25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
At a brief 215 pages of double-spaced narrative, "A Thread Across the Ocean" as a book stands in sharp contracst to the Herculean feat it resurrects for modern readers. We have come to take instant communications so much for granted that we tend to forget that prior to a mere century-and-a-half ago, it took news many weeks to cross the world's great oceans. Though dwarfed in memory by such other mammoth engineering feats such as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, the laying of the first Trans-Atlantic cable in 1866 was every bit important in the delvelopment of the modern world, if not more so.
Author John Steele Gordon tells the tale with easily readable prose and superb storytelling. Along the way, he enhances the historical memory of Cyrus Field, the visionary entreprenuer whose single-minded devotion to the project kept it going despit many setbacks. Field's project was the perfect marriage of private and public enterprize in an effort that greatly bennefitted both. Field's story is as interesting as that of the cable itself.
The one main drawback to the book is that its brevity doesn't seem befitting of its subject matter, even more so since Gordon throws in a number of anecdotes that are sidelights to the main story. He commits a major factual error with one of the side stories, stating inaccurately that General Zachary Taylor led the American Army to Mexico City during the Mexican War when in fact it was General Winfield Scott who accomplished that task.
Overall, despite a few flaws, "A Thread Across the Ocean" is a worthwhile read that will be of primary interest to history buffs.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
In these days of instant communication, when one can send an e-mail quickly and reliably to any part of the world, it might seem unnecessary to examine the laying of telegraph cables between Europe and America. But the delightful book, _A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable_ (Walker) by John Steele Gordon, gives a lively history of an epochal achievement which was only eventually a success despite costly failures, calamities, and mistakes. It is good to be reminded of just how difficult this beginning of our communications technology was to achieve, for as the title mentions, the story is indeed heroic.
The hero is Cyrus Field, a man of enthusiasm, determination, and optimism who would not let his cable idea die. The appeal of the story is eventual success despite many heartbreaking failures, but as Gordon demonstrates, the failures were mined for lessons learned, and each subsequent attempt to lay the cable was a bit cleverer, a bit more comprehensive. There were broken cables, unexpected storms, and suspicion of sabotage in the different attempts. The public was wild with optimism and then wild with mockery when the cables failed. One laid in 1858 actually worked to send a message from Queen Victoria, but slowly, and then went forever dead. The final success in 1866 came in large part because of the gigantic ship _Great Eastern_, the final project of the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The huge ship was a bit of a white elephant, but was the only vessel capable of carrying all that cable almost three thousand miles at 3,575 pounds per mile. The coiling it into different levels of the great ship without kinks was an engineering feat in itself. The ship also took advantage of the perfected paying-out machinery and brake, developed by a wealthy amateur tinkerer, a device so successful that it is still used in laying cable today.
There is no real suspense to this story, of course; Gordon has, however, written an exciting tribute to Field, the other entrepreneurs, and the technicians who put an exceedingly difficult project into action. The cable, after many attempts, many years, and many dollars, worked and became indispensable. Two weeks after the cable was open for business, for instance, the market quotations in New York and London became equalized, as they could act together. The _Great Eastern_ went on to lay five other cables, and by 1900 there were fifteen, with competition between the firms that ran them. Wireless telegraphy, radio, and satellite communication have not made the cables obsolete; most transoceanic communication is still by reliable strands of wire, or of fiber-optics, beneath the sea. _A Thread Across the Ocean_ vividly tells an important and overlooked story of perseverance and triumph.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2002
John Steele Gordon has written some excellent books, such as the Business of America. He seems to have lost his focus when he wrote this one. The first forty pages has more to do with the industrial revolution than with the theme of the book. Almost every new chapter begins with another set of wanderings that stray from the theme. Even the chapter on Newfoundland, which is an important part of the history of the cable, dwells on a series of biographies that has more to do with America's emerging wealth than with the importance of Newfoundland. In fact, the work is overly littered with biographies, mainly because Gordon is well-versed in the financial evolution of America and those who led it, so he has chosen to reply heavily on this aspect of his knowledge. Because of this, the people of New York, especially Wall Streeters, will find the book more interesting than the rest of the nation.
Part of the problem is Gordon's research. He used only published sources and generously quoted from them. There is no original research, and unfortunately, many of the interesting events that occurred during the twelve-year cable-laying effort have been overlooked.
In 1953 Samuel Carter III wrote a biography on Cyrus Field, which was liberally taken from Isabella Field Judson's biography of her father but also liberally enhanced with good research. Aside from Gordon adding biographies and essays of America's mid-nineteenth century financial development, he adds nothing new or of importance to the history.
If a reader is interested in all the periferal events surrounding the laying of the cable rather than the arduous efforts of so many that went into the project, they will be happy with this book. If a reader is more interested in the gut-wrenching efforts of people on both sides of the Atlantic to perfect and lay the cable, the brisk competition involved, the unending disappointments, the conflicts, the destruction of careers, and the great journey into the development of technology that led to success, then you may be disappointed with this book.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2002
Gordon's account of the cable is very thin given the nature and scope of the project itself. His prose is very celebratory although that appears to be his intention: witness the title. The notes in the back suggest he relied exclusively on just a few sources and too much at that. This is "quickie" history for readers with little taste for detail, which is a pity since the subject is begging for a good book.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2005
I found _A Thread Across the Ocean_ to be a perfectly readable account of the travails behind the laying of the first workable translatlantic cable, a breezy read without a lot of depth. If that's what you're looking for, this will do just fine.
What I found lacking, however, in this account was much in the way of depth or even a modern re-interpretation of the enterprise. Mr. Gordon writes with the bias of an economic reporter who was looking for some parallels to the great telecommunications ventures of our time -- the internet and cellular phone networks -- and not with the attention or insights of an historian. All of the sources used for the book are secondary, and two books written by the sons of "CEO" of the cable venture, Cyrus Field, and its chief engineer, Charles Bright, are heavily quoted throughout. There is little to no indication that the author delved more deeply into any of the numerous fascinating aspects of this epic undertaking -- the complicated business arrangements, the engineering details, the inner lives of most of the principals, and so forth. That the focus of the book remains squarely on Field, and not on the group, demonstrates the author's take on the subject as the story of a Great Man -- surely not a modern understanding of the technological and corporate complexity that emerged in the 19th century. There's certainly a wealth of untapped information in these areas that a more scholarly effort might make something more of.
This lack of attention to details gets a bit annoying. The example of the first sentence of the book, an 18th century American who dedicates a pew in the reign of George II because the news of his death hasn't reached the colonies, seems isolated and is left hanging with no real apparent purpose. Field's own lack of technical understanding of the enterprise which he headed is glossed over, as is the similar history concerning SFB Morse's own perfection of the telegraph itself. With the profusion of other telegraphic cables around the world, one gets little sense as to whether Field, et alia, were racing competitively to be the first, to establish a monopoly, or were regarded as daydreaming fools. Similarly, the almost randomized selection of anecdotal footnotes are often indistinghuishable from non sequiters wthin the text itself. It reads at times like Grandpa Simpson digressing around a story.
The overall effect is that one is reading an extended article in a business journal or an airline magazine, not a popular history.
The story is inherently fascinating, enough so that the faults of the book did not prevent me from reading voraciously throught to the end, but I was left wit the feeling that a better book on the subject is out there unwritten as yet. As it is, there's a decent retelling of parts of the story in the Kenneth Silverman book on Morse, _Lightning Man._
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2003
The subtitle for this book should have been, "If At First You Don't Succeed..." As I read the book I admired, and was amazed by, the tenacity of Cyrus Field. Although it took about 12 years and 5 attempts to finally get the transatlantic cable down and running, Field never lost sight of his goal and never gave up. He also invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money back in the days when a dollar really meant something. Mr. Gordon writes, "To give some idea of what $200,000 meant in the 1850's, consider that $1,000 per year was enough income for a family to live a modest, middle-class life, and there were not two dozen men in all of New York City- which then had a population of over 700,000- who had a net worth of $1,000,000." During the years of failure, before the final success of 1866, Field saw the money that he had invested go down the drain....along with the money of all the other investors. He made dozens of trips across the Atlantic to raise money (most of the money, equipment and technology came from Britain) and as the investors kept losing money Field had to convince them to keep the faith and to not pull the plug on the project. A lesser man would have quit. Mr. Gordon describes not only the problems of laying a submarine cable (the trial-and-error in finding the right insulating materials, the proper thickness and weight for the cable and a sufficient degree of purity for the copper wire; dealing with the weather- one storm lasted over a week and nearly capsized one of the cable-laying ships; trying to recover a cable that had snapped and was resting on the ocean floor...two miles under the surface), he also describes the preparatory work well. Besides raising lots of money, Field had to arrange for cable to be placed across a considerable stretch of Newfoundland (through mountainous and uninhabited terrain) and under the Cabot Strait to Cape Breton Island. Mr. Gordon makes it very clear that Cyrus Field, although he was the organizing force, had plenty of help. The author provides intriguing character sketches of many people who either provided financial or scientific help. We learn about Samuel F.B. Morse, whose main contribution was of course his famous telegraphic code (and who was a well-known artist before he became famous for his invention); Peter Cooper, the New York entrepreneur who invested in the project (and, still smarting from his own lack of a formal education, who started the Cooper Union school in New York- a tuition-free school that working men could attend at night in order to further themselves); William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), whose work with electrical currents got him interested in telegraphy. Because of the large distance the transoceanic cable would cover, Thomson advocated using particularly pure copper for the core and he also suggested using a large-diameter core to reduce resistance. He also invented an instrument to detect very weak electrical signals. Thomson was both a brilliant theoretical and practical physicist, of whom Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "If one took half the talents of Einstein, and half the talents of Edison, and succeeded in fusing such incompatible gifts into a single person, the result would be rather like William Thomson." These are just a few of the interesting people whose contributions Mr. Gordon discusses. Money, creativity, technology, vision, willpower and lots and lots of elbow grease all came together to make the cable a reality. Mr. Gordon does a fine job of putting all of the elements together (in just 200 pages) to form a coherent and compelling narrative.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2009
This is one of those very good, against all odds reads that leaves you impressed with one man's ability to motivate those around him and in so doing achieve the impossible. The mid nineteenth century laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable was the scientific and entrepreneurial business event of its day. Much of the technology required that led to the success achieved on the fifth attempt simply did not exist 10 years earlier on this venture's first attempt.
Conceived, organized and executed by American Cyrus Field and initiated by joint cooperation of the United States and Great Britain, due to the intervention of the American Civil War the cable's crossing would become an all British event. Underwritten, financed, manufactured and led by Britain's most successful capitalists and best scientific minds, the entire Western world, from the Missouri River in North America to the Volga in Russia learned of its 1866 completion almost simultaneously. The economic success of the venture was so significant that by 1870 five cables crossed the Atlantic in competition with each other! By the early 1900's there were fifteen.
The other reviewers are quite correct. The story line does wander but that is part of this book's charm. It is the story of one man's single mindedness, his ability to move thousands to complete a ten year project that would ultimately provide instant communication globally, eliminating distance and compressing time from months to seconds.
It is a legacy few people have ever been able to achieve.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2003
It was a lot of fun to read Gordon's narrative. My only complaint was the brevity of it all, but that's the problem with a page-turner, they are over too quickly.
The story is retold in terms that might remind you of the 'moon program'. A non-techie evangelist's son gets caught up in an impossible dream, but find the people that can do the job and succeeds. It is a bit too simple, but works. Like JFK, our hero Cyrus Field refuses to give up. As in 'The Right Stuff', we wade through one disaster after another, all the while waiting for victory to yield her treasures. The biographical pictures of various inventors, quacks and robber-barons ought to fascinate any but the die hard soap-opera fan. Sorry, the only marital issues I noticed were questions about how our heroic men stayed married while obsessed with this project. In very un-politically correct style, there isn't a single woman mentioned in a non-supportive spousal role.
Despite my enjoyment, I wish the book had been about 4 times longer. There was little real detail regarding the competition, science, inventions or economics. There is another page-turner available, 'Signal & Noise: A Novel by John Griesemer. It covers exactly the same territory, with more character development and female roles. Otherwise, there isn't much more than material published by the participants. The Atlantic telegraph (1865) by William Howard Russell; The story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field and Submarine Telegraphs: Their History, Construction and Working by Charles Bright. All three are long out of press.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
In 1853, entrepreneur Cyrus Field was introduced to Frederick Gisbourne, a man whose idea of laying a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, from Ireland to Newfoundland, had collapsed. Realizing the potential in such an undertaking, Field set up a corporation, and with unflagging energy he set out to make the transatlantic cable a reality. The New York Herald hailed the undertaking as, "the grandest work which has ever been attempted by the genius and enterprise of man." The project captured the imagination of the United States and United Kingdom, but few could foresee the trouble and hardships that the project would encounter.
I must admit that my wife gave me a strange look when I showed her this book. How could a book about a cable be interesting? Well, the fact is that author John Steele Gordon succeeds at making the story absolutely fascinating! After a rather confusing first chapter, the book launches into the story of the Atlantic Cable, the men who built it, and the society in which it appeared. The author succeeds in grabbing your imagination, making you turn page after page, dying to see what happens next. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to everyone!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2004
The first transatlantic cable was a Victorian era triumph that enchanted the world with its glory. The story is one of the courage and persistence of its director-in-charge, Cyrus Field, born in 1819 to a prominent family of Massachusetts. Cyrus began the charge to span the ocean when he was only 33 years old, and after several attempts, finally managed to overcome all obstacles 14 years later. The story that unfolds is one that extolls the virtuous and honorable men who made it all happen, giants whose word was their bond.
Mr. Gordon tells the story with all the enthusiasm of a child, unsullied by any trace of a fashionable cynicism or awareness of the betrayals to come. The book is nicely illustrated with lots of photos and diagrams that contribute mightily to the immediacy of reading it.
I especially enjoyed the chapter in which the final triumph occurs, and, I kid you not, at one point actually had chills run along my spine. This is a story that will awe and inspire you. Cynics and phonies need not apply.