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The Transatlantic Cable: A Thread Across the Ocean

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 9, 2023 3:03 am

The Transatlantic Cable: A Thread Across the Ocean

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 9, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, historian John Steele Gordon tells the story of how the telegraph went from Samuel Morse to winning WWI and how one man spearheaded the effort to connect America to Great Britain and, in doing so, the rest of the world.

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See AT& or visit an AT&T store for details. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show.

And our favorite subject, as you know, is American history. Nowadays we never have to think about how long a message might take to get somewhere or to someone. In fact, often, if there isn't a near instantaneous reply, we often get frustrated or even annoyed.

If the message is going from Oxford, Mississippi or sending to, let's say, Oxford, England, we want it now and we want it fast. John Steele Gordon, a historian and friend of Hillsdale, is here to tell us how the story of the telegraph and the transatlantic cable changed the world. Some inventions are more important than others.

I mean, Oscar Hammerstein I, the great opera impresario, was the grandfather of the lyricist, who was a great inventor too, by the way. But he once invented a reversible necktie so that you could spill gravy on two sides. And he sold it.

He made money on this thing, but this did not change the world. It had been known for 100 years that you could send electricity down a wire. Many very important scientists of the 18th century had investigated this, including Benjamin Franklin, whose famous experiment with the kite and the key proved that lightning is an electrical phenomenon.

If you're tempted to reproduce Franklin's experiment, I would strongly suggest that you don't. It was a parlor game until the 19th century when wire became cheap because wire factories powered by steam could draw out copper very quickly and efficiently. Before then you had to beat it out. And so the telegraph became practical in the early 19th century and people all over the world were trying to do it. Two men in England, Wheatstone and Cook, developed and patented a system in 1837 that actually worked.

It was kind of clunky, but it worked. Samuel Morris in this country sent his famous message, what hath God wrought in 1844. And his system eventually became adopted worldwide because it was simpler than the other systems and also because of his marvelously efficient code, which is the only part of a whole system that he invented entirely himself.

Everything else was mainly bits and pieces he had borrowed. And the code, it was so efficient that people discovered very soon that they could, at first they would write down the dots and the dashes and then they would translate them. They found that once telegraphers got used to it that they could actually do it by ear and just write down the message. One of the very first people to learn how to do that, by the way, was a young telegrapher in Pittsburgh whose name was Andrew Carnegie. And telegraph wires sprung up like crazy. They often used the rights of way of the railroads as a convenient place to string their poles and their wires. And it wasn't long before the railroads learned that they could use a telegraph as a signaling system because most of the railroads in those days were single track. And so if there was an oncoming train expected and it didn't come, well, this train had to sit on the siding until it came. With a telegraph, they could telegraph ahead saying, you know, we're stuck.

You guys can come on. Suddenly the railroads were much more efficient, prices went down, use went up. But underwater telegraphy was another manner. Nobody knew if it was possible, but there was a very strong reason to try. And that was in the 1840s and 50s, the strongest country in the world was located on an archipelago off of Northwest Europe. They wanted to be able to connect to Europe. And so it was trying in English.

I've always loved to be, they love that 22 miles of water between them and the French, but they also mean the famous mid 19th century Times of London headline fog and channel continent cutoff. And so a pair of brothers named Brett ordered 30 miles of telegraph wire and put on the back of a boat and reeled it out across the channel and try to send a message back to Dover. And the message got there, it was gibberish, undecipherable, but at least it proved that you could get an electric signal through 22 miles of, of a submarine cable. And what made the cable possible was this stuff called gutta percha.

The sole use of gutta percha today is it's used to fill root canals after you've had the nerve removed, the dentist puts in gutta percha. And shortly after it came into use, golf playing clergyman in Scotland wondered if they might possibly be able to make golf balls out of gutta percha because they had been making them, they were called featheries and they're made of leather and stuffed with boiled goose feathers. And this was a very highly skilled job stuffing the feathers into the golf ball and they were very expensive and they only lasted maybe two or three games. So this clergyman who loved to play golf but didn't like paying for the featheries made golf balls out of gutta percha and hey, it worked great.

And they were very much cheaper. And he discovered after he'd played with them two or three times that the ball started going further. And he didn't understand why, we do not understand why now, it was the dents and the nicks imparted by the golf clubs gave it better aerodynamics and so they put dimples on golf balls. And that's why the dimples are there to this day.

Because the ball goes farther and then golf players love that characteristic. And then we come to a guy who was responsible for the cable. It wouldn't have happened without him, it would have happened eventually but it wouldn't have happened nearly as soon as it did. And his name was Cyrus Field. And he came from an old New England family from Connecticut. His father was David Dudley Field, a great New England clergyman.

He was distinguished enough as a clergyman and as an author to be listed today in the Dictionary of American Biography, which is the standard 24 volume work on distinguished Americans of the past. The Reverend David Dudley Field and his wife had eight sons. They had three daughters and eight sons. Two of the sons died, one died in childhood, one died in very early manhood, he was lost at sea. Of the six sons who lived to a full lifetime, four of them made it into the Dictionary of American Biography on their own. The two who didn't, one was a very distinguished engineer and the other was president of the Massachusetts Senate for three terms. So he may have been a great clergyman but clearly the Reverend David Dudley Field was a pretty good father too. And you're listening to John Steele Gordon. And by the way, his book, A Thread Across the Ocean, the story of the transatlantic cable is terrific.

Go to, pick it up or the usual suspects. When we come back, more of the story of how the telegraph went from Samuel Morse to winning World War I here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Ask your healthcare provider about Ozempic today. And we're back with our American stories and the story of the transatlantic cable. Historian John Steele Gordon was just introducing Cyrus Field, a bright young man from a very impressive New England family who was the person responsible for connecting both sides of the Atlantic.

Cyrus Field was not as intellectual as some of his brothers, just as smart, just not as interested in book learning. And when he was 16, he asked his father's permission to go to New York and go into business, and his father granted it. New York is unique among American colonies. The Puritans came to New England, the Quakers came to Philadelphia, Catholics came to Maryland in order to worship as they wished to do so. The Dutch came to New York to make money, and for no other reason whatsoever. In fact, they didn't even get around to building a church for 17 years. They were so busy trading furs.

When they did, they named it the Church of St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus has been the patron saint of New York ever since. So Cyrus Field came to this town that was famous for hustle and bustle and let's make a deal. And he was very, very good at doing exactly that. He owned a paper company, a wholesale paper company, and became very rich. By the time he was in his 30s, he was worth several hundred thousand dollars, which in the 1850s made you enormously rich. He lived in a great big house on Gramercy Park.

His brother right next door, they had doors to communicate between the two houses. And he was sort of, he was bored with running the paper company because he was an entrepreneur at heart. And once the thing was up and running and just cranking out dividends, it bored him.

He was perfectly willing to take the dividends, of course. And then one day his brother, Matthew Field, brought a guy named Frederick Gisborne over to see him because Gisborne had been running a telegraph line across the southern shore of Newfoundland with the hopes of putting a cable across the Cabot Strait, the entrance to the St. Lawrence River, and connected to the telegraph grid in North America because he said that would make communication with England two days shorter because Newfoundland is one third of the way along the great circle route to England. And Cyrus Field wasn't very interested in that because they didn't think two days made that all difference because it was only one day difference to Halifax, which was connected to the telegraph grid already. But then he just, he looked at the globe in his library and saw that, you know, that Newfoundland was indeed one third of the way up on the shortest route to England. And he said, well, hey, if we could lay a cable all the way to Ireland, then we could, communication wouldn't be 10 days.

It would be 10 minutes. And, you know, we can make money doing that. And so he decided to do it. He wrote a couple of people, Matthew Funtain Murray, the great oceanographer, asking if it was possible. And Murray wrote back saying, funny you should ask, we just did a series of soundings and we found this thing which we actually have named the Telegraph Plateau because it's the ideal place to lay a telegraph cable. Then he asked Samuel Morse if it was possible. And Morse said, sure. Morse was a tinkerer. He was actually a great portrait artist. But he wasn't very well technically grounded either. He borrowed most of his ideas from people who knew much more about telegraphy than he did.

Field decides to go ahead with this. And of course he had no idea what he was getting into. Almost like if somebody in the 1950s reading about the success of the Russian Sputnik saying, hey, I've got an idea. How about a manned expedition to Mars? Because the longest undersea cable in 1854 was less than 300 miles laid across the North Sea, which never gets deeper than about 300 feet.

And this would have to be 2,000 miles long and be at a depth of sometimes 15,000 feet. So he embarks upon it. He got his neighbor, Peter Cooper, the founder of the Cooper Union, to this day the only American university that does not charge tuition. And he also got Moses Taylor, who was an enormously rich man who ended up controlling the gas light industry in New York.

And they all put in very considerable sums of money, and off they go. Starting on this, the first thing they did was to lay the telegraph line across the southern shore of Newfoundland, which turned out to take about four times as long as they had counted on and cost five or six times as much. The southern shore of Newfoundland is not an easy place to work.

If you like rain and fog, you will love Newfoundland. And then they were going to lay the cable across the Cabot Strait, about 80 miles. And they simply had no idea what they were doing. They ordered the cable in England, the only place in the world that could make submarine cable. It was brought over in a sailing ship. They hired a steam ship in New York to go up there. It was going to tow the sailing ship across as the sailing ship unreeled the cable. And they invited everybody on board to come on board the steamboat.

So all the ancestors. Peter Cooper was there. The Reverend David Dudley Field, aged about 70, was there. Their wives and daughters were there in big hats and long skirts and parasols. And they got to St. John's in the capital of Newfoundland.

The whole city was full of great, large, black, amiable Newfoundland dogs. And they fell in love with them, and they bought 10 or 12, brought them on board. And so here was a combination between a commercial enterprise on the cutting edge of technology and a yachting party. And the captain proved to be very uncooperative. He refused to follow orders, for one thing. He said, I'll know how to sail my ship.

Well, he may know how to sail a ship, but he didn't know where they wanted it to sail. And finally, they had to cut the cable, and it was a $500,000 disaster. So they needed lots more money. And the only place to get it was England. And England was much more enthusiastic about the cable than the United States was, because England had this worldwide empire, which was very difficult to communicate with. And so the British government said, OK, once the cable works, we guarantee to pay you 16,000 pounds a year, which means you can borrow at 4%, virtually the estimated cost of laying the cable once it works. The United States government made the same promise, although it took a great deal of screaming and yelling in Congress, because a lot of Americans think, what do we need this for?

But they finally did come on board. Each of the navies donated two ships. The US lent the USS Niagara, one of the largest warships in the world, made of iron, state-of-the-art ship design. The British gave them the Agamemnon, which, although it was steam-powered, it looked for all the world like a boat that had fought at Trafalgar 50 years earlier. I mean, it was a three-decker, three-masted ship of the line that had been retrofitted for steam.

But it was a lousy sailor, as most of those great big tubby ships of the line were. They had to use two ships, because there wasn't, no ship in the world could carry enough cable to do the whole job. The first time they started in Ireland, got out about 400 miles, and the cable snapped, and that was the end of that.

There wasn't enough time. Next year, they tried it again, sailed out to the middle this time. Before they got to the middle, they were caught in one of the worst Atlantic storms in memory.

The Agamemnon survived only because of superb seamanship on the part of the captain and the crew. It had 250 tons of cable sitting on its forward deck, which made it even more top-heavy than it had been before, and he managed to save that cable. They could have just cut it and tossed it, but they did not. They survived. They tried it again. The cable snapped. They went back to England.

At this point, they were derided by everybody. This was a wild goose chase. Why are we putting money into this silly thing? And Field said, look, the money's been spent. We have the cable. We have enough to do it. Let's try it again.

We've got nothing to lose. Otherwise, we just sell the cable for scrap, and then it's a certain disaster. So they tried it, and it worked.

They've un-reeled it, virtually without any problem whatsoever. And you're hearing the true nature of an entrepreneur, and that is they see things that no one else sees, and they're not even sure they know how to do. They call a few guys, a few gals, and the next thing they know, they're giving it a shot. And when they fail, they just want to try it one more time because they want to fix what didn't work and make that dream a reality. And not some pie-in-the-sky crazy dream, but something doable. And when you think of a guy like Elon Musk saying, I want to build a spaceship to somewhere, well, he's doing it.

This spirit, well, it's always been in humankind, and something about our country unleashes it in people and allows it to thrive. When we come back, more of John Steele Gordon's story, the story of the transatlantic cable, here on Our American Stories. And we'll be right back. Thank you.

Thank you. And we're back with the conclusion of the Cyrus Field and transatlantic cable story and the telegraph cable that connected America to England, and from there, to the rest of the world. We pick up at the point where the United States and England have finally, after many failures, connected the cable from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Here again is John Steele Gordon.

Got to Newfoundland, hooked it up, and it worked. They had huge celebrations. It was like the second coming.

George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary that some people are really going wild, but moderate people say it's only the greatest thing that has ever happened. They had huge parties in New York. They sent fireworks off of City Hall. So enthusiastically, they set City Hall on fire. The cupola is a replacement because it was burned in that fire. Fortunately, they saved the building because it's a magnificent building.

I don't approve often of what goes on inside it, but architecturally, it is wonderful. And Queen Victoria sent a message, a 99-word message, to President Buchanan. What the cable company did not tell people was that the 99-word message took 16 and a half hours to transmit. The cable was working, but just barely. And then it just wasn't working at all.

It just stopped. And they never did figure out exactly why. So they tried again, and they had to wait at that point until the Civil War, which broke out after the second attempt. They had run out of money, for one thing, and before they could begin to raise enough money, they had to wait for the Civil War to end. And also, there was a board of inquiry. The very first time, there was an official board of inquiry to find out what caused the disaster. Because the British had also had an 800,000-pound disaster laying a cable to India through the Red Sea. That had also failed to work.

What went wrong, how we can do it better, learn our lessons here. And they learned all kinds of lessons. One was they didn't have a vocabulary of electricity.

And so it was very hard to discuss technical issues, because people were using different words and had different meanings to the same words. And so they started coining words, and they started using the names of great scientists of the past. So words like Watt for James Watt, and Ohm for Georg Ohm, and Ampere, one of the great French early investors, and Volta, the great Italian investigator of electricity. And this is the first time scientists were honored in this way.

It goes on to this day. We now have Newtons and all kinds of names. I mean, you know you've arrived as a scientist when you get some incomprehensible concept named after you. They then designed a new cable. One of the problems with the old cable was it had been very quickly designed, because Field, his greatest virtue as an entrepreneur, was his drive to let's get it done.

It was also his greatest defect, because he didn't give enough time for experiments. They designed a much better cable. The first cable had been about as big around as a man's little finger.

The second cable was about as big around as a man's thumb, which is a considerable improvement. Still a very long, thin thread across the ocean. And also they had an extraordinary stroke of luck. The greatest engineer of the 19th century, his name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which I think is a really great name.

I mean, Dickens could have thought up that name. He designed a steam ship called the Great Eastern, which was launched in the Thames River in 1858. It was, not only was it the largest ship in the world, it was five times the size of any ship afloat.

And throughout its 30 years of existence, wherever it was, whether it was Bombay or Boston or Baltimore, it looked like a rowboat in a pond full of ducks. It was just gigantic. Had the Panama Canal existed when the Great Eastern did, the Great Eastern could not have utilized it. It was too wide to get through the Panama Canal. Brunel realized that you could go the whole, you made a ship big enough because the energy required increased more or less as a square, but the capacity increased as the cube, so you could do more and more. And he said, build a big enough ship. And he designed this colossal ship and somehow talked people into paying to have it built. It was an economic disaster. There were six owners of the Great Eastern.

All of them lost major money, including the scrap dealer who owned it last because it turned out to be extremely expensive to break it up for scrap. It was also absolutely perfect for laying the Atlantic cable. They could lay the whole thing. Because it was so enormous, it was much less subject to wave action, so it was much less likely to snap the cable. You could have all the workers you needed on board.

And since it was out of work anyway, because it was an economic white elephant, they were more than happy to lease it to be used for the cable. So in 1865, off they go again. And they get four-fifths of the way across, and then it snaps.

They went back to England, tail between their legs. Sure, they were going to be objects of utter derision. And in fact, everybody said, hey, you had bad luck. Now we know we can do it.

All we got to do is just have good luck. And the next year, they laid the fifth attempt, went like clockwork. They then went back out, grabbed the fourth attempt, spliced it on, and within three weeks had two cables across the Atlantic Ocean. And North America has not been out of communication with Europe for more than a couple of hours ever since. It revolutionized the world. The London and Wall Street markets began to act in concert because they were now in instant communication. Newspapers, they formed the UPI, the United Press International, so they could cut cable costs so we could get European news today, which was just, you know, you could read what was going on in Europe today. Today was just an extraordinary thing to them. We just take it totally for granted. We just want to know what the weather is in London.

We find out. However, it was very expensive to use a cable. The first price was dollar a word, 15 word minimum. That was $15.

And when a skilled worker was lucky to earn $5 a week, this led to considerable brevity. And also, they didn't raise the capacity of the two cables. And then when the French cable came in, landed here in Duxbury in 1869, it was a separate organization, competition. Competition is wonderful for capitalism.

Capitalists don't like it so much, but for capitalism it's great. Prices of both went way down. Usage soared and became very profitable.

Cyrus Field became enormously rich. And the world just changed. The world just changed. And to give you an idea of how much it changed, the British declared war on Germany on August 1, 1914. On August 2, 1914, a British cable ship in the dark of night sailed over to the German coast, grappled up the German cables, and cut them, forcing the Germans to communicate with the outside world by radio. And the Germans, as they always did, thought their codes were unbreakable. And the British, as they always did, broke them. The British were geniuses at cryptography. And one of the things they decoded was the famous Zimmerman Telegram, where the Germans offered Mexico, in exchange for an alliance and an attack upon the United States, offered Mexico the return of their lost provinces, roughly the southwest quarter of the United States. When the British quietly gave this to the American government, the American government was convinced that maybe it was time to go over there and defeat Germany and save the British and the French's behinds, because they were about to lose. And you've been listening to John Steele Gordon thread a story that most of us didn't know.

And even if you did, you didn't mind hearing again. His book is A Thread Across the Ocean, The Story of the Transatlantic Cable. And our history stories, all of our American history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. Go and sign up for their free and terrific online courses. Go to

That's John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean, The Story of the Transatlantic Cable. Get the book now. The story here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-09 04:33:57 / 2023-01-09 04:45:47 / 12

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