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Creating the first information highway
The people of two continents were ecstatic in 1858 when Queen Victoria sent President Buchanan the first official message via a cable under the Atlantic Ocean. The accomplishment was widely hailed as the greatest achievement in human history. What the public wasn't told was that the queen's three-sentence note of congratulations took more than 16 hours to arrive. And when the cable went dead a month later, its promoters were vilified. It wasn't until eight frustrating years later that another cable was laid that worked, assuring the world that people thousands of miles apart really were only minutes away from each other.
In A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Trans Atlantic Cable, top-ranking business historian John Steele Gordon superbly chronicles the heartaches and the successes of the feat and scrutinizes those responsible. Foremost among them was Cyrus Field, a paper merchant enthralled by the prospect of transoceanic linkage. Field didn't waste time passing around a tin cup; instead, he cornered the wealthiest and persuaded them to back the idea. He told one affluent beagle breeder to imagine a huge dog stretching from England to the United States, adding that the venture "is essentially just such a dog. If you pinch his tail in Liverpool, he'll bark in New York."
Field became the hands-on mastermind of the project, making more than 50 cross-Atlantic trips. He was seasick on every one of them, except on the final attempt, aboard a vessel five times as large as any other ship afloat. This was the Great Eastern, refitted to carry 2,600 miles of cable.
The project was buffeted by technical, legal, financial and political setbacks. Gordon details how Field and his associates converted each reversal into a triumph during the torturous 12-year enterprise. A Thread Across the Ocean celebrates the vision and perseverance of the men whoa century before the Internet was conceivedcreated the first information highway underwater.
Alan Prince teaches communications history at the University of Miami.