One of the great technological events of the 19th century was the establishment of the first transatlantic cable. This event set the stage for a communication revolution that enabled the “First Globalization” of trade and finance, by making virtually instantaneous communication possible – and changing the world forever.
Virtually unknown today, Cyrus West Field (1819-92) was an American entrepreneur who made this epic change possible. A businessman and financier, in 1854 Field focused his energy on a new passion: connecting America and Europe by telegraph. He obtained a charter to lay a telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean and gathered a group of investors and engineers, including Samuel Morse, to begin work on the project.
The “Cable Cabinet” first successfully connected St. John’s, Newfoundland, with Nova Scotia as a trial run. Field then formed the American Telegraph Company (ATC) in 1855 to carry through the project.
In 1857, with backing from the United States and Great Britain, the ATC began laying cable. On August 16, President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged messages, initiating nearly instantaneous communication across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the current was too weak for consistent transmission and by September the cable failed completely. After three more unsuccessful attempts, Field finally succeeded in 1866, this time with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, with improved cable. The SS Great Eastern, largest sailing steamship of the time, laid the 1,852 miles of wire.
Field became a worldwide celebrity and received international honors—and made a massive profit. The International Exposition in Paris awarded him its prestigious grand prize in 1867 and Congress awarded Field with a gold medal on March 2, 1867 for his “foresight, faith, and Persistency (sic.) in Establishing Telegraphic Communication.” Field went on to create more oceanic cables, including lines from Hawaii to Asia and Australia and several successful business ventures including western railroads. Ultimately, his luck ran out and he went bankrupt in 1887. Field died penniless and forgotten in 1892.