art01-mag02-CYRUS WEST FIELD
Challenges Publié le 15 mai 2019

Cyrus West Field: The man that endowed the world with a single heartbeat

The American businessman that made possible the first cable-laying that crossed the Atlantic Ocean and linked two continents in 1858.

Humanity as a whole has become accustomed to an almost instantaneous communication. Then, it is difficult to think about the huge efforts hidden behind many small gestures of everyday life. From making a video call to opening an e-mail, from making a bank transfer to purchasing shares, our day to day life depends on the infrastructures of which we are completely unaware.

We have news, occasionally, about artificial satellites orbiting the Earth which enable connections. However, the thousands of miles of cable that connect our planet cross continents, unite us across the ocean and make most part of existing telecommunications possible, go largely unnoticed.

Cables are basic these days because they offer more liability, more capacity and more latency than satellite communications. But they would become transcendent in a near future, when 5G, the fifth generation of mobile network, is completely expanded.

Today we will analyse and admire the first step that made instant communication possible more than 150 years ago.

The first steps toward instant connectivity

For centuries, when human beings wanted to be up to date with events happening far away, they had to assume that the delivery of messages were as fast as a horse, a carrier pigeon or, eventually, the railway or steamboat. That was so until Samuel B. Morse sent the first telegraphic message in 1844. The telegraph was the first form of electric communication. Its existence broke the link between transport and communication and destroyed the dimension of time and space as a barrier to human communication. A door to the world of simultaneity was opened.

In very few years, the telegraphic cables ran around the Earth and the world started to grow smaller. People in France or Spain could almost instantly know what was happening in Russia or Portugal.

Not a decade had passed since that milestone when in 1850 the threads of copper that carried electric signals started to be insulated with gutta-percha (a kind of rubber) and dropped to the seabed. This is how electric communications managed to cross the English Channel to link the Old Continent with the British Isles. But still no one even dared to dream about telegraph cables crossing the oceans. Until Cyrus West Field.

The great transoceanic challenge

Cyrus West Field was a financier from New York unrelated to telecommunications who became interested in the sector after meeting Frederick Newton Gisborne. He was an engineer who had been a head of a project that unsuccessfully tried to connect the northeast area of United States with a telegraphic cable. However, far from being cowed by the technical fault, the financer considered that his bet could be stronger and challenged him to link the European with the American continent. This businessman did not know that specialists considered this adventure to be impossible. Morse himself thought that, on paper, the project was feasible. But in reality, it left many loose ends: How would the cable behave under the unexplored depths of the ocean? Would the currents, the sea plants and marine fauna alter communications? How would the electric signal work over those long distances?

Questions were there but there was no way of answering them without taking action. And Cyrus West Field was the man willing to get going. His enthusiasm was such that he managed to spread the idea to enough people to fund the Atlantic Telegraph Company and, by selling shares, raise funds to begin the adventure. The British government and the United States Congress joined the project and long preparations started for a previously unimagined challenge. It was necessary to elaborate the cable, get the insulator and it was imperative to adapt the ships for such a singular and heavy load.

A challenge fraught with difficulties

The ships set sail in the middle of a great celebration in August 1857, but when they had travelled several hundred miles, a minor technical fault sank the cable beneath the ocean causing irreparable damage.

In June the following year the ships set sails, and once again, they failed. Now due to a storm. Finally, on the last journey, in July 1858, both continents remained linked. President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria of England exchanged some words over the telegraph and Field became a national hero, being honoured from both sides of the Atlantic, comparing his feat to Cristopher Columbus՚.

Joy lasted only 20 days. When Field believed his project had concluded, an increased voltage caused the transoceanic cable to rupture and communications were interrupted. And the glorious protagonist transformed from being a hero to a villain in a matter of a few days. Rivers of ink interpreted his failure as a con. And then the world forgot about him.

Yet, Cyrus West Field had proven to be undeterred and, several years later, he managed to obtain new capital to tackle the task, taking advantage of his many lessons learnt in the previous intents. In July 1866, a new and giant vessel crossed the ocean laying on the seabed a brand-new cable. And this time was the one, the telegraph delivered clear, intelligible and continuous messages. The feat was finally completed.

A single heartbeat

The writer Stefan Zweig summarized Field՚s task by saying: “From that moment the Earth has a single heartbeat.” And, no matter how limited telegraphic communication might seem now, we have to admit that the origin of current instant communications relies on that first cable. Nowadays, we count with several hundreds of submarine cable systems that ran about 745,645 miles. They are the ones responsible for erasing the distances between countries, cultures and organizations. In the same way Cyrus Wake Field՚s first transatlantic cable did.