Skip to main content

Time Machine

June 2024
1min read

Words Under Water

By the end of July, Cyrus Field’s transatlantic cable stretched from Newfoundland to Valentia, Ireland, connecting New York and London by wire. The project that Field had begun thirteen years earlier and for which he had laid out hundreds of tons of cable was finally a success when businesses on both sides started sending messages across the water at a cost of five to ten dollars per word. The Times of London’s editor had once dismissed the cable project as “a great bore”; the United States Congress felt differently and voted to reward Field with a medal.

This was a second life for the trans-atlantic cable. A first cable had been laid in 1858; it conveyed messages back and forth for almost a month before mysteriously failing. The Queen of England had managed to send a ninety-eight-word greeting to President Buchanan while that cable worked. Her message took sixteen and a half hours to send, but letters by ship took at least two weeks.

The project languished for a few years thereafter, until by the end of the Civil War Fields had raised fifty thousand pounds in England for the second cable and secured the use of the Great Eastern , then the largest vessel in the world, to lay it. The new 1866 cable worked until it was replaced by speedier successors in 1869 and 1873.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.