2 of 2 Parts: Laying the Atlantic Cable, 1866; A Social Studies Dialogue
By Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker, email@example.com
(see end About Authors)
Frank: August 5, 1858: The USS Niagara approached Newfoundland. The signal from HMS Agamemnon
nearing Ireland still worked. Elated, the USS Niagara crew docked at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. At the nearest
telegraph station Field telegraphed his wife, father, Associated Press, Peter Cooper, and U.S. President James
Buchanan (1791-1868): “The cable is laid. …By the blessing of Divine Providence it has succeeded.”
Betty: The HMS Agamemnon approached Ireland, docked in Valentia, its signal with the USS Niagara in
Newfoundland still working. Engineer Charles T. Bright telegraphed the London board of directors and the press:
“The Agamemnon has arrived in Valentia [Ireland], and we are about to land the cable. The Niagara is in Trinity
Bay, Newfoundland. There are good signals between the ships.”
Frank: Not knowing that this connection would last only a few weeks, David Field wired enthusiastic praise to his
Betty: August 16, 1858: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) cabled congratulations to Pres. James Buchanan. But the
signal was weak. It continued weak for a time, stopped, and remained silent. Public jubilation turned to scorn.
Newspapers that had lionized Field now lampooned him. Friends and partners avoided him. Only Peter Cooper
told Field: “We will go on.”
Frank: But the Civil War drained U.S. resources. Field could not find U.S. investors. Britain, however, still
wanting quicker communication with its empire, formed a commission of inquiry.
Betty: The commission found, five years later (July 1863): 1. That Cyrus Field’s lack of expert advice led to the
1857 failure. 2. That a substitute cable voltage measuring device had permitted high voltage to burn out the cable
during the first and second 1858 attempts. 3. That cable laying would be more manageable if done by a single
Frank: The ideal ship for laying the cable was the Great Eastern, the largest ship of its time. It had been launched
November 3, 1857, as an Atlantic passenger ship.
Betty: The Great Eastern had two iron hulls and water tight compartments. Its powerful steam engines propelled
both a screw-driven propeller and two enormous side paddle wheels. It had five smoke stacks and six sail masts to
catch the wind.
Frank: Earlier Field had met I.K. Brunel (1806-59), Great Eastern’s designer, when traveling from Valentia,
Ireland, to London. Brunel took Field to see the Great Eastern then being built and said prophetically to Field:
“Here is the ship to lay your cable.”
Betty: But it was the 1861 Trent Affair, an incident that provoked near war between the U.S. and Britain, that
persuaded Cyrus Field to contact U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801-71). That contact and
Field’s success in finding investors in London revived the Atlantic cable attempt and involved the Great Eastern.
Frank: The Trent Affair began on October 11, 1861, when Confederate agents James M. Mason (1798-1871) and
John Slidell (1793-1871s) slipped through the Union blockade at Charleston, S.C. They went by ship to Cuba and
there boarded the British ship Trent. The Confederate agents were heading for England and France to raise money
and arms for the South.
Betty: November 8, 1861: USS San Jacinto’s Capt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), on his own, stopped the Trent
with canon shot, boarded her, forced Mason and Slidell’s removal, and imprisoned them.
Frank: Britain, officially neutral, protested this illegal seizure of passengers from a British ship as an act of war.
Britain demanded an apology and the prisoners’ release. Angers flared. Anticipating war with the U.S., Britain
ordered troops sent to Canada.
Betty: On November 24, 1861, in Washington, D.C., President Lincoln (1809-65) discussed the Trent Affair with
his Cabinet. Lincoln told them: one war at a time, gentlemen. He disavowed the illegal seizure, stated that Capt.
Wilkes had acted on his own. Lincoln ordered the Confederate agents released.
Frank: Cyrus Field immediately saw that had the Atlantic Cable been operating, rapid government exchanges
would have explained Capt. Wilkes’s rash act, resolved the incident, and Britain would have avoided large military
expenditure. Field shared these thoughts with U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. Seward agreed with Field
and instructed the U.S. Ambassador in London Charles Francis Adams (1807-86) to help Field raise more British
funds for a new cable attempt.
Betty: A greater irritant to U.S.-British relations that happened during the U.S. Civil War was later called the
Alabama Claims. The Confederacy, without a navy of its own, secretly bought British-built ships and armed them
as raiders. One such ship renamed CSA [Confederate States of America] Alabama sank many Union ships,
causing loss of lives and cargo.
Frank: After the Civil War an international court arbitrated the Alabama affair and required Britain to pay the U.S.
$15.5 million indemnity for illegally selling ships to the Confederacy.
Betty: Despite these irritants, Field, in London, secured from the British government an increase in the annual
subsidy to £20,000 (that was $100,000 a year), provided the cable worked. Field still could not find investors in
the U.S. which was mired in Civil War.
Frank: January 1864: Investors Field found in England included railroad contractor Thomas Brassey (1805-70)
and House of Commons member John Pender (1816-96). Field negotiated with a new gutta-percha company to
manufacture an improved cable. That company’s officials also agreed to invest £315,000 (just over $1.5 million) in Atlantic Telegraph Co. shares. Best of all, Field contacted the Great Western Railway’s head, Daniel Gooch (1816-89), who formed a syndicate to buy and use the Great Eastern as the cable laying ship.
Betty: July 23, 1865: The Great Eastern under Capt. James Anderson (1824-93), with attendant ships, left
Valentia, Ireland, to lay cable to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. The Great Eastern carried 21,000 tons. This
included the heavy new coiled cable to be laid using an elaborate new braking system. It also included a 500-man
crew, scientists, and experienced cable technicians, all British subjects except Cyrus Field. It carried live animals
aboard for food (no refrigerated ships).
Frank: An electric signal sent on the cable from Valentia was monitored by the galvanometer aboard the Great
Eastern as it laid cable. When that signal weakened or stopped, cable laying stopped, the cable was reeled back
aboard ship until the bad spot was located, repaired, spliced, and cable laying was then continued.
Betty: August 2, 1865: After 1200 miles of cable laying a mechanical mishap caused the cable to break less than
600 miles from Newfoundland. Using grapples, the cable end was found but could not be brought up from the
ocean depth. With grappling rope gone and supplies short, Capt. Anderson marked the exact position of the lost
cable end by sextant readings and buoy markers and headed back to Ireland.
Frank: Instead of derision, Field found himself acclaimed as a hero in England. Press and public applauded the
fact that the cable had been laid two-thirds the way across the Atlantic. Encouraged, the Atlantic Telegraph Co.
directors raised new capital. The plan for the new try in 1866 was to lay a whole new cable from Ireland to
Newfoundland; then, on the way, retrieve the lost 1865 cable, splice it to new cable and have the incomplete first
one serve as a second cable line.
Betty: A legal difficulty prohibited the Atlantic Telegraph Co. from selling stock for a year. This delay led its
directors to create a new Anglo-American Telegraph Co. Shares were sold. Money was raised. A better cable was
manufactured. Better cable laying machinery was constructed. The Great Eastern was made sturdier for cable
Frank: June 30, 1866: the Great Eastern left the Thames Estuary, England. It flew U.S. flags on July 4, 1866, off
the Irish coast. July 13, 1866: fixing one cable end to its Irish port location, the Great Eastern laid cable toward
Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.
Betty: The Great Eastern crew, more professional, efficient, disciplined, and motivated than on previous attempts,
made good time laying cable. The ship’s 1866 route paralleled but avoided tangling with the 1865 cable whose end
the captain intended later to find, splice, and use as a second cable line.
Frank: July 24, 1866: The Great Eastern passed the point where the 1865 cable end lay. Three days later, July
27, 1866, was the magic day.
Betty: The rain had stopped. The fog had lifted. The Great Eastern reached the fishing village of 60 homes and a
church with the quaint name of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. The cable end, taken ashore, was connected to a
land telegraph line.
Frank: The electric signal from Valentia, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, was loud and clear. When
this fact was confirmed, bells rang. People shouted. Cyrus Field telegraphed the Associated Press: “…We [have]
arrived…. Thank God, the cable is laid, and is in perfect working order.”
Betty: New York Times article, July 31, 1866, p. 1, stated: Queen Victoria cabled congratulations to U.S. Pres.
Andrew Johnson (1808-75). Within the hour the U. S. President replied to Her Majesty. On the same day the
mayors of New York City and London exchanged cable greetings. New York Times headline, August 4, 1866, p. 1,
c. 7, headlined: “The Atlantic Telegraph. Immense Success of the Great Enterprise.”
Frank: Queen Victoria showered knighthoods on British cable participants: Sir Charles T. Bright, engineer; Sir
Samuel Canning (1823-1908), engineer; Sir William Glass, cable manufacturer.
Betty: Sir James Anderson, Great Eastern’s captain, Sir Daniel Gooch, who secured the Great Eastern as the
cable ship; and Sir Curtis Lampson (1806-85), Atlantic Cable Co.’s deputy chairman.
Frank: Glasgow University Professor William Thomson, who invented the galvanometer, was named Lord Kelvin.
At his death he was honored by burial in Westminster Abbey.
Betty: Queen Victoria would have also handsomely honored Cyrus W. Field had he been a British subject. The
British press soon dubbed him “Lord Cable.” The U.S. Congress awarded him a gold medal in March 1867.
Frank: Field, rich again, paid his debts, built New York City’s Third and Ninth Avenue Elevated Trains, owned two
New York City newspapers. But he was not a good investor. He lost about $6 million.
Betty: Field died in 1892. His tombstone in Stockbridge, Mass., reads: “Cyrus West Field To whose courage,
energy and perseverance the world owes the Atlantic telegraph.” Frank, could anyone else but Cyrus W. Field
have successfully laid the Atlantic cable?
Frank: Someone might have. But no one did. He alone came forward. He persisted to the successful end. He
alone pursued the Atlantic cable idea for 12 years, through five attempts. He alone convinced investors, raised
funds, and coordinated U.S. and British scientists, engineers, ships captains and crews. He made the Atlantic cable
an international affair. He got the U.S.A. and Britain, two nations historically at odds with each other, to work
together. He brought together the old and the new world.
Betty: Always seasick he made 50 Atlantic crossings. He used his skill, drive, personality, and determination to
make the Atlantic cable succeed. Not until the 1960s did satellite communication supplement but not replace the
cable. Frank, what did the Atlantic Cable accomplish?
Frank: The Atlantic Cable revolutionized communication in business, government exchanges, and international
news. It also made the haves aware of the have nots, and visa versa, another kind of ongoing revolution. Betty,
what do we owe this man?
Betty: Author John Steele Gordon’s very last sentence in his book says it all: “[Field] laid down the technical
foundation of what would become, in little over a century, a global village.”” What we have long needed do is to
work for peace in this global village we call earth.
After reading the above dialogue and taking time for library and internet research, students and readers may answer,
orally in class or individually in writing, the concerns posed in the Introduction. Answers and opinions may then
be exchanged and discussed.
1. Buchwald, Jed Z. “Thomson, Sir William (Baron Kelvin of Largs),” Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. by
Charles C. Gillispie (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), Vol. XIII, pp. 374-388.
2. Dunsheath, Percy, ed. A Century of Technology (New York: Roy Publishers, 1951), pp. 272-273.
3. Gordon, John Steele. Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (New York:
Perennial, 2002), 240 pp. This book, the primary source used in this article, is reviewed in: a-Internet URL:
http://www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=226 b-Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute,
Vol. 128, Issue 9 (Sept. 2002), p. 90.
4. John, Richard R. “Field, Cyrus West,” American National Biography, ed. By John A. Garraty and Mark C.
Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), Vol. 7, pp. 876-878.
5. McNeil, Ian, ed. An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 715.
6. Singer, Charles, et al., eds. A History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon Press), Vol. 4, pp. 225-226, 660-661.
1. “Atlantic Cable,” http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/hst/atlantic-cable/sil4-0045.htm
2. Canso and Hazel Hill, “Transatlantic Cable Communications; ‘the Original Information
3. “1866, Cyrus Field, The Laying of the Atlantic Cable,”
4. “Field, Cyrus West (1819-1892),” http://74.1911encyclopedia.org/F/FI/FIELD_CYRUS_WEST.htm
5. _________________________. Short sketch and 1858 photo of C. W. Field taken by Civil War photographer
Mathew Brady, original in National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
6. [Great Eastern]. http://www.greatoceanliners.net/greateastern.html
7. _____________. http://www.scripophily.net/eassteamnavc.html
8. Harding, Robert S., and Mumia Shimaka-Mbasu, “Anglo-American Telegraph Company, Ltd. Records, 1866-
9. “History of the Atlantic Cable & Submarine Telegraphy From …1850, to the present day ….”,
http://www.atlantic-cable.com/, is a near exhaustive Atlantic Cable database. It includes a Cable bibliography; a
Cable timeline from 1850; early British, Canadian, and U.S. Cable experimenters; and articles on the 1858, 1865
and 1866 transatlantic Cable laying attempts. It has photos of and articles about Cyrus W. Field and others
connected with the 1854-66 cable laying attempts, including the Great Eastern and other involved ships.
10. “History of Telecommunications from 1840 to 1870,” http://www.2.fht-esslingen.de/telehistory/1840-
11. “John Steele Gordon,” Rotary Club of New York. http://ussterilizer.com/bulletin_08-26-2003.pdf
12. “Laying the First Transatlantic Cable,” http://www.infoplease.com/askeds/4-14-01askeds.html
13. “Manufacture of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, from Illustrated London News, 1857,”
14. “Samuel F.B. Morse,” http://www.invent.org/halloffame/106.html
15. “Sir James Anderson [Capt., Great Eastern], 1824-1893,” http://www.newman-family-tree.net/Sir-James-
16. “The Transatlantic Cable.” http://www.history-magazine.com/cable.html
New York Times (chronological order)
1. “Telegraph, Atlantic.” New York Times Index: A Book of Records. Sept. 1851-Dec. 1862. Page 294 (entries
for Sept. to Dec. 1858), page 325 (1859). See also same topic in 1860 and 1862.
2. “Atlantic Cable,” July 29, 1866, p. 4, c. 7. July 30, 1866, p. 1, c. 1-4.
3. “Ocean Telegraph,” July 31, 1866, p. 1, c. 6-7.
4. “Atlantic Telegraph,” Aug. 2, 1866, p. 5, c. 4. Aug. 4, 1866, p. 1, c. 7.
About the Authors
The Parkers are graduates of Berea College near Lexington, Ky., where they met in 1946. They were married in1950; graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana, 1950; and from what is now Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1956. Franklin Parker taught at the Universities of Texas, Austin, 1957-64; Oklahoma, Norman, 1964-68; West Virginia University, Morgantown, 1968-86; Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, 1986-89; and Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, 1989-94. Betty Parker, a researcher and writer, wrote and co-edited with Franklin Parker many education books and articles; and did extensive research resulting in George Peabody, A Biography, Vanderbilt University, 1971, revised 1995. The Parkers continue scholarly pursuits at Uplands Retirement Community, 63 Heritage Loop, Crossville, TN 38571-8270, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org END OF 2 of 2 Parts. End MANUSCRIPT.