A Wire across the Ocean

By Ramirez, Ainissa | American Scientist, May/June 2015 | Go to article overview

A Wire across the Ocean


Ramirez, Ainissa, American Scientist


Cyrus West Field was such a driven man that he would even enter a room quickly, yet his life was on the brink of idleness. At the age of 34 in 1854, Field had already made a fortune in the paper industry, and faced early retirement without any new projects on his horizon. He was no stranger to hard work: The seventh son of a poor country preacher, he had left his Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home for New York City in 1835, at the age of 16, with $25 and his father's blessing. Field initially scraped by as a stock boy. He recorded every personal expense, and this discipline helped him steadily climb up the ladder of success. He had also been lonely: He had regularly sent letters home begging for someone to write back. Ultimately, his work ethic solved both problems, setting him on a circuitous path from paper to telegraphy and creating a communication network that alleviated homesickness and isolation for people around the world.

The turning point in Field's life occurred on a cold evening in January 1854, when he received an unfamiliar visitor to his Gramercy Park mânsion. Plis brother, Matthew Field, had invited over a man named Frederic Newton Gisborne, who was down on his luck. Gisborne, a British engineer living in Newfoundland, had been smitten by telegraphy and dreamed of wiring the island of Newfoundland and connecting it to the mainland, and from there to New York. Newfoundland is the easternmost part of North America and sits only 2,000 miles from Europe. A European ship carrying news across the Atlantic would shave off a day of travel by docking at this easterly point. It was a clever idea, but Gisborne miscalculated the difficulty.

Newfoundland possessed an untamed and unforgiving landscape. Simply surveying 400 miles of it took Gisborne several months, and installing telegraph wires proved nearly impossible. His financial backers withdrew, leaving him unable to pay his debts. He lost everything and went to jail. After his release, he traveled to New York City to find other funders. A chance meeting with Matthew Field brought him to his encounter with Cyrus-and that meeting changed everything.

Gisborne, a strapping and bearded man with thick weathered hands, sat across from tall and thin Cyrus Field, who had a delicate air. Field listened, intrigued but unconvinced, to Gisborne's proposal to shorten the arrival time of a message by a day. After examining the globe in his library, the thought dawned on Field that the span to connect Newfoundland nearly matched the distance across the Atlantic Ocean. It occurred to Field that a much more worthwhile accomplishment would be to cut the entire travel time for transatlantic messages, rather than merely shaving off one day.

Asking the Experts

The notion of directly cabling messages with lightning speed to Europe sparked Field's interest, but before he could pursue it, he needed answers. He wanted to know if the cable could survive a long period underwater, and made inquiries to the Navy. His letter reached Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, who had taken soundings of the ocean floor of the Atlantic and was later known as the "father of oceanography."

In an earlier expedition, Maury serendipitously measured the cable's path between Ireland and Newfoundland and surmised that there was a raised, flat section that he called the "Telegraphic Plateau." (Interestingly, the Telegraphic Plateau was found years later to be untrue. The wide spacing between soundings had led Maury to conclude that the seafloor was relatively flat, but actually it wasn't.) Moreover, Maury collected samples of the ocean floor, which contained shells, diatoms, and fragments of sea life. The lack of sand indicated that the water was calm and the floor was undisturbed.

In addition to a peaceful ocean bottom, this electrically transmitting cable needed protection from the conductive seawater. That answer came from a milky sap from a Malaysian plant with the strange name of gutta percha. …

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