John Brown

Photo above: John Brown. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Engraving of U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort led by Robert E. Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Harper's Ferry

U.S. Timeline - The 1850s

Expansion and the Looming Divide



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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1858

    August 5, 1858 - The first transatlantic cable is completed by Cyrus West Field and others. It would fail its test due to weak current on September 1.

    Cyrus West Field


    It would be an overall failure, the use of this transatlantic telegraph cable for telegraphs, and not succeed for years, with the first successful line not in use until 1866. However, it was a grand accomplishment to lay that much cable beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and the man who accomplished it, Cyrus West Field, was only getting started on what he would accomplish. Yes, Cyrus West Field was about to become a robber barron, of the class of the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers, even if we don't know his name now, and in 1858, with this failure, it didn't seem like we would ever know it, even back then.

    On August 5, 1858, the shore end of the line was completed to the cable house at Knightstown. The idea of a transatlantic telegraph cable had been bandied about for years, by men such as Samuel Morse, Edward Thornton, and Alonzo Jackman. By 1850, a telegraph line had been run from France to England, prompting others to think of various points of water to cross, one of those largest would be the Atlantic Ocean. Frederic Newton Gisborne, a telegraph engineer in Nova Scotia, was one of those others. He met, in 1854, with Cyrus West Field, who, despite his inexperience in the field, was interested, and brought the idea to Morse and more in the field to ascertain its viability. Gisborne, Field, and others thought the viability possible, with the best and shortest route from Nova Scotia, after laying it from St. John's, to Valentia, Ireland.

    The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed in 1856 by Cyrus Field, John Watkins Brett, and Charles Tilston Bright to facilitate the undertaking, capitalized with L350,000. Twenty-five hundred miles of cable was bought, Samuel Morse placed on the board of directors (subsequently removed), and the British government, and United States government, were brought aboard with subsidies and ships to use for laying the wire. Using the USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon, and after the cable had broken often over the previous year, a middle splice was eventually achieved on July 29, 1858. On August 4, the USS Niagara arrived at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, attaching the western end. One day later, the cable was completed, attached in Ireland.

    Cyrus West Field sent a message to the Associated Press on August 5, 1858.

    "Trinity Bay, August 5, 1858."

    "The Atlantic telegraph fleet sailed from Queenstown on Saturday, July 17th."

    "They met in mid-ocean on Wednesday, the 28th, and made the splice at 1 P.M. on Thursday, the 29th. They then separated, the Agamemnon and Valorous bound to Valentia, Ireland, and the Niagara and Gorgon for this place, where they arrived yesterday."

    "This morning the end of the cable will be landed."

    "It is sixteen hundred and ninety-eight nautical or nineteen hundred and fifty statute miles from the telegraph-house at the head of Valentia Harbor to the telegraph-house, Bay of Bull's Arms, Trinity Bay."

    "For more than two-thirds of the distance the water is over two miles in depth."

    "The cable has been paid out from the Agamemnon at about the same speed as from the Niagara. The electrical signals sent and received through the whole cable are perfect. The machinery for paying out the cable worked in the most satisfactory manner, and was not stopped for a single moment from the time the splice was made until we arrived here."

    "Captain Hudson, Messrs. Everett and Woodhouse, the engineers, the electricians and officers of the ships, and in fact every man on board the telegraph fleet has exerted himself to the utmost to make the expedition successful. By the blessing of Divine Providence it has succeeded."

    "After the end of the cable is landed and connected with the land line of telegraph, and the Niagara has discharged some cargo belonging to the telegraph company, she will go to St. John's for coals, and then proceed at once to New York."

    Cyrus W. Field."

    Test messages began on August 10 with the first official telegram sent on August 16, 1858. "Directors of Atlantic Telegraph Company, Great Britain, to Directors in America: - Europe and America are united by telegraph. Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will towards men." The project was celebrated by the public, with reports of up to one half million people jubilant, marching through the streets of the city. The project was also feted in the press with subsequent messages, a total of thirty-two, sent over the next two weeks by the likes of President Buchanan and Queen Victoria. However, the achievement would not last, high voltage compromised the insulation of the cable, and the cable failed by the first days of September.




    Cyrus West Field


    Cyrus West Field was born to New England clergy in 1819 and chose business as his path, manufacturing paper, at first with his brother Matthew, and later, at the age of twenty-one, by himself. The firm, Cyrus W. Field and Company, a paper merchant, would succeed, with Field eventually becoming one of the richest men in New York City by 1853 with a net worth of $250,000. He semi-retired at the age of thirty-four, traveling to South and Central America at an estimated cost of $1,600, but upon his return, in 1854, partnered with Gisborne to ply into the transatlantic telegraph venture. Even prior to attempting the 1858 cable, his Atlantic Telegraph Company began to buy on land telegraph companies, building a company that ran from Maine to the Gulf Coast and becoming the second largest telegraph company behind only Western Union.

    After success of the second cable line in 1866, Field was lauded as a visionary, gaining awards at the Paris International Exposition of 1867, as well as the United States Congress. Field parlayed his success with the second cable into forays with the transportation business, forming the New York Elevated Railroad Company, then the Wabath Railroad with Jay Gould, the railroad tycoon.

    Field would later own newspapers, including funding Henry W. Grady for part interest in the Atlanta Constition, and he, himself, as primary owner of the New York Mail and Express. During this time of great success, publications such as Britain's Puck began to lampoon he, Gould, Cornellius Vanderbilt, and Russell Sage, among others, for their monopolistic ventures and huge success. The irony of this, however, was that in the latter years of his life, Cyrus West Fields made a series of bad investments, including speculation in wheat futures, as well as losing money when the drop in the stock of the New York elevated railroads ensued, and Field lived modestly, not as the robber barron that he was portrayed as one decade before.


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    First Successful Telegraph Line


    Cyrus West Field was undaunted by the failure and continued to push for a second cable to be laid. However, the public, and investors, were not so eager to undertake a second attempt, and with the Civil War raging in the United States and Great Britain on the side of the Confederacy, plans for a second cable were postponed. It took until 1864 for Field and his Atlantic Telegraph Company to find new backers. With new material, the second cable installation was attempted in 1865, however, that expedition failed when the end was lost upon the cable snapping. A third attempt, with recovery of the lost cable, was completed with connection made on July 28, 1866. This time, it was an instant, and durable, success. The line transmitted the code eighty times faster than during those three weeks of operation in 1858. On the first day, the 1866 transatlantic cable line made L1,000.

    Image above: Cyrus West Fields, circa 1870, Napolean Sarony. Courtesy Picturehistory via Wikipedia Commons. Below: Comic entitled the Protector of Our Industries, including Cyrus West Field, Jay Gould, Cornellius Vanderbilt, and Russell Sage, 1883, Bernhard Gillam, Puck. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; Encyclopedia Britannica; "Biography of Cyrus Field," thoughtco.com; atlanticcable.com; biography.yourdictionary.com; Cyrus W. Field: His Life and Work, 1896, Isabella Field Judson, editor; Wikipedia Commons.


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