A Thread Across the Ocean

March 27, 2015

Cyrus W. Field may not have been the first entrepreneur in the modern mold, but he was without doubt one of the greatest.

So writes John Walker, about the laying of the world’s first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.  He also has this to say about entrepreneurship in general:

There are inventions, and there are meta-inventions. Many things were invented in the 19th century which contributed to the wealth of the present-day developed world, but there were also concepts which emerged in that era of “anything is possible” ferment which cast even longer shadows. One of the most important is entrepreneurship—the ability of a visionary who sees beyond the horizon of the conventional wisdom to assemble the technical know-how, the financial capital, the managers and labourers to do the work, while keeping all of the balls in the air and fending off the horrific setbacks that any breakthrough technology will necessarily encounter as it matures.

When the first trans-Atlantic electronic message arrived – Queen Victoria telegraphed congratulations to President Buchanan – it was as if a new era had dawned, as if a new envisagement of the world were possible.  More than a century before the internet, Cyrus Field had taken the first steps towards wiring the world together.

The initial euphoria gave way to deferred dreams.  Stretched to the limit with un-perfected technology, the cable and the endeavor were soon both dead in the water and had to be rescued with follow-on rounds of financing and a new vocabulary of electrical engineering (Watt, Ohm, Ampere).  

This documentary tells of the setbacks and bouncebacks, both technical and commercial, from the earliest stages of Field’s start-up company through to the completion (13 years later) of his world-changing entrepreneurial success.

Field’s ability to coax ever more capital from investors in the face of so many failures (and accusations of fraud!) was remarkable, and likely made possible by (a) his confidence-inspiring optimism, “the eternal sunshine of the entrepreneur’s mind” and (b) the sterling reputation he had earned in his first business, during the turnaround of which he had “made good” on outstanding debts for which he had no legal obligation to pay.

The Top 10 (to us) highlights:

1. The cable was a copper wire, covered with a foul-smelling tropical sap called Gutta Percha for insulation, with thick iron wires wound around it for protection.

2. They found a flat area under the North Atlantic that was so perfect they termed it “The Telegraph Plateau.”

3. The flip side of Field’s optimism: he badly underestimated the scope of the project and blew through the initial round just to get to Newfoundland.

4. No single ship could carry the entire 2500-ton load.  Two ships met midway across the North Atlantic, spliced together the wire, then sailed very precisely and carefully in opposite directions.

5. The first attempt failed utterly, the cable repeatedly broke.

6. During the second attempt, the ship’s compass was affected by the amount of iron and created serious navigational errors.

7. Pressed for time, because he was pressed for money, Fields forged ahead with insufficient testing of his chief scientist’s theories of the voltage required.  A month after the first successful message they burned through the insulation somewhere on the ocean floor.  Subsequently, the future Lord Kelvin invented the Mirror Galvanometer to amplify the weak signal at the end of the line.

8. The scale of the debacle caused the first ever “Board of Inquiry” after a technical failure.  The board laid most of the blame on the chief scientist, but also faulted Field’s impulsiveness, calling him “a man obsessed by insanity.”  He drove the project forward and harnessed the people who needed to be involved, but was “a bit blinkered” and did not take in all the information available to him.

9. For the third attempt a decade later, the largest ship in the world (The Great Eastern) was available for purchase at pennies on the dollar.  No longer would they have to worry about mid-ocean splicing.  In a cruel twist of fate, the circuit failed mid-project and miles of bad cable had to be spliced, mid-ocean!  The captain reversed course, dropped a grappling hook, snared the cable after multiple attempts, and winched it 3 miles (!) up to the surface for repair.

10. Even today, most of the communication between North America and Europe is carried by trans-Atlantic cable.

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