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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cyrus Field at the American Geographical
and Statistical Society (1862)

Introduction: In 1862 Cyrus Field was invited to a meeting of the American Geographical and Statistical Society in New York, where he spoke on the Prospects of the Atlantic Telegraph. Below is the text of his speech, reproduced from a document in the Science, Industry and Business Library of the New York Public Library.
-- Bill Burns











WHEN I was asked by Mr. Archibald Russell, a day or two since, to make some remarks before the GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY to-night on the Atlantic Telegraph, I understood that all you wished was a brief statement in regard to the present position and prospects of that enterprise. I am happy to give any information, but the members of course will not expect a formal address. I can only state, in the briefest manner, a few facts which will show the progress made in Submarine Telegraphy, and why we are confident that another attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic, with all the advantages of our past experience, could hardly fail of success.

As to the importance of such a communication between the Old World and the New, it is necessary to say but few words. Its value can hardly be estimated to the commerce, and even to the peace, of the world. What would it have been worth to England and the United States if it had been in operation on the 30th of November last, on which day Earl Russell was writing to Lord Lyons, and Mr. Seward at the same time to Mr. Adams, our Minister in London, on the affair of the Trent, which at that moment threatened to embroil the two nations in war! A few short messages, explaining the actual state of affairs, would have allayed at once all fear of war; would have saved all the bad blood which has been stirred up between two nations that are one in race, in language, and in religion, and that ought to be one in perpetual friendship; and would have prevented those immense armaments which at once set in motion the armies and fleets of England, and which have cost so heavily to the treasury of Great Britain. The London Times said truly:
"We nearly went to war with America because we had not a telegraph across the Atlantic." It is at such a moment that England feels the need of communicating with her colonies on this side of the ocean.

And here I may mention a fact not generally known - that, during the excitement of the Trent affair, a person connected with the English Government applied to Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co., of London, to know for what sum they would manufacture a cable and lay it across the Atlantic; to which they replied that they would both manufacture and lay it down for £675,000, and that it should be in full operation by the 12th day of July of this year. Well might England afford to pay the whole cost of such a work; for in sixty days' time she expended more money in preparation for war with this country than the whole cost of manufacturing and laying several good cables between Newfoundland and Ireland.

I hold in my hand a letter from the War Office in London, stating that a message sent from there on the 31st of August, 1858, was delivered the same day at Halifax, which message prevented the embarkation of troops for India; and I have been informed that it saved the English Government over $200,000.

The benefits of an Atlantic cable to England, by enabling the Government to be in daily communication with its Embassador at Washington, and all the British Consuls in this country, and the Governors of the five North American Provinces, and its naval and military forces in America, can hardly be estimated.

But great as are these advantages to England, still they are small compared with those to be obtained by our own country, by bringing us into telegraphic communication, not merely with England, but with the whole Continent of Europe, and portions of Asia and Africa.

The advantages of an Atlantic cable to commerce are equally great with those to Government.. The shipment of gold, which is constantly taking place, would be much diminished; the rapid fluctuations in exchange world be prevented; and the enormous depreciation of public securities would be much abated. Those speculative transactions in cotton and produce, which have often brought about financial crises in England and the United States, would be rendered almost impossible; and the gain to owners of shipping, on both sides of the Atlantic, would be incalculable, from being able to communicate constantly with their captains and agents in all the ports of Europe and America.

Consider also the importance of such a line to the general intercourse of the world. A cable across the Atlantic would supply the connecting link between the great systems of telegraphic communication in the two hemispheres, one of which already overspreads the whole of. North America, and the other covers the Continent of Europe, and extends far into Asia, and along the coast of Africa.

At this moment you can telegraph from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to every town of importance in the British Provinces, -to all the cities and large towns in the loyal States, even to San Francisco, on the, Pacific, a distance, by the route of the telegraph, of over five thousand and five hundred miles.

On the other side of the ocean, there is now telegraphic communication, from Valentia, in Ireland, with every capital in Europe; with Algiers, in Africa, about 2,650 miles by the route of the telegraph; with Malta:, 2,850 miles; Constantinople, 3,100 miles; Odessa, on the Black Sea, 4,300 miles; Taganrog, on the Sea of Azof, 4,500; the Island of Jubal, in the Red Sea, 4,650; to Bagdad, in Turkish Arabia, 4,800; and to Omsk, in Siberia, 5,300 miles.

All that is now required to connect California with Siberia, a distance . nearly two-thirds around the globe, is a telegraph cable from Valentia, Ireland, to Newfoundland, a distance of only 1640 nautical miles!

But, gentlemen, I am well aware that this is not the great question now in your minds. Every intelligent man sees at once the immense importance of such a communication between Europe and America, if - if it can be achieved. But there is the problem to be solved. "Have you not tried three times and failed? Did not the English try in the Red Sea and fail there? And in fact have not almost all the submarine cables in the world proved expensive and disastrous failures?" These are very natural questions, and I will try to answer them.

At the start, of course, we were all very ignorant of the work to be done. Submarine Telegraphy was in its infancy, We had to grope our way in the dark. It was only by repeated experiments and repeated failures that we were able to find out all the conditions of success.

The Atlantic Telegraph, it was said, was a failure. Well, if it were so, I should say, as is said of many a man, that he did more by his death than by his life; that even in its failure it has been of immense benefit to the science of the world. For it has been the great experimenting cable. No electrician ever had so long a line to work upon before, and hence the science of Submarine Telegraphy never made such rapid progress as after that great experiment. In fact, all cables that have since been laid, where the managers availed themselves of the knowledge and experience obtained by the Atlantic Company, have been perfectly successful. All these triumphs over the sea are greatly indebted to, the bold attempt to cross the. Atlantic made four years ago.

The first Atlantic cable, therefore, has accomplished a great work in deep sea telegraphy, a branch of knowledge but little known before. In one sense it was a failure. In another it was a brilliant success. Despite every disadvantage, it was laid across the ocean; it was stretched from shore to shore ; curd for three weeks it continued to operate-a time long enough to settle forever the scientific question whether it was possible to communicate between two continents so far apart. This was the work of the first Atlantic Telegraph; and now if it lies silent at the bottom of the ocean till the destruction of the globe, it has done enough for the science of the world and the benefit of mankind, to entitle it to be held in honored and blessed memory.

Now, as to the prospects of success in another attempt to lay a telegraph across the ocean. First, I would observe in regard to submarine telegraphs in general, that the most erroneous opinions prevail as to the difficulties of laying them and securing them against injury. It is commonly supposed that the number of failures is much greater than of successes; whereas the fact is that the later attempts, where made with proper care, have been almost uniformly successful. In proof of this I would present the following remarkable statement:

Here is a printed "List of all the Submarine Telegraph Cables manufactured and laid down by Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co., Of London," [shown below] - which I should be happy to give to any member of the Society to examine in detail, - from which it appears, that within the space of eight years, from 1854 to 1862, they have manufactured and laid down twenty-five different cables, among which are included three of the longest lines which connect England with the continent, - viz., from England to Holland, 140 miles; to Hanover, 280 miles; and to Denmark, 368 miles; and the principal lines in the Mediterranean, - as from Italy to Corsica, and from Corsica to Toulon, from Malta, to Sicily, and from Corfu to Otranto ; and finally the two chief of all, that from France to Algiers, 520 miles, laid in 1860, and the other laid only last year, from Malta to Alexandria, 1535 miles! All together these lines comprise a total of 3739 miles, and of this whole distance every cable (though some have been lying at the bottom of the sea and working for eight years) is at this hour in as perfect condition as the day it was laid down, with the very small exception of the two short lines laid in shallow water along the shore between Liverpool and Holyhead, twenty-five miles, and from Prince. Edward's Island to New Brunswick, eleven miles; the first of which was broken by the anchor of the Royal Charter in the gale of wind just before she was wrecked, and the other by a ship's anchor, both of which can be easily repaired.

From this statement it will be seen that all the submarine telegraph cables manufactured and laid by Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co., are at this moment in perfect and successful working order, except thirty-six miles, which is less than one per cent.

Where failures have taken place in submarine telegraphs, the causes are now well understood and easily to be obviated. Thus with the first Atlantic Cable, its defects have all been carefully investigated by scientific men, and may be easily guarded against. To show with what advantages we could now undertake such a work, I will briefly contrast the conditions under which the first experiment achieved its temporary triumph with the present advanced state of things in respect to submarine telegraphs.

The first cable was, to a great extent, a leap in the dark. Its material and construction were as good as the state of knowledge at that time provided, and, in many respects, it was not unsuitable; but there did not exist at that time the instruments or appliances for testing its integrity and insulation, in the way since pointed out by experience. The effects of temperature on insulation were not known or allowed for. The vast differences in the conductibility of copper were only discovered by means of that cable, when made. The mathematical law whereby the proportions of insulation to conduction are determined, had not been fully investigated; and it was even argued, by some electricians, that the smaller the conductor, the more rapidly the current could pass through it. No mode of protecting the external sheath from oxydation had then been discovered, and the kind of machinery necessary for submerging cables in deep water could only be theoretically assumed.

Looking back to that period, and granting that there was too much haste in the preparations, and that other mistakes were committed which could now be foreseen and avoided, it is not too much to say that, if that cable could be laid and worked, as it was done, after one failure in 1857, and the consequent uncoiling and storage of it in an exposed situation, and after three attempts in 1858, under the, most fearful circumstances as to weather, it would be an easy task to lay a cable constructed and submerged by the light of present experience.

But, perhaps, the most satisfactory answer to all doubts as to the feasibility of the undertaking is that given by practical business men who have had great experience, and who are themselves ready to under take the work. The most distinguished manufacturers of submarine telegraphs in the world are Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co., London. They have made and laid down cables for the English and French Governments and for private companies, and with extraordinary success, as you have seen by the statement which I have read. Soon after going to England I addressed them, asking on what conditions they would be willing to undertake to lay a cable across the Atlantic. The following is their reply

10 CANNON STREET, LONDON, Feb. 17th, 1862.

To Cyrus W. Field, Esq., of New York,
At Fenton's Hotel, St. James Street.

Sir:- In reply to your inquiries we beg to state -

That we should not be willing to manufacture and lay a Submarine Telegraph Cable across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland, assuming the entire risk, as we consider that would be too great a responsibility for any single firm to undertake; but we are so confident that these points can be connected by a good and durable cable, that we are willing to contract to do the work, and stake a large sum upon its successful laying and working.

We shall be prepared in a few days, as soon as we can get the necessary information in regard to what price we can charter suitable ships for the service, to make you a definite offer.

Annexed we beg to hand you for your guidance a list of all the Submarine Telegraph Cables manufactured and laid by our firm since we commenced this branch of our business, the whole mileage of which, with the two trivial exceptions noted, are at this time in perfect and successful working order. The cable that we had the honor to contract for and lay for the French Government, connecting France with Algeria, is submerged in water of nearly equal depths to any we should have to encounter between Newfoundland and Ireland.

You will permit us to suggest that the shore ends of the Atlantic should be composed of very heavy wires, as, from our experience, the only accidents that have arisen to any of the cables that we have laid have been caused by ships' anchors, and none of those laid out of anchorage ground have ever cost one shilling for repairs.

The cable that we should suggest for the Atlantic will be an improvement on all those yet manufactured, and, we firmly believe, will be imperishable when once laid.

We remain, Sir,
                      Yours, faithfully,
                                                  GLASS, ELLIOT & CO.

A few weeks after, Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co. wrote Mr. Saward, the Secretary of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, offering to manufacture and lay down the best possible cable from Ireland to Newfoundland, receiving only the bare cost of material and labor, without one penny for their own time, or services, or capital, or interest, unless perfectly successful; and if it were, they should receive their payment in a certain amount of the shares of the Company, to be delivered at the end of each month during one year that it continued in successful operation; but that if, within that time, it stopped working, payments were instantly to cease.

I have now here a Specimen of the cable which it is proposed to use for the new line, and also of that which was laid in 1858, by which you may see the difference of the two, and the immense superiority of the former over the latter.

Cable laid in 1858. 
Proposed Cable for the Atlantic.

In the old Atlantic cable, the copper conducting wire weighed but 93 lbs. to the mile; in the new cable, it weighs 510 lbs. to the mile, or more than five times as much.

In the old cable, the copper wire was covered but three times with gutta percha; in the new, it is covered four times with the purest gutta percha, and four times with Chatterton's patent compound, by which the cable is rendered absolutely impenetrable to water. The old one was covered with eighteen strands of small iron wire, which, as they had no other, covering, were directly exposed to the action of the water; the new is covered with thirteen strands, each strand consisting of three wires of the best quality, and each of these strands covered with gutta percha, to render it indestructible in salt water. By this new construction, it has double the strength of the old cable, at the same time that it is lighter in water - a very important matter in laying it across the ocean.

The risk of loss in laying the new cable would be very much diminished by the fact that it would be of such strength that, even if broken, could be recovered, as has been done in the Mediterranean; and, besides, the principal and most expensive materials, copper and gutta percha, being indestructible, would have at all times a value in the market.

As to the profits of such an enterprise, considered as a commercial undertaking, it is sufficient to state one fact, that there are in Europe and America already existing over 150,000 miles of telegraph lines, all of which would be feeders to a cable across the ocean.

It may be expected that I should make some reference to other proposed telegraph lines to Europe. Of these there are two, one by Behring's Straits, the other by a succession of submarine cables from Scotland, via the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, to Labrador.

Here let me say, in passing; that there need be no rivalry between these lines and that directly across the Atlantic, and I heartily wish them both success; for I believe that if all three were established and working to-day, there would be more business than all three could perform. At the same time, speaking in all frankness and candor, I must say that, from all the information that I can obtain, it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to construct these lines, or to keep them in working order if established.

As to the route by Behring's Straits, two or three facts will be sufficient. First, the distance from London to New York, by a route which crosses three broad continents, Europe, Asia, and America, is about 18,000 miles, or more than nine times as great as that from Ireland to Newfoundland. Of course, the mere cost of constructing a continuous telegraph one half of the distance around the globe, and of maintaining the hundreds of stations that would be necessary over such a length of land lines, would be enormous. But even that is not the chief difficulty. A line which should traverse the whole breadth of Siberia, would encounter well nigh insuperable obstacles in the country itself, as it would have to pass over mountains and across deserts; while, as it turned north to Kamsckatka, it would come into a region of frightful cold, where winter reigns over the greater part of the year. Of this whole country a large part is not only utterly uncivilized, but uninhabited, and portions which are occupied are held by savage and warlike tribes.

Of the Greenland route, Dr. Hayes, the well-known Arctic traveler, says:
"I do not consider it practicable to carry into successful operation any telegraph line touching Greenland at any point; and I hope that, neither yourself nor any one else entertains the idea of attempting such a route. It must be obvious that the ice which hugs the Greenland coast will prevent a cable, if laid, from remaining in continuity for any length of time."

Dr. Wallich, naturalist attached to Sir Leopold McClintock's Expedition to survey the northern route, considers it impracticable on account of the volcanic nature of the bottom of the sea near Iceland, and the ridges of rock, and the immense icebergs, near Greenland.

The main argument in favor of this route, in preference to the more, direct one across the Atlantic is, that it would be impossible to work in one continuous circuit a line so long as that from Newfoundland to Ireland. This would seem to be answered sufficiently by the success of the old Atlantic Cable. But it is alleged that it worked slowly and with difficulty, and hence it is thought that the distance would be at least a very great obstacle.

A writer in the London Observer, interested in the northern route, recently stated that it had been found impracticable to work in a single direct line from Malta to Alexandria. To this, however, Messrs. Glass, Elliot & Co., the manufacturers of that cable, say explicitly, in at letter to Mr. Saward,

"We did not recommend that the Malta and Alexandria cable should be laid in three sections; on the contrary, we should have much preferred to work it as a single continuous line; it was laid in sections in obedience to the directions given us by Her Majesty's Government. It was thought that a large commercial business would arise at Tripoli and Benghazi - which appears, as regards Tripoli, likely to prove the case; besides which, an easy communication might, it was thought, be established from Tripoli to Algeria, if found desirable hereafter. The length of the entire line, as laid between Malta and Alexandria, is 1,535 miles.

"The whole of this line can be worked through without relay or repetition in an efficient and satisfactory manner, both as regards its scientific and commercial results, and with remarkably low battery power."

The Gutta Percha Company, which made the core, also says:

"We believe the fact of the Malta and Alexandria cable being divided into three sections was more for convenience than from any doubt as to its being capable of working well throughout its entire length.

"We can further state, without hesitation, that a suitably made and insulated telegraph conductor, laid intact between Ireland and Newfoundland, can be worked efficiently, both in a commercial and a scientific sense; and we may add that we should he prepared to guarantee the efficient and satisfactory working of a length of 2,100 miles of insulated telegraph wire as manufactured by ourselves, and submerged and maintained in that state."

It can be shown by the testimony and experience of those most eminent in the science and practice of Electric and Oceanic Telegraphy, that neither length of distance (within the limits with which the Atlantic Company has to deal) nor the depth of water are any insuperable impediments to efficient communication by such improved conductors of electricity as are now proposed to be laid down. All of those who are best able to form a sound and practical opinion (including Professor William Thomson, LL.D., F.R.S., Of Glasgow, and Mr. Varley, the Electrician of the Electric and International Telegraph Company of London, both of whom have been long engaged in practical and experimental researches on this particular point) are willing to pledge their judgment - that on such a length of line as that between Ireland and Newfoundland, and with such a cable and such improved instruments as are now at command, not less than twelve words a minute can be transmitted from shore, to shore, and that this may be done with greatly diminished battery power as compared with what was formerly used.

Such are the main facts in regard to the present condition and prospects of the Atlantic Telegraph. May I not ask, then, if an enterprise so immensely important to the commerce, the civilization, and even the peace of the world, and which has now such fair prospects of success, is not worth another grand experiment, with every possible means to insure its triumph? The work is too great to be undertaken by individuals alone, without public aid. But can any project be named more worthy of the support of two enlightened governments, like those of the United States and Great Britain, than one which would unite them together by a bond of iron-which would tend at all times to keep them in good understanding with each other, and to strengthen the relations of amity and concord between them? I am happy to say that its importance is fully recognized by both governments. Our own Secretary of State, who, from the beginning, has been an enlightened and steadfast friend of the Atlantic Telegraph, in an official dispatch to our minister at London, uses the following language in regard to it:

"You may say to Earl Russell that the President entertains the most favorable views of the great enterprise in question, and would be happy to co-operate with the British Government in securing its successful execution, and such arrangements as would guarantee to both nations reciprocal benefits from the use of the Telegraph, not only in times of peace, but even in times of war-if, contrary to our desire and expectation, and to the great detriment of both nations, war should ever arise between them."

The English Government has the proposal now under consideration; its final decision is not yet known. We can only say, from interviews with different members of the Cabinet and of Parliament, that their disposition is most friendly towards the establishment of telegraphic communication with America.

It would be unjust to overlook the noble zeal of individuals in this work, who have persevered against all obstacles. Of these, I may mention the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and especially the Vice-Chairman, Mr. C.M. Lampson, an American capitalist in London, whom we are all proud of as our countryman; and Mr. Saward, the indefatigable Secretary. These gentlemen, in spite of years of delay and suspended action, have persevered in the determination that the enterprise should be again renewed. Such resolution deserves, as it will secure, final and complete success.

In this city are several men who have shown the same devotion to this international enterprise. It is only necessary to mention the names of Messrs. Peter Cooper, Moses Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts, Wilson G. Hunt, Directors, and the other officers of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company. With them is connected the name of the Patriarch of American Telegraphy, Professor Morse, whose system is known and used throughout the civilized world. He is still among us, and I trust may not pass away until he sees a line of telegraph, not only connecting Europe and America, but stretching around the whole habitable globe.

Should the enterprise meet with the encouragement which it asks from the English and American Governments, the capital could easily be raised, twelve months would be ample for the manufacture of the cable, and it could be laid across the Atlantic in the summer of next year.


At the close of the reading, Archibald Russell, Esq., said he wished to inquire what security the United States could have, in the event of a war with England, that the neutrality of the Atlantic telegraph would be respected? Mr. Field replied by reading from a letter which had been addressed to Earl Russell, containing stipulations into which it was proposed the two countries should enter before the work was begun:
"The two Governments to guarantee that, in the unhappy event of a war arising between England and the United States, the cable shall continue inviolate, unmolested, and uninterrupted by the forces or subjects of either country." To this no objection had been made, and he had no doubt that all proper guarantees would be exchanged between the two countries.

Hiram Ketchum, Esq., said he felt less anxiety about the use of the telegraph in time of war, for he believed a cable between England and America would tend greatly to prevent war; that it would be itself one of the best securities of peace.

Other members appearing to think that we should be in the power of England, Mr. Field added:

The relative geographical position of the two countries cannot be changed. It so happens that the two points on the opposite sides -of the Atlantic nearest to each other, and which are therefore the natural termini of an ocean telegraph, are both in British territory. Of course, the Government which holds both ends can control the use of the telegraph, or stop it altogether. It has the power. The only check upon the abuse of that power must be by a treaty, made beforehand, and which shall render the line, even in war, sacred and inviolate. Shall we refuse aid in constructing the line, or to enter into such a treaty, for fear lest England, in the exasperation of a war, would disregard it? Then we throw away our only security. For suppose a war to break out to-morrow, the first step of England would be, as we have seen it was in the Trent affair, to lay a cable herself for her own sole and exclusive benefit. Then she would have not only the power, but the power unrestrained by any treaty obligations whatever binding her to respect the neutrality of the telegraph.

We shall then find this great means of communication between the two Hemispheres, which we might have made, if not an ally, at least a neutral, turned into a powerful weapon against us. Now I ask any candid man, if, consulting even for our own interests, it is not better that such a line of communication between England and America should be constructed by the joint efforts of both countries, and be guarded by treaty stipulations, so that it shall be placed, as far as possible, under the protection of the faith of nations, and of the honor of the civilized world?

I would say further, that in all our negotiations with the British Government, they have never shown the slightest wish to take advantage of the position of England to exact special rights and privileges, or a desire to appropriate any advantages which they were not willing to concede equally to the United States.

After some remarks by the Hon. George Folsom, Peter Cooper, Esq., and others, it was unanimously

Resolved, That the thanks of the Society be presented to Mr. Field for the interesting statements with which he has favored the Society this evening, and that he be, requested to furnish a copy thereof for the archives of the Society.

Resolved, That this Society are highly encouraged by the evidence presented by Mr. Field of the entire practicability of the telegraph enterprise across the Atlantic Ocean, and desire in this manner to express their confidence therein.

Glass, Elliot cable list dated March 29th, 1862. By October 20th, 1862, they were listing another five cables - see British Submarine Cable Manufacturers for a copy of that document.

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