after about, I think it was 10 days, the cable just stopped. It was dead as a doornail.

Steve Pomeranz: All the celebration, all of this, the newspaper accolades, and then it stopped.  And then actually everything just turned against the whole plan. There were claims of fraud. Cyrus Field was scorned, and yet he said we’ll do it once again. And in, what was it, 1865?

John Steele Gordon: One thing is very important, this is 1858. In 1857, the great Indian Mutiny broke out.  The greatest crisis of British India in the 19th century. But by 1858, it was winding down. A regiment that was stationed in Canada had been ordered to India, and during that 10-day timeframe when the cable was still working, Britain was able to send a message to Canada saying, “Don’t send that regiment, we don’t need it.” And thereby saving about 300,000 pounds, which was a lot of money in the mid-19th century.

So Britain realized the extreme utility of undersea cables because they had a worldwide empire to run. We needed it just because we’d like to get the latest news from Europe more quickly.  However, Britain needed it to run their empire.  So they were willing to continue. And what they did, actually, was they sat down and figured out what had gone wrong. What had they done wrong, so they won’t the mistake again? This is how we’ve done this ever since.

Just like when an airplane crashes, we go to a great deal of trouble to figure out exactly why that plane crashed.  And how can we stop another such accident happening again? That’s what they did this time, and it greatly improved. They also got help from a man named William Thomson, who was a Professor of Physics in Scotland.  He later became Lord Kelvin.

The Kelvin scale of temperature is named for him. He was one of the greatest physicists of the 19th century, and he helped design a new cable that was … it was fatter around, but it was lighter. It came closer to floating than the old one had, which was very important. It made it less likely to break.

Steve Pomeranz: This is a great story, unfortunately, we’re out of time. The final part of this story is that there was substantial success in 1866.  Money transactions were now being equalized between London and New York.  There were two worlds that were starting to come together.

My guest is John Steele Gordon. The book is A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. If you have a question about what we just discussed, ask us. Go to Stevepomeranz.com, ask us anything you’d like at Stevepomeranz.com, and while you’re there, sign up for our weekly update where we will send you the weekly commentaries and interviews straight to your inbox. John Gordon, thank you so much for joining me today.

John Steele Gordon: Thank you.