America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

Laying the Atlantic Cable

A NUMBER of years ago, a wealthy, retired merchant of New York City, named Cyrus W. Field, sat in the library of his home, studying a large globe of the world. He was thinking about the electric telegraph that Morse had invented, and was wondering how far it would carry a message.

He was also thinking that Commodore Maury had said to him a short while before that the ocean bottom was a table-land along a certain direction, and could easily hold an electric cable, if it were laid properly.

"What an advantage it would be to civilization if the electric telegraph could be used between countries on opposite sides of the ocean," he said to himself. "To-morrow I will speak to my friend Peter Cooper about it."

[397] The next morning, he not only talked the matter over with Peter Cooper, but wrote a letter to Samuel Morse.

Peter Cooper afterwards said, "I am glad that Field chose me among the first to discuss this great enterprise, but I felt sure at the time that most people would think us crazy."

Cooper, however, agreed to the enterprise, because he saw that a great deal of good could come of it, and he wanted to help his friend, Cyrus Field. Together, they went to their wealthy friends, and raised a large sum of money to form the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

The first undertaking was to lay a line on the ocean bed, from the mainland to the island of Newfoundland. This was readily done, and was a success, showing that cable lines could transmit messages under the water.

Field and Morse then went to England, and appeared before the British Government. "We have come to propose to your lordships that you join us in uniting, by an electric cable, the two great countries of Great Britain and America. It will take a great deal of money, but, in the end it will bring much benefit to both peoples. We are ready to do our part."

"But suppose you make the attempt and fail, [398] and your cable is lost at the bottom of the sea. Then, what will you do?" asked an Englishman.

"Why, if the cable is lost, I shall lay another, and another, until one does reach and hold. Every cable I lose I shall charge to profit and loss, and then I shall start over again," was the reply of the American.

This so pleased the British that they at once offered to furnish money and a vessel to help lay the cable. Congress also appropriated money, and thus the two Governments were pledged to the great enterprise.

The British ship, Agamemnon,  and the American ship, Niagara,  were set apart for the work. Each vessel carried a load of cable, and they sailed from the coast of Ireland. On board the American ship were Field and Morse.

The Niagara  began the work. The cable was securely anchored to the shore, and unwound along the bottom of the ocean, as the vessel steamed slowly along. Mile after mile was paid out in this way, the big cylinder slowly revolving, and the long, dark cable falling into the ocean bed. Day and night the work went on, the other vessel standing by to take up the work when the Niagara  had exhausted her supply of cable.

At the end of three hundred miles there was a [399] wrench and a tug, and the cable snapped in two. There was a great cry, "The cable has parted; the cable has parted."

Naturally, this caused bitter disappointment and much discouragement. "You will never succeed. It is too great an undertaking. You had better give it up," was all that Field heard on every side.

"I shall not give it up," said he, "but will start in mid-ocean, and let the vessels go in opposite directions, one toward Ireland and the other toward Newfoundland."

And so he did. With a new supply of cable, he started, in mid-ocean, having spliced the ends of the cable together. Each vessel sailed towards its own country, slowly paying out the cable on the ocean bed from the great coil in the stern.

In a few weeks, there came the news, "The cable is laid. The cable is laid." The people were now as excited over the success of the cable as they had been gloomy and doubtful beforehand. Bells were rung, guns were fired, and great placards were hung about the streets of New York. And there were many speeches of congratulation!

On the 16th of August, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a cable message to President Buchanan, and the President sent a courteous reply. They were [400] messages of friendship and good-will between the two countries, now united by a cable nearly three thousand miles long, over which a message could travel in the fraction of a second.

But amidst all the rejoicing came word that for some reason the cable would not work. No more messages could be transmitted, and nobody could find out the reason why. More than a million dollars had been spent, and nothing profitable had come of it!

Then the Civil War began, and for four years the American people thought of little else than the great struggle. Cyrus Field was forgotten, but he did not forget, nor did he lose hope.

"When the war is over, and the mind of the world is settled, I shall try again,—but not until then," he said to some friends.

At last, the time came, and Field renewed his efforts. He now had but one vessel, The Great Eastern.  It was a monster ship, remodeled for the purpose of carrying the cable and laying it on the ocean bed. Another failure was added to the list of early attempts, for the cable parted in mid-ocean, and sank to the bottom.

Again an effort was made, and The Great Eastern  set sail with its coil of cable. This last trip was crowned with success, and the cable was laid.

[401] Then The Great Eastern  returned to mid-ocean, and began grappling for the cable she had lost on her first voyage. The broken ends were found, welded together properly, and, before the end of 1866, two cables were working between Ireland and America.

Field had labored for thirteen years, and had spent a great deal of money, but at last he had succeeded. More than a dozen cables now cross the Atlantic, and many stretch over the vast bed of the Pacific; all shores are now in touch with each other, and messages can be sent around the world in a few hours.

This is due to the energy and perseverance of the man who did not know how to fail, and who would not give up trying!


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