"But another disappointment was in store for him. About two hundred miles of cable had been laid, when it broke as did the former one, and once more the labor of months was swallowed up by the sea. The defect this time appeared to be in the construction of the cable itself, as it was repaired several times, and finally abandoned. It required all of Mr. Field's eloquence to induce the investors to make another attempt; he himself was greatly chagrined at the failure; but he still saw that the difficulties to be overcome were not insurmountable, and that perseverance would finally win."
Today, we are accustomed to communication which is instant and universal. But before Cyrus Field, information took a week to cross the Atlantic. He reduced that time to seconds, but it took nine years and multiple failures to accomplish. Nothing great ever comes easy.
Taken from: Mabie, Hamilton, et. al. "The Great Book of American Biography" (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
Cyrus West Field was born at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, November 30, 1819. He was the son of Rev. David Dudley Field, a distinguished clergyman. He was carefully educated, and at the age of fifteen went to New York to seek his fortune. He had no difficulty in obtaining a clerkship in an enterprising mercantile house, and, from the first gave evidence of unusual business capacity. His employers advanced him rapidly, and in a few years he became a partner. His success was so marked that in 1853, when only thirty-four years old, he was able to partially retire from business with a large fortune.
Mr. Field was solicited by his brother to accord an interview to a Mr. Frederick Gisborne, of Newfoundland who had conceived a plan to establish telegraphic communication between New York and St. Johns, Newfoundland, and from the latter point to dispatch swift steamers to London or Liverpool, which were expected to make the voyage in five or six days. Mr. Field listened to his enthusiastic visitor with close attention, but without committing himself to the project. But, after the latter had left, he took out his maps and charts, and began to mentally estimate the cost and difficulties of the plan, when suddenly the idea came to him: "Instead of steamers, why not run an electric wire through the ocean itself?"
Being assured by the best authorities of the feasibility of the plan, he became thoroughly interested in the project, and resolved at once to try and interest a sufficient number of capitalists to enable the company to make a practical beginning. Mr. Field was the man who undertook the immense labor of pushing the enterprise. He visited England, where he obtained large subscriptions to the capital stock of the company. He secured the cordial aid of the British government, both in money and in the use of vessels for laying the cable. He attended to the manufacture of the cable itself, and the construction of the machinery for "paying-out" from the vessels.
On August 6th, 1857, the "Niagara" and "Agamemnon," with the precious cable aboard, started from Valentia, a small town on the western coast of Ireland. As fathom after fathom of the great cable passed over the side of the "Niagara" and slipped into the silent sea, every one on board began to feel a sort of human interest in the cable itself, as if it were a thing of life. An eye-witness on the "Niagara" has eloquently described the feeling of subdued solemnity which gradually took possession of the whole ship's company. Suddenly a great calamity came. By the too sudden application of a brake on the "paying-out machine," the cable snapped, parted, and wholly disappeared beneath the waves. All felt as if a cherished comrade had just slipped the cable of life, and gone to his grave in the depths of the ocean. The fleet returned to England, and Mr. Field immediately gave orders for the construction of seven hundred additional miles of cable to replace what was lost.
On the 10th of June, 1858, the work of relaying the cable commenced; but another disappointment was in store for him. About two hundred miles of cable had been laid, when it broke as did the former one, and once more the labor of months was swallowed up by the sea. The defect this time appeared to be in the construction of the cable itself, as it was repaired several times, and finally abandoned. It required all of Mr. Field's eloquence to induce the investors to make another attempt; he himself was greatly chagrined at the failure; but he still saw that the difficulties to be overcome were not insurmountable, and that perseverance would finally win.
The fleet left Queenstown, on July 17th, making their rendezvous in mid-ocean on the 28th; the next day the cables on the "Agamemnon" and the "Niagara" were spliced, and the steamers once more parted company, the "Agamemnon" trailing her share of the cable toward Ireland, the "Niagara" toward Newfoundland. Each vessel reached its destination on the 5th of August. Signals were passed and repassed over the whole length, and the enterprise seemed to be finally rewarded with success. Messages were exchanged between the Queen and President Buchanan; a public reception was given to Mr. Field, and the event was celebrated in New York and other cities. For nearly four weeks the cable worked perfectly; then came a sudden stop.
The general disappointment was as great as the elation had been, and many thought no further effort would ever be made. At a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce in New York, a gentleman present presumed to assert his belief that the cable had never really worked. Mr. Cunard, of the British steamship line, who also happened to be there, immediately arose and vehemently denounced the statement as false, adding, "I have myself sent messages and received replies." Only one or two others besides Mr. Field retained any confidence that the difficulties of ocean telegraphy could ever be overcome. But Cyrus W. Field knew no such word as "fail." Little was done until 1863, when the manufacture of a new cable was begun. It was completed during the year 1864-5, and on this occasion but one vessel was employed to bear the cable—the "Great Eastern."
On the 23d of July, 1865, the land connection was made, and the "Great Eastern" commenced her momentous voyage. The work went bravely on for 1,200 miles; but when approaching Newfoundland the old misfortune recurred; in spite of all the care and watchfulness, the cable broke and disappeared under the waves. Attempts were made to recover the cable by grappling; but though it was several times caught and lifted nearly to the surface, the strain was too great for the grapnels; they broke, and again the cable sank. It was evident that more efficient appliances would be required. The spot was carefully marked by buoys, and the great vessel returned to England.
The strain of repeated disappointment was terrible; but before the next year Mr. Field succeeded in obtaining large new subscriptions. On July 13th, 1866, the "Great Eastern" again sailed from Ireland. Public interest in the enterprise had now become intense. It was known that the cable would be landed at Heart's Content, in Newfoundland, and many had gone there from various parts of the country to witness the arrival of the "Great Eastern." The shore was fringed with visitors, opera or spy glass in hand, watching the eastern horizon.
On Sunday, the 29th, the message was sent: "Heart's Content, July 27th. We arrived here at nine o'clock this morning. All well. Thank God, the cable is laid, and is in perfect working order. Cyrus W. Field."
Many persons had contributed to this great success, but to Cyrus W. Field it is chiefly due. His energy and perseverance kept the subject constantly before the public. His courage inspired others, and his faith in its ultimate success alone kept its best friends from abandoning it in its darkest hours. In its behalf he spent twelve years of constant toil, and made over fifty voyages, more than thirty of which were across the Atlantic. He devoted his entire fortune to the undertaking, and cheerfully incurred the risk of poverty rather than abandon it. It is but just that he, who was the chief instrument in obtaining for the world this great benefit, should receive the largest measure of praise. At a banquet given in his honor by the New York Chamber of Commerce Mr. Field said: "It has been a long, hard struggle—nearly thirteen years of anxious watch ing and ceaseless toil. Often my heart has been ready to sink. Many times when wandering in the forests of Newfoundland in the pelting rain, or on the decks of ships on dark, stormy nights, alone, far from home, I have almost accused myself of madness and folly to sacrifice the peace of my family and all the hopes of life for what might prove, after all, a dream. I have seen my companions, one and another, falling by my side, and feared that I might not live to see the end. And yet one hope has led me on, and I have prayed that I might not taste of death till this work was accomplished. That prayer is answered; and now, beyond all acknowledgments to men, is the feeling of gratitude to Almighty God."