Cyrus West Field

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Cyrus West Field

Cyrus West Field (1819-1892), American merchant and promoter, laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

Cyrus Field was born of Puritan stock in Stockbridge, Mass., on Nov. 30, 1819. He quit school at 15. After short periods of work in New York and Massachusetts, Field became a junior partner with a New York firm of paper dealers. When the company failed in 1841, he personally assumed its debts.

Field and his brother-in-law set up the mercantile firm of Cyrus W. Field and Company. By 1852 Field was free of debt and had built a personal fortune of $250,000. He retired from business to devote himself to his passion: to connect Europe and America by submarine telegraph cable.

From the British and American governments Field obtained charters and received promises of financial subsidies and naval ships to lay the cable. He enlisted financial backing from New York and London capitalists. Perhaps his most impressive feat was in acquiring the services of Britishers Charles Tilson Bright, the great engineer, and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), the distinguished physicist and authority on electricity. Thomson's invention of the reflecting galvanometer and the siphon recorder (which recorded telegraphic messages in ink that came from a siphon) assured the operation of the cable once it was laid.

After three attempts to drop the cable to the Atlantic floor failed, Field got more capital. In 1865 the fourth try also failed. Undaunted, Field organized a new company, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, and rechartered the Great Easternas the laying ship. In 1866 the 1,852 miles of cable were finally laid.

Field was honored the world over, and the venture made him wealthy. He maintained an elegant house in New York City, built a large country estate, and set up a son in a New York brokerage house, financially guaranteeing his operations.

Field became a stock-market operator and this, coupled with his princely way of life and financial obligations, was his undoing. He made money in western railroads and, in the late 1870s, acquired control of the New York Elevated Railroad Company, which also prospered. Then he went overboard. He invested heavily in the Manhattan Elevated Railroad, a holding company formed by financier Jay Gould that had a monopoly of New York's rapid transit, and speculated in wheat futures. But Gould outmaneuvered Field, and in 1887 the wheat market collapsed; these setbacks, compounded by his son's bankruptcy, drained Field's fortune. He died on July 12, 1892 in New York City.

Further Reading

Isabella Field Judson, ed., Cyrus W. Field: His Life and Work (1896), is a biography written from family documents by Field's daughter. A popular study is Samuel Carter, Cyrus Field: Man of Two Worlds (1968). Philip B. McDonald tells the Atlantic cable story in A Saga of the Seas: The Story of Cyrus W. Field and the Laying of the First Atlantic Cable (1937). The company history and the personalities involved are discussed in Henry M. Field, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph (1892). An excellent review of the scientific and technological problems in Field's venture is Bern Dibner, The Atlantic Cable (1959; 2d ed. 1964). □

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Cyrus West Field

1819-1892

American financier best known for sponsoring the laying of the first telegraphic cable across the Atlantic Ocean. After a number of failed attempts, Field arranged for Queen Victoria to send the first transatlantic message to President James Buchanan in August 1858. The cable broke three weeks later. It took eight more years for Field to finally complete his project, when in 1866 a single ship laid out 2,700 miles of telegraphic cable that stretched from Newfoundland to Ireland.