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Smithsonian Commemorates 150th Anniversary of Transatlantic Cable

Display Examines the Enterprise That Connected Two Continents
June 27, 2016

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will mark the 150th anniversary of the successful underwater telegraph-cable project, led by American businessman and entrepreneur Cyrus West Field. The Archives Center display, “Cyrus Field and the Transatlantic Cable,” on view July 1–Nov. 30 will showcase objects and documents that reflect Field’s drive, persistence and the support he cultivated on his decade-long endeavor. Sponsored by American and British interests, the underwater cable joined Ireland and Newfoundland, Canada, in July 1866. For the first time, news could be transmitted between continents in a matter of minutes, rather than 10 days by ship passage.

The display includes a commemorative set of cable samples from each of the major transatlantic voyages and eyewitness illustrations of activities aboard the famous steamship Great Eastern during the cable voyage of 1865. Documents on display feature a letter from President James Buchanan highlighting his excitement for the project, a copy of the messages exchanged by Queen Victoria and President Andrew Johnson, and correspondence between Field and investors, Britain’s foremost scientists, and friends and family. Donated by Field’s daughter Isabella in the 1890s, the documents are in the museum’s Archives Center collections.

Field was the key figure in projects to span the Atlantic with an underwater telegraph cable. To achieve his goal, the tenacious American entrepreneur restructured a bankrupt company, cultivated investors and negotiated with two governments. Finally, after a decade of frustration and several failed attempts beginning in 1857, Field was able to proclaim triumph in 1866. Submarine telegraphy was a major advancement, indispensable to today’s telecommunications network. The museum has related objects on display, including 1858 Tiffany cable samples in “American Stories” and “Fantastic Worlds.” Other exhibitions, such as “American Enterprise,” highlight entrepreneurship and global networks, while “Inventing in America” has a Samuel Morse prototype telegraph.  

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