Thread Across the Oceanby John Steele Gordon
The achievement Arthur C. Clarke called "the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo project"
Today, in a world in which news flashes around the globe in an instant, time lags are inconceivable. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were a fact of life. The United States was remote from Europe, the center of world affairscommunication was only as quick as the… See more details below
The achievement Arthur C. Clarke called "the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo project"
Today, in a world in which news flashes around the globe in an instant, time lags are inconceivable. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were a fact of life. The United States was remote from Europe, the center of world affairscommunication was only as quick as the fastest ship could cross the Atlanticand 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 were united by the successful laying of a cable across the Atlantic in 1866. John Steele Gordon's book chronicles this extraordinary achievement, one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century and perhaps of all time. It was an epic struggle, requiring a decade of effort, numerous failed attempts, millions of dollars in capital, a near disaster at sea, the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable technological problems (many of them entirely unforeseen before work commenced), and uncommon physical, financial, and intellectual courage. In the end, their accomplishment literally changed the world.
The cable was the brainchild and consuming passion of American businessman Cyrus Field, only thirty-three when he first set out to raise the necessary capital, and it attracted a range of luminaries, among them William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) the greatest applied physicist of the century and scientific adviser to the project, and the great English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose ship, the Great Easternfive times the size of any other ship afloat at the timecarried the entire cable on the final attempt in 1866.
Thirty-four years after the cable was laid, the "American century" began; while the cable did not make this inevitable, it did make it possible. By bringing to life an overlooked story in the annals of technology, John Steele Gordon sheds fascinating new light on the American saga.
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A Thread Across the OceanThe Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable
By John Gordon
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 John Gordon All right reserved. ISBN: 0060524464
"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 ...
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.
Meet the Author
John Steele Gordon is one of America's leading historians, specializing in business and financial history. A full-time writer for the last nineteen years, Gordon's articles have been published in, among others, Forbes, Forbes FYI, Worth, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times's and The Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed pages, and The Washington Post's Book World and Outlook. A contributing editor at American Heritage magazine, he has written the "Business of America"column there since 1989. His book, The Business of America (Walker & Company, 2001) is a collection of those columns. A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Walker & Company 2002) is Gordon's sixth book. His first book, Overlanding, about his experience driving a Land Rover from New York to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina??ine-month journey of 39,000 miles?? published by Harper & Row in 1975. It was followed by The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, a history of Wall Street in the 1860?(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt (Walker & Company, 1997), and The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000 (Scribner, 1999).
John Steele Gordon can be heard frequently on Public Radio International's Marketplace, the daily business-news program heard on more than two hundred stations across the country. He has appeared on numerous other radio and television shows, including Business Center on CNBC, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, The News with Brian Williams, and c-span's Booknotes with Brian Lamb. In addition, he has appeared in a number of television documentaries about American and economic history, including CNBC's The Great Game, based on his book, and Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary Film. John Steele Gordon lives in North Salem, New York. He is currently writing An Empire of Wealth: A History of the American Economy, to be published by HarperCollins.
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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.