Biography of Cyrus Field

Businessman Connected America and Europe By Telegraph Cable

Cyrus Field and the Atlantic cable portrayed on a map.
Cyrus Field and a section of the Atlantic cable portrayed on a map of the ocean. Getty Images

Cyrus Field was a wealthy merchant and investor who masterminded the creation of the transatlantic telegraph cable in the mid-1800s. Thanks to Field's persistence, news which had taken weeks to travel by ship from Europe to America could be transmitted within minutes.

The laying of the cable across the Atlantic Ocean was an extremely difficult endeavor, and it was fraught with drama. The first attempt, in 1858, was celebrated exuberantly by the public when messages began to cross the ocean. And then, in a crushing disappointment, the cable went dead.

A second attempt, which was delayed by financial problems and the outbreak of the Civil War, was not successful until 1866. But the second cable worked, and kept working, and the world got used to news traveling quickly across the Atlantic.

Hailed as a hero, Field became wealthy from the operation of the cable. But his ventures into the stock market, coupled with an extravagant lifestyle, led him into financial problems.

The later years of Field's life were known to be troubled. He was forced to sell most of his country estate. And when he died in 1892, family members interviewed by the New York Times took pains to say that rumors that he had become insane in the years before his death were untrue.

Early Life

Cyrus Field was born the son of a minister on November 30, 1819. He was educated to the age of 15, when he began working. With the help of an older brother, David Dudley Field, who was working as a lawyer in New York City, he obtained a clerkship in the retail store of A.T. Stewart, a famous New York merchant who essentially invented the department store.

During three years of working for Stewart, Field tried to learn everything he could about business practices. He left Stewart and took a job as a salesman for a paper company in New England. The paper company failed and Field wound up in debt, a situation he vowed to overcome.

Field went into business for himself as a way of paying off his debts, and he became very successful throughout the 1840s. On January 1, 1853, he retired from business, while still a young man. He bought a house on Gramercy Park in New York City, and seemed intent on living a life of recreation.

After a trip to South America he returned to New York and happened to be introduced to Frederick Gisborne, who was trying to connect a telegraph line from New York City to St. John's, Newfoundland. As St. John's was the easternmost point of North America, a telegraph station there could receive the earliest news carried aboard ships from England, which could then be telegraphed to New York.

Gisborne's plan would reduce the time it took for news to pass between London and New York to six days, which was considered very fast in the early 1850s. But Field began to wonder if a cable could be stretched across the vastness of the ocean and eliminate the need for ships to carry important news.

The great obstacle of establishing a telegraph connection with St. John's was that Newfoundland is an island, and an underwater cable would be required to connect it to the mainland.

Envisioning the Transatlantic Cable

Field later recalled thinking about how that could be accomplished while looking at a globe he kept in his study. He began to think it would make sense to also place another cable, heading eastward from St. John's, all the way to the west coast of Ireland.

As he wasn't a scientist himself, he sought advice from two prominent figures, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, and Lieutenant Matthew Maury of the U.S. Navy, who had recently conducted research mapping the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Both men took Field's questions seriously, and they answered in the affirmative: It was scientifically possible to reach across the Atlantic Ocean with an undersea telegraph cable. 

The First Cable

The next step was to create a business to undertake the project. And the first person Field contacted was Peter Cooper, the industrialist and inventor who happened to be his neighbor on Gramercy Park. Cooper was skeptical at first, but became convinced the cable might work.

With Peter Cooper's endorsement, other stockholders were enlisted and more than $1 million was raised. The newly formed company, with the title of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, bought out Gisborne's Canadian charter, and began work on placing an underwater cable from the Canadian mainland to St. John's.

For several years Field had to overcome any number of obstacles, which ranged from technical to financial to governmental. He eventually was able to get the governments of the United States and Britain to cooperate and assign ships to help lay the proposed transatlantic cable.

The first cable to cross the Atlantic Ocean became operational in the summer of 1858. Enormous celebrations of the event were held, but the cable stopped operating after only a few weeks. The problem seemed to be electrical, and Field resolved to try again with a more reliable system in place.

The Second Cable

The Civil War interrupted Field's plans, but in 1865 an attempt to place a second cable began. The effort was unsuccessful, but an improved cable was finally put in place in 1866. The enormous steamship Great Eastern, which had been a financial disaster as a passenger liner, was used to lay the cable.

The second cable became operational in the summer of 1866. It proved to be reliable, and messages were soon passing between New York and London. 

The success of the cable made Field a hero on both sides of the Atlantic. But bad business decisions following his great success helped tarnish his reputation in the later decades of his life.

Field became known as a big operator on Wall Street, and was associated with men considered robber barons, including Jay Gould and Russell Sage. He got into controversies over investments, and lost a great deal of money. He was never plunged into poverty, but in the last years of his life he was forced to sell off part of his large estate.

When Field died on July 12, 1892, he was remembered as the man who had proven that communication was possible between continents.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Cyrus Field." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, July 31). Biography of Cyrus Field. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Cyrus Field." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).