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Timeline: The Great Transatlantic Cable

1747-1856 | 1857-1902  


Sir William Watson shows that electricity can be sent long distances down a metal wire.


Benjamin Franklin June: Benjamin Franklin conducts his famous experiments with electricity.


February 17: In Scots Magazine, a writer known only as C. M. suggests using electricity to send information through wires.


Claude Chappe builds semaphore stations across France. Stationed five to ten miles apart, they use a mast and two crossarms to signal each other. Messages sent through what Chappe dubs the "telegraph" can travel several hundred miles a day.


Battle of New Orleans January 8: Americans commanded by General Andrew Jackson defeat a British force attempting to seize New Orleans in the last battle of the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent had ended the war two weeks earlier, but in an era of hand-carried messages, word of it does not reach New Orleans in time.


November 30: Cyrus Field is born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one of preacher David Dudley Field's ten children.


Sixteen-year-old Field is apprenticed to New York City department store pioneer A. T. Stewart.


When his apprenticeship ends, Field joins his brother at the faltering E. Root paper company. When E. Root goes bankrupt, Field acquires its stock and settles its debts, going into business for himself as Cyrus Field and Company. It rapidly becomes one of America's premier paper wholesalers, and within a decade Field's net worth exceeds $200,000, an enormous sum for the era.


Field marries Mary Stone, and they settle in New York's posh Gramercy Park neighborhood. Field and his brother hire cabinetmaker Charles Baudouine to furnish their houses, marking the first time in New York's history that a professional designer is hired to decorate a private residence.


Samuel Morse Inventor Samuel Morse places a wire across New York harbor and sends an electric current through it. In December he sends messages by wire between two committee rooms in the U.S. Capitol, leading Congress to appropriate $30,000 towards construction of a telegraph line.


Portuguese engineer Jose d'Almeida describes the uses of gutta-percha to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Gutta-percha, produced from the sap of the gutta tree, is a hard yet flexible substance ideal for insulating electrical cable.


Whig National Convention May 1: The Whig National Convention takes place in Baltimore. By this point Morse has strung a telegraph wire from Washington to within 15 miles of Baltimore, and an assistant transmits a list of convention nominees to Morse in D.C., who announces the results 64 minutes before a train arrives confirming them.

May 24: The telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore is completed; Morse sends the message: "What hath God wrought."


November 8: A bishop in Newfoundland, J. T. Bullock, suggests running a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland rather than Nova Scotia, which is further west, estimating a Newfoundland terminal could speed transmission of messages to America by 48 hours. "I hope the day is not far distant," he writes, "when St. John's will be the first link in the electric chain which will unite the Old World and the New."


England's John and Jacob Brett lay a working telegraph cable across the English Channel.

September-December: Telegraph company head Frederick Gisborne surveys Newfoundland's southern coast in preparation for laying a cable there.


Field's business continues to expand. Although not legally obligated to do so, he pays off the debts of the E. Root Company, greatly enhancing his reputation in New York.

Gisborne tries, and fails, to lay his telegraph cable in Newfoundland.


U.S. Brigs Dolphin (1836-1861) Summer: The U.S.S. Dolphin conducts soundings along the 1600-mile route between Newfoundland and Ireland, discovering that a smooth plateau (soon dubbed the "telegraph plateau") stretches across almost all the distance.


Winter: Gisborne heads to New York in search of more funding. Field's brother Matthew meets Gisborne and introduces the two men. Although initially skeptical about the project, Field realizes that by laying a cable from Newfoundland to Ireland, he can shorten the transmission of information from England to America by two weeks. Field then writes to Morse and Lt. Matthew Maury, head of the United States Naval Observatory, seeking their opinions on the feasibility of a transatlantic cable. Both men are enthusiastic; Morse believes such a cable is technologically possible, and Maury reveals the discovery of the "telegraph plateau."

Buoyed by these responses, Field solicits his wealthy Gramercy Park neighbors for support. After four nights of meetings around Field's dining table, the so-called Cable Cabinet agrees to provide funding for the enterprise.

March 10: The Cable Cabinet decides to take over Gisborne's project and form the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (N.Y.N.L.T.C., or the Company).

March 14: Cyrus and Matthew Field depart New York for St. John's, where they secure a charter from the government giving their company exclusive cable-laying rights in Newfoundland for the next 50 years.

May 8: Upon Field's return, the Cable Cabinet convenes for 15 minutes and elects officers for the N.Y.N.L.T.C., committing themselves to raise $1.5 million.

Summer: Deciding to begin by extending the current telegraph network from Nova Scotia to St. John's, the Company starts construction of a telegraph across Newfoundland.

Cyrus Field December: Cyrus Field sails for England to find a manufacturer for the submarine cable that will connect Newfoundland to Nova Scotia across the Cabot Strait.


January-March: Field meets John Brett, who suggests a company to make the cable, and hires the ship Sarah L. Bryant to carry the cable to Newfoundland.

Spring: After returning to New York, Field charters a second ship, the James Adger, to tow the Sarah Bryant across the Cabot Strait while the cable is laid from her decks.

August 7: The James Adger leaves New York with several Company directors on board. She meets up with the Bryant, but the attempt to lay the cable fails due to bad weather and the Adger captain's refusal to follow orders. Field returns to New York, determined to try again.


Summer: The steamer Propontis successfully lays cable across the Cabot Strait and the Newfoundland line is completed; now the telegraph has been extended one-third of the distance between New York and Europe. Field returns to England to raise more money.

Fall: The British government agrees to provide ships for Field's project and pay 14,000 a year once the cable is operational, in exchange for government transmissions having priority. In October Field charters the Atlantic Telegraph Company (A.T.C.) in London and quickly sells out its initial stock issue.

1747-1856 | 1857-1902  

page created on 11.30.04
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