Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Great Transatlantic Cable

"They were used to having the Atlantic Ocean be two weeks, three weeks, six weeks wide, and suddenly, here it was ten minutes wide."

More than a century before the Internet, a thirty-eight-year-old self-made millionaire gambled on unknown technology, untested materials, and hazardous ocean voyages in a risky quest to wire the world.

Inspired by the telegraph wires crisscrossing the American landscape, New York entrepreneur Cyrus Field became obsessed with an even grander idea: a cable that spanned the Atlantic.

His daring plan to connect the distant continents would call on the best scientists, the navies of two great powers, the labor of thousands, and his own unshakable optimism.

The Great Transatlantic Cable tells the story of a visionary with a seemingly unbreakable will to connect the world. "Imagine a rich guy with absolutely no technological background, no knowledge of the sea, and very little recognition of the scope of the project he was undertaking," comments Axelrod. "What Cyrus Field did have was a keen business sense, amazing vision, and an unrelenting tenacity. In short, he could get things done. His story is truly extraordinary."

In summer of 1858, two continents celebrated. For the first time, a message had been sent in minutes, not weeks, from one world leader, the Queen of England, across the ocean to another, President James Buchanan. "There were huge, spontaneous demonstrations - bonfires, fireworks, street parades," recalls historian Daniel Czitrom, "all essentially sharing in this notion of an American triumph."

Eight days earlier, two ships had parted ways in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, each carrying one half of a 2,000-mile-long cable that would connect North America to Europe. Yet despite seeming success, Cyrus Field wasn't celebrating. The cable in which he had convinced two nations and countless friends and business associates to invest had been laid for just days, and already it showed signs of failure.

Messages began to take hours, not minutes to arrive and even then, large pieces of text were missing. Soon investors' excitement turned to suspicion that the savvy businessman had pulled off a great fraud. But Field had not set out to take anyone's money; he was more upset than they that his cable was not working.

While Field had spent years of his time and much of his own fortune in planning and executing the laying of the cable, he had made the grave mistake of trusting the words of Dr. Edward Whitehouse, an amateur telegrapher who insisted that an incredible force of electricity was necessary to get a message across the ocean. But the high voltage was too much for the cable to handle and blew a hole in the protective outer layer, essentially turning miles of twisted wire into a wet clothesline. Field was forced to start again.

He turned to the brilliant Scottish physicist William Thomson, better known to the world as Lord Kelvin, who helped devise a new plan based on solid physics. Field also faced the challenge of securing funding when a stroke of luck befell the project.

Ship builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel had built the Great Eastern, a ship five times the size of any other that existed, planning to steam from England to Australia without having to re-coal. But the endeavor was a financial disaster. Field cashed in on Brunel's misfortune and bought the bankrupt ship, securing the greatest piece of his puzzle.

Finally, in 1866, a new 7,000-ton cable was spooled onto the ship in London. Fourteen days later, the triumphant Great Eastern entered Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. "If not for Field's efforts, it might have been decades more before the United States and Britain broke the two-week barrier to communication that the Atlantic represented," notes American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "His work was the genesis of today's global community." From that day well over a century ago, messages have traveled over transatlantic cables with great speed. Direct communication has never been


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