The recent death of Mr. Cyrus W. Field recalls attention to the great enterprise with which his name will be forever associated. "The Atlantic Telegraph," said the late Chief Justice Chase, "is the most wonderful achievement of civilization, and entitles its author to a distinguished rank among public benefactors. High upon that illustrious roll will his name be placed, and there will it remain while oceans divide, and telegraphs unite, mankind." The memory of such an achievement the world should not let die. The story of its varied fortunes reads like a tale of adventure. From the beginning it was a series of battles, fighting against the elements and against the unbelief of men. This long struggle the new generation may forget, profiting by the result, but thinking little of the means by which it was attained. What toil of hand and brain had gone before; what days and nights of watching and weariness; how often hope deferred had made the heart sick: how year after year had dragged on, and seen the end still afar off—all that is dimly remembered, even by those who reap the fruits of victory. And yet in the history of human achievements, it is necessary to trace these beginnings step by step, if we would learn the lesson they teach, that it is only out of heroic patience and perseverance that anything truly great is born.
Twelve years of unceasing toil was the price the Atlantic Telegraph cost its projector; and not years lighted up by the assurance of success, but that were often darkened with despair: years in which he was restlessly crossing and recrossing the ocean, only to find on either side, worse than storms and tempests, an incredulity which sneered at every failure, and derided the attempt as a delusion and a dream. Against such discouragements nothing could prevail but that faith, or fanaticism, which, believing the incredible, achieves the impossible. Such a tale, apart from the results, is in itself a lesson and an inspiration.
In attempting to chronicle all this, the relation of the writer to the prime mover has given him facilities for obtaining the materials of an authentic history; but he trusts that it will not lead him to overstep the limits of modesty. Standing by a new-made grave, he has no wish to indulge in undue praise even of the beloved dead. Enough for him is it to unroll the canvas on which the chief actor stands forth as the conspicuous figure. But in a work of such magnitude there are many actors, and there is glory enough for all; and it is a sacred duty to the dead to recognize, as he did, what was due to the brave companions in arms, who stood by him in disaster and defeat; who believed in him even when his own countrymen doubted and despaired; and furnished anew men and money and ships for the final conquest of the sea. If history records that the enterprise of the Atlantic Telegraph owed its inception to the faith and daring of an American, it will also record that all his ardor and activity would have been of no avail but for the science and seamanship, the capital and the undaunted courage, of England. But when all these conditions were supplied, it is the testimony of Englishmen themselves that his was the spirit within the wheels that made them revolve; that it was his intense vitality that infused itself into a great organization, and made the dream of science the reality of the world. This is not to his honor alone: it is a matter of national pride; and Americans may be pardoned if, in the year in which they celebrate the discovery of the continent, they recall that it was one of their countrymen whom the Great Commoner of England, John Bright, pronounced "the Columbus of our time, who, after no less than forty voyages across the Atlantic in pursuit of the great aim of his life, had at length by his cable moored the New World close alongside the Old." How the miracle was wrought, it is the design of these pages to tell.