British companies had already laid telegraph cables across the English Channel and under the waters of the Mediterranean, so Field next turned to them. He was fortunate in gaining the help of engineer Charles Bright and scientist William Thomson. He was not so fortunate in relying on Edward Whitehouse and (American) Samuel Morse. Their poor electrical advice, combined with the need Field felt to move as quickly as possible, led to difficulties and ultimate failure of the efforts in 1857 and 1858.

Gutta Percha, a tree sap from Malaysia, was the miracle substance of the Victorian age. At temperatures below boiling water it could be molded into any shape and was used in everything from furniture to jewelry to golf balls. It became known in Britain in the 1840s, in time to be used as cable insulation.

Gift of Bernard S. Finn

Summary of Privileges ... Atlantic Telegraph, 1857.  These rights, a major asset of the earlier company, were critical in protecting the cable and investors from competition.


Samuel Morse to Field, Oct 3, 1856. As technical advisor, Morse gave prestige to the enterprise. However, his electrical knowledge was limited. His tests on 2000 miles of land cable were not applicable to submerged cables.


William Thomson to Field, 1862. Thomson’s help was crucial. He analyzed electric pulses, showed how they spread out, and designed sensitive instruments to detect them. These were used on the failing 1858 cable long enough to prove their value and provide confidence for future attempts. He also calculated the stresses on grapnels and tested improved designs.


In all the cable attempts, Field played an important role negotiating with both the U.S. and British governments. In this 1862 letter, Field requested a meeting with British Foreign Minister John Russell.

Field gained support for the project at the highest levels. President Buchanan wrote in July 1857: “I shall find myself most honored, should the first message (as you propose) sent across the Atlantic by the Submarine Telegraph be from Queen Victoria to the president of the United States.”

Field and his colleagues published pamphlets and scientific reports during the cable projects. That helped raise money and generated public interest.

Field’s confidence in the cable project was reflected in this resolution of the Atlantic Telegraph Co.: “That until the Cable has been laid down and a clear revenue be such as to give the Shareholders a dividend of 10% per annum, no remuneration in any shape be paid to any Director, ....”