Thread Across the Ocean

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Overview

"Today, in a world in which news flashes around the globe in an instant, time lags are inconceivable. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, they were a fact of life. The United States was remote from Europe, the center of world affairs, and communication was only as quick as the fastest ship could cross the Atlantic. Instant contact seemed as unlikely then as walking on the moon did in the 1950s." The Civil War had barely ended, however, when the Old and New Worlds had been united by the successful laying of a telegraph cable that spanned the Atlantic in 1866. A Thread Across the Ocean chronicles this extraordinary achievement, one of the greatest engineering feats of that century - and perhaps of all time.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The successful laying of the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1866 -- after a decade of failed attempts and the loss of millions of dollars -- brings the Old and New Worlds together, in John Steele Gordon's fascinating chronicle.
Publishers Weekly
Most of us don't think twice about picking up the phone and reaching someone in Germany in a matter of seconds. We often forget that less than 150 years ago, if one wanted to do business in Europe, one got on a boat for two weeks because the only way to do business was in person. Perhaps the biggest force in making worldwide commerce relatively simple was the laying of the transatlantic cable in 1866, which made communication first via telegraph, then by phone possible. American Heritage writer Gordon (The Business of America) chronicles the quest to lay the cable, offering a fascinating account that will appeal to history buffs and businesspersons alike. On one level, it's a purely historical account of the battle to navigate the ocean's floor and to figure out not only what should be inside the cable but also how to keep it in place. On another level, by focusing on entrepreneur Cyrus Field, the author traces what was in essence a venture capital deal. He begins with Field gathering wealthy investors the initial funding was equal to 2.5% of the entire federal budget and ends, after 12 years and five distinct failures, with all of them striking it rich. This is an appealing account on both levels and an entertaining reminder of the storied past of expensive technology gambles. Illus. Agent, Katinka Matson. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Although the first practical telegraph was invented in the 1840s by Samuel F.B. Morse, an artist turned inventor, telegraphy was landlocked in the absence of the means of spanning the oceans with a cable line for the telegraph wires. Thus, the United States was effectively still as remote as before from Europe, then the center of world affairs. Gordon, a business historian and columnist for American Heritage magazine, has written a lively, engaging account of the extraordinary efforts that brought about this remarkable scientific, technological, and business feat. At the center of the story is Cyrus Field, a young New York businessman who persevered over 12 years and five failed attempts until success came in 1866. In later years the telegraph cable lines spanned other oceans until the world was interconnected by copper wire and became a global village of transoceanic communication. Recommended for public libraries.-Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In this engaging history of the laying of the cable, Gordon conveys a keen sense of the mid-19th-century setting and the high drama of the venture. Superb documentation enhances the telling without distracting from the main story, and the text is accompanied by effective pen-and-ink illustrations. Begun in 1855, and necessitating a sustained level of cooperation among business, scientific, and political players in the face of disasters at sea, loss of capital, and, eventually, the stresses of the American Civil War, the enterprise's success is largely credited to American businessman Cyrus Field. His unflagging zeal, financial resourcefulness, and reputation for integrity as he worked in concert with entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers, lawyers, and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic skillfully guided the project through four failed attempts before its completion in 1866. The project's technological challenges were equaled only by the optimism of the age and by the dedication of visionaries who foresaw the possibilities of what now seems commonplace, i.e., "real time" communication between the continents. This saga fills a niche by offering both economic history and a depiction of scientific inquiry during the Industrial Revolution.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From The Critics
A popularizer of economic and American history, Gordon tells the tale of connecting the Old World and the New by telegraph in 1866. His focus is on the people involved and their efforts to assemble the necessary technology, resources, and political and popular support. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Creating the First Transatlantic Cable
John Steele Gordon, a prolific writer who has pursued historical subjects in a number of books, has now tackled the previously underreported story of the people and technology responsible for the first transatlantic cable - the communication link between Europe and the United States that allowed the "American century" to begin. The story he captures is a dramatic and detailed examination of the historical period in which it became possible to send messages great distances, at great speeds, for the first time in history. Gordon's tale demonstrates the heroic ambition and persistence that made this achievement possible.

Gordon begins his book by providing a brief yet thorough description of the technological breakthroughs that led to the invention of the first telegraph, including the dangerous electrical experimentation of Benjamin Franklin, Sir William Watson's discovery of wire electrical transmission, and the code system created by Samuel F.B. Morse.

After people began using telegraph lines to transmit their messages at rates that were thousands of times faster than previous methods, Europe and the United States quickly became independently wired. After a couple of attempts finally brought France and Great Britain together via a cable laid beneath the English Channel, the idea of extending the miracle of telegraphy across the Atlantic began to be seriously considered.

Bringing Together Great Minds
Cyrus Field was the man who championed the idea of a submarine cable that would be 2,000 miles long and reach depths of 2,600 fathoms; it took him 12 years, five attempts and endless trials and tribulations toaccomplish this unprecedented feat. Field was the singular person who was capable of bringing together the greatest scientific, business and engineering minds of his day for this enterprise that would end the United States' remoteness from the rest of the world.

The story of Field's family and early life provides a wonderfully detailed view of the era in which New York became the financial powerhouse of the nation. As Cyrus Field transformed himself from an apprentice retail clerk into one of the country's most successful paper and printing supplies wholesalers, his ambitions and riches grew.

As the idea of the transatlantic cable was forming in the minds of other businessmen, Cyrus Field was introduced to its possibilities and set out to make the project a reality. By serving as the middleman between a host of successful business owners and an endeavor that required intense coordination, Field brought together the people who could pay for the venture and the experts who could engineer the project to success.

Instant Communication
The numerous successes and setbacks, including a near disaster at sea, eventually paid off. In 1866, Cyrus Field successfully completed a working telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean, proving the technical feasibility of long-distance submarine technology. Never again would North America and Europe be out of instant communication with each other for more than a few hours.

After a fascinating look at the people and personalities that made this enormous feat possible, Gordon places the story into the context of our modern times. A clearer perspective of the first transatlantic cable's significance is achieved as Gordon compares and contrasts the capacities and costs of modern modes of communication with those from the earliest days of telegraphy. Gordon explains that Cyrus Field "laid down the technological foundation of what would become, in little over a century, a global village."

Why Soundview Likes This Book
Gordon's recounting of the story of Cyrus Field's grand enterprise is a brilliant narrative that is captivating and engrossing. What makes is so rich and full of life is the detail with which he describes the participants and their contributions to a project that took unwavering imagination and faith to complete. Gordon's exemplary skills as a biographer and historian bring out the underlying hopes, dreams and triumphs of these monumental people who continue to be historically important and inspirational. Copyright (c) 2002 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Kirkus Reviews
An intriguing tale of inventors, tycoons, and an engineering feat that changed the course of economic history. One of those adept, impressively learned, sometimes impractical 19th-century woodshed thinkers and tinkers, Cyrus Field knew only a little of the hard science behind stringing a submarine telegraph cable that would link the financial markets of London and New York. And good thing, too, writes business historian Gordon (The Great Game, 1999, etc.): if he had, "he might well have dismissed the entire notion as impossibly fanciful." Field was not the first to conceive such a venture, the author notes; as early as 1850, an English engineer and a Canadian bishop had independently proposed that a telegraph line be strung between Newfoundland and Ireland, the landmasses flanking the shortest crossing of the North Atlantic. But Field was the first to act on the idea, writing to Samuel Morse to enlist his support and finding another ally in the great but largely unsung naval surveyor and architect Matthew Fontaine Maury. In 1854, Field, philanthropist Peter Cooper, and other partners set about raising $1.5 million for the venture; that turned out to be nowhere near sufficient, even though it was a huge sum for the time (by way of comparison, Gordon notes that the entire annual federal budget in that year was $58 million). Drawing on scientific discoveries and technological innovations by the likes of Michael Faraday and Werner von Siemens, Field and company eventually managed to make the transatlantic cable a reality, and even if its early iterations turned out to be duds, their work did in fact revolutionize communications and international finance and "laid down the foundation of whatwould become, in little over a century, a global village," as Gordon very capably shows. Just the thing for the budding entrepreneur, and a pleasure for general readers as well.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802713643
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 6/1/2002
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Steele Gordon is a columnist for American Heritage and the author of A Thread Across the Ocean, The Great Game, Hamilton's Blessing, and The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in North Salem, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

A Thread Across the Ocean

The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable
By John Gordon

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 John Gordon All right reserved. ISBN: 0060524464

Chapter One

"An Enterprise Worthy of This Day of Great Things"

Thomas Nightingale had prospered in South Carolina almost from the day he had arrived as a young man from his native Yorkshire in the 1720s. He got his start operating a cow pen on the frontier but soon branched into numerous other activities, including building Newmarket Race Track in Charleston and importing some of the first thoroughbred horses to the North American colonies.

The timing of his arrival had been fortunate. Trade in rice and indigo was fast making the Carolina tidewater the richest part of the British North American empire, and Thomas Nightingale grew rich right along with his adopted land.

In 1760, already well established among Charleston's aristocracy, he decided to add one more proof of his status in that very status-conscious society. He bought a pew, number 101, in St. Michael's Church, then under construction in Charleston. With the great wealth at the congregation's disposal, little expense had been spared in the building of St. Michael's, a masterpiece of American colonial architecture. Much of the woodwork, for instance, would be supplied by Thomas Elfe, the city's leading cabinetmaker and himself apew holder. A pew in such a church did not come cheaply. But for fifty pounds - more than a workman's annual wage in the middle of the eighteenth century - Thomas Nightingale received a deed to the pew, signed and sealed by the church commissioners.

That deed, to our eyes, has one very curious aspect. It is dated "the fifth day of December in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty and in the Thirty-Fourth year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King GEORGE the Second ... " But George II had died suddenly of a burst blood vessel on October 25, 1760, while in his water closet. December 5, therefore, was in fact in the first year of the reign of his grandson, King George III.

It is a measure of the perceived vastness of the Atlantic Ocean in the eighteenth century that the king's richest North American possession remained ignorant of his death a full six weeks after the event. Charleston, in fact, did not learn of the king's death for another two weeks or more.

Yet America's civilization and character developed during the colonial period in the context of this profound isolation from its European roots. In 1620, the Mayflower had sailed from Plymouth, in Devonshire, on September 16, and raised Cape Cod only on November 9. That was considered a very good passage at the time, and in fact it was still a good passage two hundred years later. It was by no means unprecedented for a ship unfortunate in weather to take four months to make the trip from the Old World to the New.

Because the trip was so long, expensive, and perilous, only a handful of immigrants to the New World - mostly members of the colonies' business and political elites - ever had the opportunity to return to the Old. Thus, to set sail for America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, almost always, to say good-bye forever to all the emigrant had known and loved.

Since for all practical purposes news could travel no faster than human beings could carry it, knowledge of events in Europe - the center of the Western world - was just as slow to flow across the ocean as men and goods. North America was not only three thousand miles from Europe - it was two months from it as well. There was not even a regular postal system; letters were entrusted to anyone willing to carry them, to be delivered when and if possible.

Today, such isolation is almost inconceivable. After all, it took the Apollo astronauts only three days to reach the moon, a distance almost a hundred times as great as the width of the Atlantic, and news from the moon (not, to be sure, that there is much) could reach us in seconds.

But in Thomas Nightingale's day, the vast gulf between Europe and America was simply a fact of life. Like growing old, or needing to sleep for several hours a day, it was taken as a given, if sometimes regretted.

But even as King George lay dying in his water closet, many of his subjects, especially in the Midlands of England, were already deeply involved in a process that would profoundly alter the boundaries of what was possible. The cloth industry, for example, a mainstay of the British economy for centuries, had begun to mechanize, adopting the factory system of manufacture, which would come to dominate the world economy. John Kay's flying shuttle, introduced in 1733, considerably increased the speed with which cloth could be woven. The spinning jenny and the water frame, introduced in the 1760s, greatly accelerated the manufacture of yarn. The power loom in the 1780s completed the mechanization of the industry.

At first these machines were powered by falling water pushing on mill wheels. Then, in 1769, the Scotsman James Watt patented a greatly improved steam engine, and in 1784 introduced a rotary version, capable of turning a shaft. The new power source, which made work-doing energy both cheap and capable of being applied in almost unlimited amounts to a single task, proved the catalyst of profound change. Dubbed the Industrial Revolution in 1848 (when it was already almost a century old), it swept away the world of Thomas Nightingale and George II in a matter of two generations and created the modern world.

Politics helped. With the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, on June 16, 1815, the Western world entered into a period of peace that would last nearly a hundred years, until the outbreak of the First World War on August 1, 1914. In this period of relative peace, with the exception of the American Civil War, wars were mostly short and often distant from the centers of Western civilization ...

(Continues...)


Excerpted from A Thread Across the Ocean by John Gordon
Copyright © 2003 by John Gordon
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

A Note on Money xi
Acknowledgments xiii
I "An Enterprise Worthy of This Day of Great Things" 1
II Cyrus Field 14
III Newfoundland 28
IV "How Many Months? Let's Say How Many Years!" 47
V Raising More Capital 61
VI The First Cable 75
VII "And Lay the Atlantic Cable in a Heap" 100
VIII Lightning Through Deep Waters 121
IX "Here's the Ship to Lay Your Cable, Mr. Field" 142
X A New Cable, a New Attempt 163
XI "The Great Eastern Looms All Glorious in the Morning Sky" 187
Epilogue--"There Were Two Worlds ... Let There Be One" 209
Notes 217
Bibliography 225
Index 229
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First Chapter

Chapter One

"An Enterprise Worthy of This Day of Great Things"

Thomas Nightingale had prospered in South Carolina almost from the day he had arrived as a young man from his native Yorkshire in the 1720s. He got his start operating a cow pen on the frontier but soon branched into numerous other activities, including building Newmarket Race Track in Charleston and importing some of the first thoroughbred horses to the North American colonies.

The timing of his arrival had been fortunate. Trade in rice and indigo was fast making the Carolina tidewater the richest part of the British North American empire, and Thomas Nightingale grew rich right along with his adopted land.

In 1760, already well established among Charleston's aristocracy, he decided to add one more proof of his status in that very status-conscious society. He bought a pew, number 101, in St. Michael's Church, then under construction in Charleston. With the great wealth at the congregation's disposal, little expense had been spared in the building of St. Michael's, a masterpiece of American colonial architecture. Much of the woodwork, for instance, would be supplied by Thomas Elfe, the city's leading cabinetmaker and himself a pew holder. A pew in such a church did not come cheaply. But for fifty pounds -- more than a workman's annual wage in the middle of the eighteenth century -- Thomas Nightingale received a deed to the pew, signed and sealed by the church commissioners.

That deed, to our eyes, has one very curious aspect. It is dated "the fifth day of December in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty and in the Thirty-Fourth year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King GEORGE the Second ... " But George II had died suddenly of a burst blood vessel on October 25, 1760, while in his water closet. December 5, therefore, was in fact in the first year of the reign of his grandson, King George III.

It is a measure of the perceived vastness of the Atlantic Ocean in the eighteenth century that the king's richest North American possession remained ignorant of his death a full six weeks after the event. Charleston, in fact, did not learn of the king's death for another two weeks or more.

Yet America's civilization and character developed during the colonial period in the context of this profound isolation from its European roots. In 1620, the Mayflower had sailed from Plymouth, in Devonshire, on September 16, and raised Cape Cod only on November 9. That was considered a very good passage at the time, and in fact it was still a good passage two hundred years later. It was by no means unprecedented for a ship unfortunate in weather to take four months to make the trip from the Old World to the New.

Because the trip was so long, expensive, and perilous, only a handful of immigrants to the New World -- mostly members of the colonies' business and political elites -- ever had the opportunity to return to the Old. Thus, to set sail for America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, almost always, to say good-bye forever to all the emigrant had known and loved.

Since for all practical purposes news could travel no faster than human beings could carry it, knowledge of events in Europe -- the center of the Western world -- was just as slow to flow across the ocean as men and goods. North America was not only three thousand miles from Europe -- it was two months from it as well. There was not even a regular postal system; letters were entrusted to anyone willing to carry them, to be delivered when and if possible.

Today, such isolation is almost inconceivable. After all, it took the Apollo astronauts only three days to reach the moon, a distance almost a hundred times as great as the width of the Atlantic, and news from the moon (not, to be sure, that there is much) could reach us in seconds.

But in Thomas Nightingale's day, the vast gulf between Europe and America was simply a fact of life. Like growing old, or needing to sleep for several hours a day, it was taken as a given, if sometimes regretted.

But even as King George lay dying in his water closet, many of his subjects, especially in the Midlands of England, were already deeply involved in a process that would profoundly alter the boundaries of what was possible. The cloth industry, for example, a mainstay of the British economy for centuries, had begun to mechanize, adopting the factory system of manufacture, which would come to dominate the world economy. John Kay's flying shuttle, introduced in 1733, considerably increased the speed with which cloth could be woven. The spinning jenny and the water frame, introduced in the 1760s, greatly accelerated the manufacture of yarn. The power loom in the 1780s completed the mechanization of the industry.

At first these machines were powered by falling water pushing on mill wheels. Then, in 1769, the Scotsman James Watt patented a greatly improved steam engine, and in 1784 introduced a rotary version, capable of turning a shaft. The new power source, which made work-doing energy both cheap and capable of being applied in almost unlimited amounts to a single task, proved the catalyst of profound change. Dubbed the Industrial Revolution in 1848 (when it was already almost a century old), it swept away the world of Thomas Nightingale and George II in a matter of two generations and created the modern world.

Politics helped. With the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, on June 16, 1815, the Western world entered into a period of peace that would last nearly a hundred years, until the outbreak of the First World War on August 1, 1914. In this period of relative peace, with the exception of the American Civil War, wars were mostly short and often distant from the centers of Western civilization ...

A Thread Across the Ocean. Copyright © by John Gordon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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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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