After a painfully slow start, toward the end of the 1840s, on both sides of the Atlantic, the growth of the telegraph was explosive.
“No schedule of telegraphic lines can now be relied for a month in succession, as hundreds of miles may be added,” said a writer in 1848, cited in Tom Standage’s excellent book “The Victorian Internet.”
In 1861, the American transcontinental telegraph was completed. Previously, communication west of the Mississippi to California was done by mail carried by relays of horseback riders, such as the Pony Express, and took about 10 days for that leg alone. Now it was instantaneous from coast to coast. And the telegraph was growing in Europe.
Crossing the Atlantic was something else. It took Columbus about two months in 1492. It took the Mayflower a week longer in 1620. Two centuries later, sailing ships had reduced the time to about six weeks. In 1845, a steam-powered ship, the SS Great Britain, set a new record of 14 days. But this still meant that news from Europe or America was delayed by at least several weeks, which slowed commerce and diplomacy.
When Samuel Morse was developing the American telegraph, he liked to say, “If it will go 10 miles without stopping, I can make it go around the globe.” But how would it cross the ocean?
Morse had the answer to that, too. As far back as 1843, he had coated an electrical wire in rubber, encased it in lead pipe and sent a message across New York Harbor. But rubber deteriorates in seawater and no one knew how to lay more than 1,000 miles of lead pipe on the sea floor. The first problem was solved by coating wires in gutta-percha, the rubbery gum of the gutta-percha tree, which grows in Southeast Asia. In this way, England was linked by telegraph cable to Ireland in 1853, but the great Atlantic crossing still awaited. Everyone agreed it would take a fortune.
Enter Cyrus W. Field, a paper manufacturer from Massachusetts who was wealthy enough from servicing the penny press to retire at the age of 33, to the fashionable Gramercy Park neighborhood of New York City. Field believed the secret to happiness “was never to allow one’s energies to stagnate.” So he formed a partnership with Morse among others that became the American Telegraph Co. In 1856, they spun off the Atlantic Telegraph Co., with their eyes on the sea crossing. In 1857, with backing from the American and British governments, they began laying a cable on a submerged plateau between Ireland and Newfoundland. When it was completed, in summer 1858, Queen Victoria sent President James Buchanan a message in Morse code.
The great task had been accomplished. Fireworks and parades marked the occasion.
Three weeks later, to nearly everyone’s embarrassment, it stopped working.
Field persisted. He would not stagnate. A decade later, 2,000 miles of a much heavier cable were loaded on the SS Great Eastern, the world’s largest oceangoing ship, which set out for Newfoundland.
On July 27, 1866, a transatlantic cable was secured – and this time, it stuck.
Banquets, medals and parades ensued again. The cable was profitable right away. Field was hailed as “the Columbus of our time.” Now, communication was instant nearly around the world. This in turn radically altered the nature of trade and journalism. It did many of the things we attribute to the internet today, making the world more connected and seemingly smaller.
“An ocean cable is not an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic,” wrote Field’s brother Henry, hopefully. “It is a living, fleshy bond between severed portions of the human family, along which pulses of love and tenderness will run backward and forward forever.”