A Thread Across the Ocean
The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable
By John Steele Gordon
(Walker & Company, Hardcover, 9780802713643, 272pp.)
Publication Date: June 2002
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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The achievement Arthur C. Clarke called “the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo project”
Today, in a world in which news flashes around the globe in an instant, time lags are inconceivable. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were a fact of life. The United States was remote from Europe, the center of world affairs—communication was only as quick as the fastest ship could cross the Atlantic—and instant contact seemed as unlikely then as walking on the moon did in the 1950s.
The Civil War had barely ended, however, when the Old and New Worlds were united by the successful laying of a cable across the Atlantic in 1866. John Steele Gordon’s book chronicles this extraordinary achievement, one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century and perhaps of all time. It was an epic struggle, requiring a decade of effort, numerous failed attempts, millions of dollars in capital, a near disaster at sea, the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable technological problems (many of them entirely unforeseen before work commenced), and uncommon physical, financial, and intellectual courage. In the end, their accomplishment literally changed the world.
The cable was the brainchild and consuming passion of American businessman Cyrus Field, only thirty-three when he first set out to raise the necessary capital, and it attracted a range of luminaries, among them William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) the greatest applied physicist of the century and scientific adviser to the project, and the great English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose ship, the Great Eastern—five times the size of any other ship afloat at the time—carried the entire cable on the final attempt in 1866.
Thirty-four years after the cable was laid, the “American century” began; while the cable did not make this inevitable, it did make it possible. By bringing to life an overlooked story in the annals of technology, John Steele Gordon sheds fascinating new light on the American saga.
John Steele Gordon is one of America's leading historians, specializing in business and financial history. A full-time writer for the last nineteen years, Gordon's articles have been published in, among others, Forbes, Forbes FYI, Worth, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times's and The Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed pages, and The Washington Post's Book World and Outlook. A contributing editor at American Heritage magazine, he has written the “Business of America“column there since 1989. His book, The Business of America (Walker & Company, 2001) is a collection of those columns. A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Walker & Company 2002) is Gordon's sixth book. His first book, Overlanding, about his experience driving a Land Rover from New York to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina??ine-month journey of 39,000 miles?? published by Harper & Row in 1975. It was followed by The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, a history of Wall Street in the 1860?(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt (Walker & Company, 1997), and The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000 (Scribner, 1999).
John Steele Gordon can be heard frequently on Public Radio International's Marketplace, the daily business-news program heard on more than two hundred stations across the country. He has appeared on numerous other radio and television shows, including Business Center on CNBC, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, The News with Brian Williams, and c-span's Booknotes with Brian Lamb. In addition, he has appeared in a number of television documentaries about American and economic history, including CNBC's The Great Game, based on his book, and Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary Film. John Steele Gordon lives in North Salem, New York. He is currently writing An Empire of Wealth: A History of the American Economy, to be published by HarperCollins.