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Aired April 11, 2005

The Great Transatlantic Cable

Film Description

On January 8, 1815 a British fleet attacked New Orleans, Louisiana. It was intended to be the final battle of the War of 1812. The British aimed to block the strategic mouth of the Mississippi, taking control of America's inland waterways. The assault was met by a small number of American troops commanded by General  Adrew Jackson, and quickly turned into a rout for the attackers. In a single day the British suffered over 2000 casualties. The next morning the British fleet limped out of the harbor and set sail for England.

Only when the British returned home did they learn that their bloody sacrifice at New Orleans had been pointless. Two weeks before the battle, on Christmas Eve, 1814, diplomats from Britain and the United States had signed a treaty at Ghent, Belgium, ending their war. On the day of the Battle of New Orleans, both nations were officially at peace — but the message had not yet arrived in America.

For most of the 19th century information traveled between Europe and America no faster than a packet ship could carry it. Even by 1850, long after telegraph wires had been strung across North America, there was no transatlantic connection. Communication stopped at the water's edge. A question could require a month for an answer. If winter storms shut down the shipping lanes, the two continents could be cut off for months.

The need for transatlantic communication was obvious, but there had never been an undersea cable longer than a couple of hundred miles, and only three hundred feet deep. A cable across the Atlantic would need to be over two thousand miles long and be laid three miles deep. In 1858 no one had even manufactured a wire that long. No ship could carry such a weight. The floor of the sea was a dark mystery. No one knew if an electric current could even be sent so far. The science of the day, in short, offered more questions than answers.

The challenge of an Atlantic cable was not pursued by the great powers and their formidable navies. Instead, the Atlantic cable became the singular obsession of Cyrus Field, a young, successful New York paper manufacturer. His business had brought him riches but little fame. Field was one of the new breed of financiers born of the industrial age and well-connected in the New York business world.

It took twelve years of struggle and expense before Field and his team of engineers finally succeeded. On July 27, 1866, Field sent back the first message to Europe: "Thank God," he wrote, "the Cable is Laid."

The laying of the Atlantic cable was one of the great international undertakings of the nineteenth century. From 1856 to 1866 the equivalent of billions of dollars was spent trying to stretch a copper wire from a remote, fog-bound bay in Ireland to another fog-bound bay in Canada. Five separate attempts were required before success was achieved. Writer Arthur C. Clarke would later call it the Victorian equivalent of putting a man on the moon.


Written and Produced by
David Axelrod

Directed by
Peter Jones

Kate Amend, A.C.E.

Director of Photography
Brian McDairmant

Cyrus Field played by
John MacKay

Narrated by
Linda Hunt

Voice of Cyrus Field
Michael McColl

Music by
Nathan Wang

Assistant Camera
Ian Moss

Associate Producer
Sara Compton

Production Manager UK
Helen Cooper

Production Coordinator US
Andy Zare

Production Coordinator UK
Sally Riddle

Art Director/Costume Designer
Sam Pine

Special Props
Michael Tucker

Construction Manager
Dave Garbe

Jacquie Russon

Costume Dresser
Jacqui Jones

Hair/Makeup Assistants
Fiona Maynard
Sam Bear

Sound Recordist-UK
Kevin Meredith
Graham Ross

Sound Recordist-NY
Roger Phenix

Location Manager-NY
Dianne Cleare

Geoff Holloway

Colin Holloway


Assistant Editors
Monique Zavistovski
Tracee Morrison

Visual Effects
Mill TV

Map Animation
Michael Tristram Design

Motion Control Graphics
Point 360 Woodholly
Arn Campero
John Falchi
Gary Forbes

Marine Services
Square Sail Ltd.

Online Editor
Ed Ham

Mark Kueper

Post Production Sound
Kent Gibson
Tom Mitchell

Archival Research
Jane Martin

Production Assistant
Ariel Fox

Production Runner
Raymon Pyndigh

Stock Footage
America by Air LLC
Corbis Motion
Image Bank Film by Getty Images

Archival Material
Brooklyn Historical Society
Brown Brothers
Cable & Wireless Archive, Porthcurno, UK
Canada National Archives
Corbis Motion
FTL Design
Frick Art Reference Library
Getty Images
Getty Images / Image Bank
Institution of Electrical Engineers, UK
Jeffrey Kraus Collection
Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries of the Johns Hopkins University
Library of Congress
Metropolitan Museum of Art
National Archives
Naval Historical Center
Richard Orange-Bromehead
Science & Society Library
Tempus Publishing Ltd.
Thomas Perera's Telegraph Museum

Special Thanks
Bernard Finn
Bill Burns
SS Great Britain Trust
Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site
Smithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History
New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting

Alex Allen
Jonathan Beedell
John Berry
Martyn Bill
Amy Booth
Mark Bryan
Martin Cook
Robin Davies
Piers Drew-Wilkinson
Nick Eggett
Toby Greenlees
Chris Handby
Bomber Harris
David Higson
David Hinam
James Hinchliff
Hari Jones
Iain Marshall
Luca Melzer
Jacob Nye
Nigel Ottley
Barry Paine
Bob Peters
Arnold Pick
David Pritchard
Scott Pritchard
Ray Prosser
Roman Pyndiah
Penelope Reynolds
David Rowe
Glyn Smith
Josh Spencer
Andrew Stocker
Michael Tucker
Ed Tyler
Graham Winter
Kate Woodhouse
Daniel Yates


Greg Shea
Glenn Fukushima

Alison Kennedy

Spencer Gentry

John Jenkins

Mark Adler

John Van Hagen

Nancy Farrell
Vanessa Ruiz
Helen R. Russell
Rebekah Suggs

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Maria Daniels

Ravi Jain

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker
Lauren Prestileo

Susan Bellows

James E. Dunford

Susan Mottau

Sharon Grimberg

Mark Samels

A Green Umbrella Film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

© 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation.
All rights reserved.


NARRATOR: In the summer of 1858, the USS Niagara went to sea. Below decks, the war ship carried an extraordinary cargo — a thousand tons of copper wire wrapped in enormous coils. The vessel also carried a thirty — eight year old, self-made millionaire named Cyrus Field. For years, Field had been obsessed with a grand idea: a cable across the Atlantic. He had seen telegraph wires spread across the American landscape, but the Atlantic Ocean remained the ultimate barrier to instant communication — a message between New York and London still took at least two weeks to cross the sea. If Field could succeed, his Atlantic cable would revolutionize communication and transform international commerce. America would no longer be isolated from the rest of the world.

DANIEL CZITROM, Historian: People talked a lot about the telegraph as the annihilator of space and time. I think what the cable anticipates is the idea of the wiring of the world, creating a neighborhood of the whole world.

NARRATOR: The cable was a huge gamble. From the hazards of sailing ships to the mysteries of an unproved technology, Cyrus Field's Transatlantic Telegraph was never far from catastrophe.

GILLIAN COOKSON, Historian: Everyone knew it was a vast distance of course, but what they hadn't appreciated was just how difficult this whole thing was. It was so much further than anything that had been attempted before. It was so much deeper.

NARRATOR: As thousand-mile wires were brought together, Cyrus Field would learn a dark secret about his cable. After spending a fortune, he would be accused of committing fraud against two nations.

GILLIAN COOKSON: It was remarkable that he kept going through all that he, he managed to endure.

NARRATOR: Cyrus Field's plan to connect the continents would call on the best scientists, the navies of two great powers, and the labor of thousands.

CYRUS FIELD: "It was a very pretty plan on paper; God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken."

NARRATOR: A century before the Internet, Cyrus Field would attempt to wire the world.

The Great Transatlantic Cable

CYRUS FIELD: "Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to make your way up to the table, don't be shy. Mr. Bishop, would you like to take your seat? This is the telegraphic apparatus. We're going to send a message through Berlin to St. Petersburg.

NARRATOR: In 1856, Cyrus Field, a young America promoter, arranged a series of exclusive parties for some British investors. Field set up telegraph keys in private mansions around London, and had his guests compose short messages.

CYRUS FIELD: "Perhaps you would like to know what the weather is abroad?"

NARRATOR: These were sent by overland wires to other gatherings around Europe. After a few minutes, replies came in from as far away as Russia.

CYRUS FIELD: "That's it, Ladies and Gentlemen, the message is now coming through, afterŠthree minutes. And the message is, 'The Czar is most pleased with your enquiry and is in good health.'"

NARRATOR: The novelty of communicating at a distance delighted Field's guests. In the 1850s, these parlor games were strong evidence that the world was shrinking. In less than a decade, the telegraph had become a boom industry in America. Twenty years earlier, working alone in his New York artist's studio, the painter, Samuel Morse, had tinkered with a mechanism for sending signals over short electrical wires. With primitive batteries for power, he devised a code of simple dots and dashes to represent the letters of the alphabet. In 1843, the U.S. government paid to string wires 35 miles from Washington to Baltimore. Within a few years, this first telegraph line had sprouted a system stretching from Boston west to the Mississippi River. The era of instant communication was born.

DANIEL CZITROM: The telegraph really transforms the marketplace in the United States rather quickly. Prices are known instantaneously around the country. So, whereas it used to be that, say, the price of pork in Cincinnati was known only to people in Cincinnati or that region, the price of pork in Cincinnati, with the telegraph, is now known in New York at the same time. The market is nationalized. It is no longer dependent on space because space has, in effect, been annihilated.

NARRATOR: Although New York and New Orleans could now communicate, oceans isolated the cities of America from the rest of the world. The telegraph had shrunk the continent, but international news was still carried by wind and sail. Ships would leave New York Harbor with mail and dispatches bound for London -- weeks away. The telegraph ended at the docks of lower Manhattan. At an office block facing these docks, Cyrus Field had built a successful, international company by the time he was thirty. The son of a prominent New England clergyman, Field's family included important judges and social reformers. But, as a young man, Cyrus Field chose a different path. While still a boy, he came to New York to seek his fortune.

JOHN STEELE GORDON, Author, "Thread Across the Ocean": When Cyrus Field was 16 years old, he wanted to go into business and his father arranged for him to be apprenticed to A.T. Stewart, who was a merchant in New York, and Stewart had more or less invented the department store. Cyrus Field spent three years as an apprentice. And then he went into business on his own when he was about 20, in the wholesale paper business. He bought one that was failing and he had to reorganize it and settled the debts on for something like 30 cents on the dollar. Within a few years, he was very successful and was making money and he paid these debts he had no legal obligation to pay, and this gave him an enormous reputation, I mean, this was not something that happened every day.

DANIEL CZITROM: He combines the background of sort of Calvinist, strict, protestant education, with the bustle, the excitement, the opportunity of commercial New York.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Business was rapidly increasing the opportunities made available by the industrial revolution -- were almost without end. The word millionaire was coined in 1827 to give a name to these people who had made fortunes outside of land. By the time Field was 30 years old he was a rich man and he was able to build a mansion on Gramercy Park, a very fashionable part of New York City at that time -- still is.

NARRATOR: Field wed a young woman from Connecticut, and together they moved into their newly built mansion on Gramercy Park. Here, Mary Stone Field would raise their seven children. A newspaper declared Cyrus Field the 33rd richest man in town.

GILLIAN COOKSON: He started doing out his house at Gramercy Park and had an English butler and European china and beautiful trimmings and drapes and, um, was thoroughly bored -- he wanted something else in his life.

NARRATOR: Although still in his thirties, Field removed himself from the day-to-day management of his paper company.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: He was sort of looking around for something to do and his brother, who was an engineer, brought over a man who was involved in a scheme to build a telegraph across Newfoundland and then run a cable across the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia, so that ships could stop at St. John's in Newfoundland, then they could telegraph the news ahead to New York. News coming from Europe could get to North America two days faster. Field, actually, was not terribly impressed with that idea. But then he happened to look at a globe and he just noticed that Newfoundland is right on the Great Circle Route to England and he just suddenly thought to himself, well, why don't we lay a cable across the Atlantic and then we wouldn't save two days, we'd save twelve days and have the news instantly.

BERNARD FINN, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: And this is where ignorance is great beneficial, it's you know, if you can run a line that far, why don't you just run it the rest of the way and the fact that it's underwater you know, what difference does it make, that's it should be possible.

NARRATOR: With no knowledge of the ocean or the telegraph, Field began 1854 by writing to a Lieutenant Matthew Maury.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Matthew Fontaine Maury was the Director of the Naval Observatory in Washington and the great American oceanographer -- he almost invented the science of oceanography. He wrote to Maury asking if it was possible to lay a line across the, the Atlantic Ocean and Maury wrote back saying, funny you should ask, because I had a ship out there all summer taking soundings and we found this nice flat area perfect for laying a cable, in fact, we've named it the "Telegraph Plateau."

NARRATOR: With Lieutenant Maury's surprising encouragement, Field began to consider the scale of the project. A primitive 27-mile line under the English Channel had just been laid. An Atlantic cable would need to be a hundred times longer.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Field realized he was going to need much more money than he, himself, could possibly invest in such a scheme and it was going to be a very large undertaking, but, fortunately, on Gramercy Park, he had lots of very rich neighbors, especially Peter Cooper, who was an iron monger who had made an enormous fortune, probably one of the two or three richest men in, in New York City at that time.

NARRATOR: Peter Cooper was old enough to be Field's father, but they shared similar backgrounds. Cooper also shared Field's belief that business was akin to religion in its power to benefit the world.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Peter Cooper, who was a very religious man, he had always thought that the, the purpose of business was to make money, and the purpose of life was to do good.

CYRUS FIELD: "The bottom of the sea between Newfoundland and Ireland is a plateau, which seems to have been placed there especially to hold the wires of a submarine telegraph and to keep them out of harm's way."

NARRATOR: In March 1854, with little planning or research, Cyrus Field brought together Cooper and a few other influential neighbors hoping they would back his cable.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: They were very savvy businessmen. They trusted Field because he had been a very successful businessman, even though he was young. His greatest advantage was his drive and his energy and his determination to get things done.

DANIEL CZITROM: Clearly he wanted to see a return and clearly he tried to convince investors that they would get a return, but there's something more to it than that. It's not just about money, it's about, I think, a desire to make a mark in the world and, also, a sense that once you've made your pile, once you've made your money, you still have obligations to service, to try to improve life for people and so on and so forth.

GILLIAN COOKSON: It's quite common, isn't it, for business people to, to explain their actions in terms other than making money. There were people who saw the good that would come out of this project, but they did also have a very strong eye on the bottom line. This was never philanthropy; this was always a business opportunity.

NARRATOR: Field's enthusiasm was contagious. The group chartered a small corporation with an imposing name ­ The New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. After posing for a formal portrait, the Gramercy Park cable investors toasted their project and pledged the vast sum of one and a half million dollars. Years later, Field wrote of that meeting: "God knows none of us were aware of what we had undertaken." Field's first task would be bridging the 60-mile Cabot Strait separating Newfoundland from the rest of Canada. After wrecking a small ship, the new cable company was forced to spend almost all its original capital just stringing a wire through the wilderness to Newfoundland's eastern shore.

CYRUS FIELD: "Not one of us had ever seen the country. On a map it was easy to draw a line from one point to the other, ignoring the forests, the mountains, and rivers that lay in our way."

NARRATOR: Cyrus Field succeeded in bringing the telegraph to Newfoundland, but for his Company the first year was a financial disaster. It was clear that he had grossly underestimated the scope of the project. By the fall of 1855, the telegraph line ended on the Canadian shore. Cyrus Field was out of money, out of cable, and still 2,000 miles from Europe. If his dream was to become a fact, Field needed more money than his New York backers could contribute. In 1856, the American arrived in London, prepared to promise anything to sell more shares. To bankers, he claimed his cable would bring an eight percent return; to idealists, it would bring world peace. On a sales mission to a wealthy lord's country estate, he even compared his telegraph to a hunting dog.

CYRUS FIELD: "The plan of which I've spoken is, essentially, just a dog ­ if you pinch his tail in London, he'll let out a bark in New York."

GILLIAN COOKSON: I think that, because Field was an American and because he was very direct and open and went straight to the point, he was able to mix, in these different strata of British Society in a way that perhaps someone British couldn't have done. He actually went to see the First Lord of the Admiralty and said can you give me a boat? The Admiralty, at this time, was rather short of boats, didn't have, too many to spare, but, but they said, yes, okay. Now, I can't imagine an English person would ever have done that because this is a very direct way to ­ they may have written a polite letter saying, oh, by the wayŠ and it probably wouldn't have had any effect, but, Field knew he needed a boat, went off and got one.

NARRATOR: Field needed more than British boats and money, he needed access to a rare British-made substance -- gutta-percha. This foul smelling tropical sap was used to protect electrical cable, and a London company monopolized most of the gutta-percha trees in the world.

BERNARD FINN: Absolutely critical to this enterprise was gutta-percha. It's like rubber, it comes out of a tree, but it's a plastic. If you take gutta-percha and you just put it in hot water, it will begin to soften and then you can mold it in whatever shape and then you cool it down and it keeps that shape.

DONARD DE COGAN, Engineer: And this way, it can be used as a coating on copper wire. The nature of gutta-percha was that it was a good insulator. So, the cable was a piece of copper wire coated with this gutta-percha and then having an outer covering of iron wire wound round it as a protection.

NARRATOR: Insulated cable would weigh one ton per mile, and no single ship was big enough to carry the entire 2500-ton load. Most experts doubted that existing cable would operate over such a distance. But, one "consultant" claimed he could make it work. Cyrus Field hired, as chief electrician, a medical doctor named Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Doctor Whitehouse was a physician by trade, but he was an amateur telegrapher. He knew a great deal about telegraphy, there's no doubt about that, um, unfortunately, he was one of those people who just could not be wrong about anything.

DONARD DE COGAN: He was a very outspoken man and a man of very definite ideas. Indeed, he was a member of that group who believed that, if electricity had to travel a long distance, it needed a jolly good kick to get it on its way.

NARRATOR: Electricity was still a mystery in the 1850s. Before the light bulb, most people knew electricity only from thunderstorms or magic shows. Whether a current could even flow through a 2,000--mile, undersea cable was completely uncertain.

DONARD DE COGAN: There were many people who thought it wasn't possible. Indeed, the British Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddle Airy, declared that it was quite impossible to do this because, at the great depth of the ocean, the electric fluid would be squeezed out of the cable.

NARRATOR: Dr. Whitehouse insisted that the Atlantic cable would work, but only if a strong enough current were applied. Field was convinced that Whitehouse's system of robust batteries was the key to success. Others cautioned Field that there needed to be more testing, but Dr. Whitehouse was so sure of his theories and Field knew any delay would cost money ­ money that he didn't have. With his British funders in place, Field sailed home to America. His next job was to get the support of his own government. For months he lobbied most of the United States Congress -- writing home that he would rather be surrounded by Newfoundland's icebergs than Washington's politicians.

GILLIAN COOKSON: He was talking as though America really was still a backwater, isolated by its lack of communication. And he was saying, look, you know, if-if I stand on the west coast of Ireland, I can send a message almost instantaneously to, um, anywhere on the European mainland, down into Africa, across, across the, um, Asian continent, but, here, in America you can only really talk to each other, you're cut off from the, from the rest of world commerce.

NARRATOR: Although many legislators argued that Britain ought to pay the entire bill for Field's scheme, the Atlantic Cable Act passed the Senate by a single vote. Congress ordered the United States Navy to provide assistance. Late in 1857, the navy loaned the USS Niagara to the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Powered by a combination of steam and sail, the Niagara was the largest such vessel in the world. After being fitted with new machinery, and with Cyrus Field aboard, the U.S. ship sailed for a rendezvous point in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, she met her British counterpart, the HMS Agamemnon, each carrying one-half of the cable. With both ships at the meeting point, riggers joined the cable. Strand by strand the wires were carefully connected and a copper penny was soldered in for luck. On July 29th 1858, a test signal was telegraphed from the Agamemnon to the Niagara. That afternoon the ships sailed off in opposite directions.

COLIN HEMPSTEAD, Engineer: You're captain of the Niagara, and you've got to take a cable across to the middle of the Atlantic to Newfoundland. It sounds so easy. You've got 1200 miles of cable, simply drop it to the base of the ocean, but it isn't as easy as that. First of all, you've got some 20,000 feet of water to go down, you've got a, a ship moving forward and you want to make sure that the cable isn't too tight, if it's too tight it'll probably break, if it's too loose it'll just snake its way down to the base of the ocean, end up a big coil on the base. You're going to have to match the speed of the ship with the sort of required laying speed of the cable and you have to keep going at this sort of speed regardless of what happens at the top.

NARRATOR: Onboard the Niagara, telegraphers sent hourly test signals to the Agamemnon. As long as one ship could hear the other, the cable was working. If the signal should ever stop, their mission would be a failure.

CYRUS FIELD: "Latitude 52°N, Longitude 32°W. Signals through the whole length of cable onboard both ships: perfect."

NARRATOR: For eight days, the Agamemnon and Niagara sailed east and west -- the first time in history that two ships had maintained contact beyond the horizon. The Niagara sent routine weather reports, The Agamemnon replied that whales were following the ship. Then, one morning, there was a crisis aboard the Niagara. Officers discovered serious navigator navigational errors. The ship had laid out too much cable for the distance covered. At that rate, they would run out of cable before making Newfoundland.

COLIN HEMPSTEAD: It seems that the compass had been affected by the amount of iron. The cables were sheathed with iron. Therefore the compass would deviate from its north position.

NARRATOR: Without a reliable compass, the navigator needed to constantly check his position -- fighting to keep the ship on track. Even as cargo, the cable itself, was posing a challenge.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Field had no technological background whatsoever. He said, later, that it was fortunate for him that he didn't know anything about the problems of undersea cables because he never would have gotten involved in the project.

NARRATOR: At sea, Cyrus Field had time to reflect on his cable adventure. For most of the last four years, he'd left his wife and family alone. He had convinced his Gramercy Park neighbors to entrust him with their money and he had lost nearly every penny. Now he'd gotten a host of new investors and was, again, stretched to the limit with an unperfected technology. For a minister's son who had built his reputation on pure trust, he was in a difficult spot.

CYRUS FIELD: "I was standing on the deck of the Niagara in mid-ocean and, when I thought of all my hopes thus far disappointed, of the friends saddened by my reverses, I felt a load at my heart almost too heavy to bear."

NARRATOR: After eight days and nearly 1,000 miles, the Niagara entered Trinity Bay, Newfoundland -- the cable had arrived in North America. From a small shed on the beach, Field sent a four-word message to New York -- "The cable is laid." From the cable office on Wall Street the word spread quickly as the telegraph carried the news to towns around the United States. Newspapers from Maine to Missouri printed extra editions. While Field prepared to return from Newfoundland to New York, the Agamemnon, arrived off the coast of Ireland. As the electrician, Edward Whitehouse watched, the European end of the cable was hauled ashore.

DONARD DE COGAN: They set up a tent. All the electrical equipment was put in place and Whitehouse and his colleagues were given free access to the cable to get into a working order.

NARRATOR: Queen Victoria composed a ceremonial telegram to President James Buchanan. One of Dr. Whitehouse's first tasks was to send her words across the Atlantic. When the Queen's message arrived, America began celebrating. New Yorkers sensed a new age had dawned. Two continents had been joined.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: They were used to having the Atlantic Ocean be two weeks, three weeks, six weeks wide and, suddenly, here it was 10 minutes wide, and it was just a miracle.

DANIEL CZITROM: There were these huge, spontaneous demonstrations that took place -- bonfires, fireworks, street parades, tens of thousands of people marching up Broadway -- immigrant groups, temperance societies, workingman's clubs, all essentially sharing in this notion of this is an American triumph, this is something that is uniquely American, there's an American genius at work here.

NARRATOR: From the family home in Massachusetts, Field's brother sent a message -- "Cyrus, your father danced like a boy and all over town bells are being rung. The joyful news has nearly overwhelmed your wife and family." A few blocks from the parades, Cyrus Field was not celebrating. From the first test signals, something seemed to be wrong. Even the Queen's short message had taken hours to transmit. As time passed, the signals across the Atlantic became fainter. In Ireland, Dr. Whitehouse's response was to add more and more batteries to the circuit, cranking up the amount of current passing through the cable.

DONARD DE COGAN: Batteries with 500 volts, and then induction coils, maybe 2,000 volts, the poor cable it was not going to be able to withstand that, but nobody knew.

NARRATOR: In Newfoundland, the signals became intermittent, words were garbled, whole phrases missed.

CYRUS FIELD: "How do you receive? Can you read this? Please send something."

NARRATOR: The clipped, imperfect sounds of the telegraph told Cyrus Field that Europe and America were, once again, cut off. After just 23 days of operation, somewhere on the dark floor of the North Atlantic his cable had failed.

DANIEL CZITROM: After all this outpouring of enthusiasm, after these huge, lavish banquets, after all the honors that are being laid on Field, the cable goes dead and, immediately many people, many newspapers and, and, and others start to say, well, maybe this whole thing was a hoax, maybe this whole thing was just a big stock fraud, maybe this was the kind of thing that we associate with P.T. Barnum humbug.

NARRATOR: A Boston newspaper accused Field of profiting by dumping his stock before the cable failed. The minister's son was forced to defend his own integrity.

DONARD DE COGAN: Cyrus Field must have been absolutely devastated because, if we convert the sort of cost of the cable at that time into the hundreds of millions of dollars that it would cost today, and that is an investment which is gone.

BERNARD FINN: And even if you found out that there was a problem, you know, that it's a, it's a fault within the cable someplace a break in the cable if there was a single thing, you can't do anything about it. There's no way of going and picking up the cable and repairing it.

NARRATOR: Overnight, Cyrus Field went from being the toast of New York to a laughing stock. Newspapers, which a month earlier had hailed him, now called him "a man obsessed by insanity." Field knew that, for now, his Atlantic Cable was lost, but from his mansion he sent a short, confident note to his investors.

CYRUS FIELD: "Our cable is not dead but only slumbers. Someday, she will answer the call."

NARRATOR: A few weeks after the cable's failure, a letter arrived from London. The scale of the debacle forced the British and American governments to call a Board of Enquiry to find out what had gone wrong. Field was summoned to explain himself.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: This is the very first time after a technological failure, that a board of enquiry was convened. It was such a good idea that every time since, the first thing they do is summon a board of enquiry, whether it was when the Titanic sank in 1912 or the Challenger blew up in 1986. They found all kinds of things wrong. They found that the cable was badly designed, that it had not been properly tested in real conditions, in water of the right temperature and at the right pressure.

GILLIAN COOKSON: There is a problem with long cables, there is a problem with deep cables, not just in laying them but actually getting them to work once the, once they have, um, once they have been laid.

NARRATOR: The Board's suspicions focused on the electrician, Dr. Whitehouse. When he hooked his powerful batteries to the Irish end of the cable, he forced so much power through the line that he blasted a hole through the gutta-percha insulation somewhere on the ocean floor. The entire 2,000-mile system had been turned into a wet clothesline.

GILLIAN COOKSON: Whitehouse really was set up as the person to take the blame He continued after that to protest that he had been right when it was becoming increasingly clear that he didn't actually know what he was doing.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: One of the most important things that the Board of Enquiry did was to discover that there was no adequate vocabulary in which to discuss technical details of, of electrical engineering and, within the next few years, a whole raft of words entered the English language, words like Watt and Volt and Ohm and Ampere. Um, they were all named for great pioneers in, in the history of, of electricity.

NARRATOR: Field replaced Whitehouse with Professor William Thomson, a brilliant, Scottish physicist, later known as "Lord Kelvin". Thomson thought what was needed was an instrument to detect very weak signals. The electricity at the far end of the cable was too faint to produce a conventional click. Thomson struggled for a way to catch the signal.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: He was in his study one day and he was thinking about something, standing at his desk and he happened to be twirling his monocle. He noticed that the light coming in the window was reflecting off the monocle and the light spot was zooming around the room.

NARRATOR: Suddenly, Thomson realized what was needed. His assistant attached a tiny glass reflector to an iron wire. By focusing a kerosene flame on the mirror, even the slightest movement of the wire could be made visible. The ingenious mirror galvanometer could detect signals one thousand times fainter than other receivers. Although Dr. Whitehouse had taken the fall for the cable's failure, the Board also faulted Cyrus Field's impulsiveness. If Field was to try another cable, it would have to be based on solid physics.

GILLIAN COOKSON: Field was blinkered and he didn't, perhaps, take on all the information that was available to him, but, in another way, he drove the project forward through his own energy and his own abilities to actually harness the people who needed to be involved. There was a very big problem when he turned back to the cable and tried to get it moving again. He said this was his darkest hour really when people wouldn't listen to him. Many people had lost a great deal of money and weren't willing to throw more after it. Field was forced to go back to London and really concentrate his efforts, um, in Britain.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: I think you can tell Field's character when it comes to failure, when the British Foreign Minister asked him, before this all started, what he would do if failed, and he said charge it up to profit and loss and start again.

DANIEL CZITROM: He never let up. This is also, I think, part of the salesman part of Field no matter how bad things were looking, no matter how much money was lost, no matter what disaster befell the cable project, his optimism seemed to be unshakeable, his faith in the ultimate success must have been inspirational to other people and given them confidence to keep investing.

NARRATOR: By the time Field had raised new capital in Britain, his own country had exploded. In April 1861, civil war broke out in America. While it tore the nation apart, the war's use of battlefield telegraph equipment also demonstrated the power of good communication. When peace came to America in 1865, Field and his backers resumed the cable project with new vigor.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: They had a great stroke of luck. The greatest engineer of the 19th century, with the wonderful name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, said, "Mr. Field, I have the ship to lay your cable." In 1858, he launched the Great Eastern, which was not only the largest ship in the world, it was five times the size of any ship in the world. Brunel's original idea was to build a ship large enough to steam from England to Australia and back without having to re-coal. It turned out that it was a commercial disaster. Nobody wanted, particularly, to go to Australia, um, even without having to re-coal, and, on the Atlantic run, it was just too big to make money. Field realized immediately that it would be perfect because it was the only ship in the world that could carry all the cable in one go.

NARRATOR: Field and his British backers were able to buy the bankrupt Great Easternfor only two percent of what it had cost to build. The one ship in the world big enough to alone lay the entire cable was now in Field's hands. Compared to the attempt of 1858, the Great Eastern would be a voyage of luxury. For weeks, at a dock in London, 7,000 tons of continuous cable was spooled into the holds of the great ship.

GILLIAN COOKSON: There was no longer any need to worry about mid-ocean splicing with another boat. It was all on one ship. The Great Eastern was so huge that the cable, apparently, was lost in the hold.

NARRATOR: A decade earlier, Cyrus Field had begun with a small gathering in his own parlor, now he was about to set sail in the world's largest ship with dozens of technicians and the finest equipment 19th century science could provide. The European end of the new cable ran from the same Irish bay as in 1858. With Field on deck, the Great Eastern steamed toward Newfoundland, 2,000 miles over the horizon.

GILLIAN COOKSON: Field was the only American on the expedition. There were hundreds of men on the Great Eastern and there was only one American and that was Cyrus Field.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Everybody wanted Cyrus Field there because everybody knew that he was the man who was going to make this all come together. He was the classic entrepreneur, which is, in many ways, is like a producer on a, of a, of a Broadway show. I mean, the producer doesn't write, he doesn't act, he doesn't paint scenery, he doesn't do anything except make it possible for all the others to come together and have the show. Without the producer, there's no show.

NARRATOR: Alone with his thoughts on the two-week voyage, Cyrus Field took time to record his impressions in his daily journal.

CYRUS FIELD: "There is a wonderful sense of power in the great ship. We are trailing a slender conduit through which lightning will flash with the news and passions of two mighty nations."

NARRATOR: Always with the gift for promotion, Field brought along an artist to record the voyage of the Great Eastern.

BERNARD FINN: The advantage of the Great Eastern, in carrying all the cable, is you start at, at Ireland and you head for Newfoundland but you're hooked up. In other words, that through this 2,000 miles of cable you've got a receiver and transmitter on ship and then the same on shore. So, all the time, they were in contact with each other as they were sailing away.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Every mile they went they had a new record for the length of functioning submarine cable. They knew what was going on in Ireland and Ireland knew what was going on in the ship at every moment.

NARRATOR: At one a.m. on the sixth night of the voyage, the telegrapher in Ireland failed to receive the Great Eastern's hourly signal. Minutes later, a thousand miles in mid-ocean, Field was summoned to the ship's telegraph shed. The signals from Ireland had disappeared. The circuit had broken. Desperate to save the project, the captain of the Great Easternattempted an impressive piece of seamanship. The huge, 700-foot ship reversed course on the high seas and backtracked 40 miles. A grappling hook was dropped over the side. After several passes, the cable was snared from the ocean floor. The crew attached the wire to a massive winch and slowly raised it three miles to the surface. Field watched as the cable was inspected foot by foot. Small metal spikes had pierced the gutta-percha covering. Some onboard feared sabotage, but the problem proved to be a defect in manufacturing. Miles of bad line were cut out of the circuit and a flash from the galvanometer told them that the contact with Ireland had been reestablished. Field's cable was rescued.

CYRUS FIELD: "It has been a long, hard struggle, nearly 13 years of ceaseless toil. Often my heart has been ready to sink. Alone, far from home, I have accused myself of madness to sacrifice the peace of my family. But, all the hopes have led me on and I have prayed that I might not taste of death till this work was accomplished."

NARRATOR: At dawn, on the fourteenth day, the Great Eastern entered the rugged Newfoundland Bay. The cable was brought ashore at the village of Heart's Content and wired into the North American grid. Cyrus Field sent a short message simultaneously to backers in New York and London. "Arrived Newfoundland nine this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid." A few hours later he sent a personal message to his wife at their home in Gramercy Park.

CYRUS FIELD: "The cable has been hauled ashore and is in perfect working order. Now we shall be a united family again."

GILLIAN COOKSON: It was remarkable that he kept going through, through all that he, he managed to endure and I, I do think it was something ahead of its time. I think without his commitment at that point, it could have taken years longer to, to put into place.

NARRATOR: Direct communication between Britain and America has never been broken since that morning in 1866.

DANIEL CZITROM: In a lot of contemporary illustrations, you've got the lion of England, the eagle of the United States joined. It helps to cement Anglo/American culture and it helps to, to create really what you might call the Victorian world, which is united by this cable. The idea that news going from London to New York or other parts of the world, eventually, um, this is something we take for granted now and, again, it's hard to imagine how amazing that seemed back then. The idea of, of the wiring of the world, creating a neighborhood of the whole world. I think what the cable anticipates is that sense of connectedness, everything being connected, which is so common eh in everyday life today.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: The cable was the great event of Cyrus Field's life, I mean, by the time it was finally finished and successful, he was nearing 50 years of age. And he became very, very rich become it; he was worth around six million dollars by 1880, which in those days made you very rich indeed. Um, he then lost much of it in, in Wall Street, but he was still world famous, honored wherever he went.

NARRATOR: Cyrus Field's 1866 cable carried 1,000 messages per month, at up to ten dollars a word. By the time Field died in 1892, there were a dozen telegraph cables across the Atlantic. Even today, most communication between America and Europe is still carried by transatlantic cable.

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