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A Thread Across the Ocean

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2002

    The Too-Brief History of the Atlantic Cable

    John Steele Gordon has told the story of the Atlantic Cable by relying only on published sources. There is no evidence of any original research, and though he tells the story well, Gordon relates only a small portion of the twelve-year epic shouldered by the men, the ships, and the financiers on two continents that together accomplished what was perhaps the greatest achievement of the 19th century. The strength of the book is Gordon's ability to tell a good story. The weakness of the book is filling too many pages with biographical information about minor players and dwelling too much on the national economy and the industrial revolution. The reader never gets involved with any of the players but Cyrus Field, which is a rehash of Samuel Carter's excellent biography of the man. Had Gordon eliminated some of the chaff and concentrated more on the book, he could have written a better account. To lay a submarine cable in water two-and-one-half-miles deep across almost 2,000 miles of the hostile North Atlantic created many battles ashore. Those were the conflicts between engineers, scientists, and promotors over technology issues that had never been addressed. Those conflicts, which made and destroyed reputations, were as much a part of the story as finding the money to finance and implement the project. For inexplicable reasons, Gordon never developed this aspect of the story. Nor did he mention the great competition with the Western Union, which was in the process of connecting America with Europe by cabling under Bering Strait and running land lines across Siberia to St. Petersburg and beyond. A good book on the Atlantic cable had not been written for more than thirty years, and a thorough work showing a balanced history of America's contribution (which was small), and Great Britain's contribution is still needed. Gordon deserves five stars for his timing but only two stars for his book because he left the project undone.

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