Cable's real birthday

July 27, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

THE INFORMATION superhighway may be the next objective in American technology, but the first major milestone in that long road was even harder to accomplish -- namely, the trans-Atlantic cable, successfully completed 128 years ago today.

Perhaps no technological triumph contributed as much to the easing of diplomatic relations as well as the bridging of the North American and European continents.

Unlike the cable between Britain and France, completed in 1845, the trans-Atlantic line illustrated innumerable snafus before its completion; most of all, it illustrated the cooperation of governments and businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic.

Even before he effected the first telegraph transmission in 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse experimented with sending electrical charges over cable submerged in water. Morse was confident that his initial efforts would one day lead to a trans-Atlantic cable.

But it was Cyrus West Field, a young American merchant, and not Morse, who would be the leading figure in the trans-Atlantic drama.

Field was a self-made man, leaving home at age 15 with $8 in his pocket to make his way in the world.

Successful as a businessmen,

Field retired in 1852 at the age of 33, hoping to spend the rest of his life in travel. Three years later, however, he found the cable project a challenge he could not refuse, especially when he heard to his amazement that some promoters wished to use carrier-pigeons to effect a portion of the cable network.

Working with merchants and government officials, Field was able to get the project under way in 1856. The plan was to lay an underwater cable from the British Isles to Newfoundland where a series of land lines and smaller, submerged cables would complete the system.

In 1857, Field's first attempt to join the cables in mid-ocean (from whence they would be laid to opposite shores) was a failure. So was a second effort a short time later.

A third attempt, in 1858, appeared to be successful, with 1,950 miles of copper wire laid in water two miles deep. The sending of the first message along the cable brought forth an outpouring of emotion.

Said President James Buchanan, "the Atlantic Telegraph might under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world."

The shouting was short-lived, however. Inadequate insulation of the cable caused it to fail shortly afterward, leading critics to charge

that the first messages had been a hoax.

The cable idea again was put on the back burner -- except, of course, for Field, who by 1865 had a fourth attempt under way: After more than 1,200 miles of cable had been laid, it broke a short distance from Newfoundland.

Effort number five, completed July 27, 1866, was Field's magic number. A new era of diplomatic communication had arrived, soon put to the test in the successful negotiations between Great Britain and the U. S. over the Alabama claims, which dealt with Union shipping losses in the Civil War as a result of British-built ships for the Confederacy.

According to one British negotiator, the trans-Atlantic cable would change the nature of diplomacy.

"The rapidity with which it enables facts to be made known," he observed, "and misunderstandings to be cleared up, reduces the danger of war to a minimum."

As for Field, he died without much recognition and with little fortune. One biographer would write, "When misfortunes overtook him, less brilliant men than he remarked that he was too visionary for a workaday world."

Maybe so, but with such visions, the nation and the world would be transformed.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington.

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